This “dominant way of characterizing democracy according to a set of electoralist, institutionalist, and proceduralist criteria, Richard Joseph argues, must be expanded into a broader conceptualization.” On this point Makinda proposes that democracy should be conceived “as a way of government firmly rooted in the belief that people in any society should be free to determine their political, economic, social, and cultural systems.
But the form it takes can vary according to the particular circumstances of any society.” A broader concept of democracy should include what David Maillu refers to as “cultural definition of democracy” in which African democracy, “like philosophy, had to be lived, theories left aside.” For him, African societies were socially and politically structured so that “everybody participated according to his ability, ages-status, and wishes . . . everybody was invited to offer the cooking of his mind.”
African democracy, therefore, transcended the realm of politics; it constituted an integral part of the peoples’ culture, which allowed everyone a sense of belonging. It was a “practical democracy as opposed to theoretical democracy,” which required people to be more sensitive and responsible for their neighbors’ well-being.
This is not to say that there was a total absence of social stratification based on wealth and age. Certainly there were commoners as well and offenders were stigmatized because they violated or trampled on others’ rights or well-being.
It is still debated whether democracy connotes a form of popular power (politics) in which citizens engage in self-government and self-regulation or is simply an aid to decision making in the form of conferment of authority on select individuals.
David Held isolated three basic variants of democracy, namely, direct or participatory democracy, liberal or representative democracy, and one-party democracy. While participatory democracy, the “original” type of democracy as used by ancient Athens and others, involved all citizens in decision making about public affairs, representative democracy involved elected officials who undertook to represent the interests of citizens within specific territories.
One-party democracy, however, although framed as representative democracy, shunned multiparty competition. Held further shows how Marxist critics attacked liberal democracy and its capitalist economy that “inevitably produces systematic inequality and massive restrictions on real freedom.”
Although it is widely believed to be the ideal system government, Schweller has cautioned, “Democracy is not always or even necessarily a recipe for “‘good’ societal decisions or the creation of ideal communities. The extension of democracy is not, therefore, an automatic gain for humankind.” Not surprisingly, the most “perfect” popular democracies in the West, including those of the United States and Britain, have some serious flaws. For Robert Dahl, “in practice democratic systems have always fallen considerably short of the criteria and values that justify democracy”; and as Danilo Zolo pointed out, there is no genuine competition between points of view; most political negotiations are done behind the scenes, not visible to the average voters; and the rise of mass media has diminished debate among citizens.
Thus, it is no longer in doubt that representative democracy does not work as well as the concept would have one believe. This, according to Kate Nash, is exemplified in the “declining numbers of voters who participate in national elections in countries where voting is not obligatory, the increase in the volatility of party political allegiances, and the rapidity with which media-led issues come to prominence and are just as quickly forgotten.” Furthermore, the Western public “is generally seen to be apathetic, cynical and unstable.”
In the United States and other Western countries, the nagging question continues to revolve around the extent of participation in government by the citizenry. Voter turnout is usually low, representatives pursue their personal agenda, and government has become more interested in protecting big business interests than those of the ordinary citizens.
Thus, on the one hand, “democracy is celebrated; on the other hand, there is growing concern about how it works in practice.” Clearly, a better notion of democracy would have to follow Adam Przeworski’s definition, which sees democracy as “a system of ruled open-endedness, or organized uncertainty.”