In both contemporary practice and current theory, democracy has two striking qualities. First, it is intimately associated with progress, legitimacy, fairness and other values which are universally viewed as positive. In most parts of the world even political leaders who are widely viewed as being undemocratic can rarely af- ford to eschew the label ‘democrat’ if they wish to retain support. The desirability of ‘rule by the people’ (the etymology of democracy), rather than by an elite or an autocrat of some kind, is now taken for granted by virtually everyone in the northern hemisphere and probably by the vast majority in the southern hemisphere. Theorists of politics and society also take as read the legitimacy of the quest for democracy, the points for debate lying in what democracy is and whether it is attainable, rather than whether it is desirable. The second striking quality of contemporary approaches to democracy, and one that helps allow the concept such wide- spread approval, is that it is an enormously broad notion which cannot be discussed in any depth unless it is qualified with either general terms such as ‘liberal’, ‘representative’ or ‘direct’, or slightly more precise terms such as ‘associative’, ‘social’ or ‘cosmopolitan’. (The list of qualifying adjectives in the literature on democracy is now long.) Indeed it is in part the very vagueness of the term which has allowed debates to rage for over 200 years as to what democracy is and how to achieve it.
Today we are in a period of intense discussion about democracy, particularly in Europe and North America. Since the break up of the Soviet Union beginning in 1989, there are sharply posed questions as to what democracy is, how to maximize it, whether excess emphasis on it is counter-posed to certain individual or business rights, and whether the Western variant of liberal democracy has won definitively. With the decline of the traditional labour movements in West European countries as well, analysts and activists on the left are now going back to first principles to ask what constitutes a just and workable form of political organization.
In this chapter I first place the concept in a historical context by exploring the link between democracy and modernity. Next I examine the fundamental tension between direct democracy and representative, liberal democracy. I then go on to look at some of the burning issues for contemporary theorists, namely: variants of direct democracy; gender; information technology; and globalization. My general argument is that direct democracy would be a fairer form of political organization than liberal democracy and that more research is needed on how to achieve a workable model and a realistic strategy for implementing it.