December 4, 2007
The standard dogma about democracy is usually taken for granted in public discussion, and therefore it is often hard to find explicit statement of central elements of the dogma, simply because, I believe, those ideas are usually considered self-evident. The book “Understanding Democracy” by John J. Patrick is thus very useful.
This little book, which by its format, its subtitle – “a hip pocket guide”, and mostly by its tone seems to aspire to be a tutorial and a reference for the masses, is a pure and concise presentation of democratic dogma. The book starts with an introduction which purports to give a definition of democracy and a historical sketch of its origins. The rest of the book is a lexicon of sorts where a set of terms (from accountability to virtue, civic) are discussed.
As he hammers on the standard talking points (limited government, minority rights, judicial review, etc.), the author (an emeritus professor of education from Indiana University) never loses his confidence and moralistic attitude, even when making the most clichéd, logically unsubstantiated and sometimes simply factually false claims. For example, the following is an excerpt from the entry about Authority:
In a democracy, the source of authority or legitimacy for government is the consent of the people, who believe that their rulers have the right to exercise certain powers over them.
It is interesting to note that the author does not propose either the virtue-based or the rewards-based theories of electoral delegation of power. It seems that to him, competitive elections have some innate power to confer legitimacy on government and it is that legitimacy (together with a hodge-podge of other elements) that defines democracy.
If attention and patience permit, I will go over some of the material in “Understanding Democracy” and examine it critically.