Democracy And Equality

by Dr Stephen Herron


Democracy and Equality

Democracy means ‘rule by the people’

Since Ancient Greek times, both the theory and practice of democracy has undergone profound changes. For hundreds of years, people practiced direct democracy within city-states or tribes. From the 18th century on, when the tribe became a state, direct democracy gave way to representative democracy. Representative democracy required a set of political institutions radically different to those that existed in previous democracies. In addition, from the 20th century onwards, the electoral law was change with voting rights extended to almost all adults. Therefore, a modern democrat might argue that Athens (because they excluded so many adults from dēmos) was not really a democracy even though the concept of democracy was invented and used for the first time in Athens in Ancient Greek times.

Electoral law and Equality

Representation is a key part of any democratic structure alongside having the right to vote.  During the 19th century property requirements that prohibited people from voting were reduced and eventually removed. Denying women the right to vote and excluding them from dēmos was increasingly questioned particularly by women themselves.  In 1893 New Zealand was the first country to acknowledge a woman’s right to vote.   More and more countries granted women equal suffrage and other political rights and by the mid-20th century, women were considered full and equal members of a democratic society in almost all countries that considered themselves democratic.

In 1920 the United States granted women the right to vote. However, for almost a half a century, African Americans continued to be prevented from voting by both legal and illegal means, and were denied the right to take part in political activities mainly in the Southern states of America but also in other parts of the country. Only after passing and vigorously enforcing the Citizens’ Rights Act of 1964, were African Americans eventually admitted to the American demos and guaranteed the right to vote.


Spread of Democracy in the 20th century

Ensuring that all citizens within a country have an equal right to vote is a key condition for democracy itself. During the 20th century, the number of countries with basic political institutions of representative democracy increased significantly. At the beginning of the 21st century, independent observers agreed that over a third of independent countries in the world have democratic institutions comparable to the institutions of English-speaking countries and older democracies in continental Europe. In addition, in one-sixth of the world countries, these institutions, though somewhat limited, ensured a high level of government democracy. All in all, these democratic and para democratic countries contained almost half of the world’s population.

At the end of the 18th century, both the theory and practice of democracy shifted from a small city-state to a much larger nation-state. Although their increased sizes enabled democracies to solve the larger problems that they encountered, problems arose that even the largest democracy could not solve alone. To solve these problems after World War II, many international organizations were established, in particular, the United Nations (1945), and its number and scope of duties quickly grew in the second half of the 20th century.

The European Economic Community (EEC) created in 1957, was renamed as the European Union (EU). The EU consists of various independent countries that have gathered together as members of the EU and combine some of their sovereignty to gain the strength and benefits from size.  Combining sovereignty means that the Member States delegate some of their decision-making powers to joint institutions that were set up for making decisions on specific issues of common interest to be taken democratically at a European level. The main EU bodies are the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Council.




Why should people rule? Is democracy really better than any other form of administration? A history of the 20th century shows that democracy has a number of features that most people, regardless of their basic political beliefs, would find desirable:

  1. Democracy helps prevent the rule of cruel autocrats.
  2. Contemporary representative democracies do not fight with each other, so there is a guarantee of peace.
  3. Countries with democratic governments seem to be more prosperous than countries with undemocratic governments.
  4. Democracy tends to support human development – measured by health, education, personal income and other indicators – to a greater extent than other forms of government.
  5. Democracy helps people protect their basic interests.
  6. Democracy guarantees its citizens basic rights, which undemocratic systems cannot grant.
  7. Democracy provides its citizens with a wider range of personal freedoms than other forms of administration.
  8. Democracy provides people with the maximum opportunity to live according to the law of their choice.
  9. Democracy provides people with the maximum opportunity to take moral responsibility for their choices and decisions regarding government policy.
  10. In a democracy, there may be a relatively high level of political equality.

Despite these advantages, there have been critics of democracy since ancient times. The main argument against democracy in the past was a belief that the majority of people are unable to participate in government in a sensible or competent way because they lack the necessary knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, experience and character. In this way, the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato argued that the best type of government would be one ruled by the aristocracy or ‘philosopher Kings’ whose rigorous intellectual and moral training would make them exceptionally qualified to govern. 

The view that the people as a whole cannot rule themselves was accepted not only by kings and aristocratic rulers but also by political theorists (primarily Platonic), religious leaders and other authorities. This view was most often invoked by opponents of democracy in Europe and other countries to justify the various forms of dictatorship and one-man regimes that came into existence.

There will no doubt be critics of democracy as long as there are democratic governments. The extent of their success in attracting supporters and promoting the creation of undemocratic regimes will depend on how democratic governments meet new challenges and crises.


At the beginning of the 21st century, democracy faces many challenges, some of which are long-term, and others which were created relatively recently. These include:

Inequality in relation to Resources

Although decentralized market economies favoured the spread of democracy, in countries where they were not sufficiently regulated, such economies eventually led to major inequalities in economic and social resources, from wealth and income to education and social status. Since people with more resources naturally used them to influence the political system in their favour, the existence of such inequalities constituted a permanent obstacle in reaching a satisfactory level of political equality.



After the Second World War, immigration to Western Europe, Australia and the United States grew dramatically. In order to escape from poverty or oppression in their homelands, immigrants from mainly developing countries usually undertake forced labour in the service sector or in agriculture. Differences in language, culture and appearance between immigrant groups and residents of the host country, as well as the widespread belief that immigrants take jobs away from citizens and benefit from expensive social services, have made immigration a subject of debate. In some cases, anti-immigration moods have contributed to the start or rise of extremist parties and political movements such as the National Front in France, Republicans in Germany, the militia movement and various white supremacist groups in the United States, and anti-immigrant movements in the United States and Great Britain. Some of these organizations promoted racist or neo-fascist doctrines that were hostile not only to immigrants, but also to basic political and human rights, and even to democracy itself.


Acts of terrorism committed in democratic countries or against the interests of democratic governments in other parts of the world have become increasingly common since the 1970s. In response to such events, democratic governments have adopted various measures to increase the ability of police and other law enforcement agencies to protect their countries against terrorism. Some of these initiatives involved new restrictions on civil and political freedoms and were therefore criticized for being unconstitutional or incompatible with the principles of democracy. At the beginning of the 21st century, democratic governments face the challenge of maintaining a satisfactory balance between the seemingly conflicting aims of, on the one hand, ensuring security and, on the other hand, maintaining democracy. 

Democracy, Human Rights and Equal Representation in the EU

The European Union motto is ‘united in diversity’.  The main aims of the EU are to establish European citizenship and the promotion of fundamental human rights and freedoms; to ensure freedom, security and justice including co-operation in the fields of justice and home affairs; to promote economic and social progress including the single market, the Euro, environmental protection and social and regional development and to assert Europe’s role in the world.

The EU is committed to promoting and protecting human rights as universal, indivisible and interdependent and works to actively promote and protect human rights within all EU borders and when engaging in relations with non-EU countries.

‘The EU’s human rights and democracy policy encompasses civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. The EU furthermore believes that democracy is the only political system which can fully realize all human rights. Sustainable peace and stability, long-term development and prosperity cannot exist without respect for human rights and democratic institutions. This commitment underpins all internal and external policies of the European Union. Principles of human rights are part of the EU founding treaties and are supported by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights adopted in 2000, and  ‘strengthened still further when the Charter became legally binding with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009’. 

The goals and values of the European Union are to:

  • Promote peace, its values and the well-being of its citizens
  • Offer freedom, security and justice without internal border
  • Promote sustainable development based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive market economy with full employment and social progress, and environmental protection
  • Combat social exclusion and discrimination
  • Promote scientific and technological progress
  • Enhance economic, social and territorial cohesion and solidarity among EU countries
  • Respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity
  • Establish an economic and monetary union whose currency is the euro.


The following EU values are common to all EU countries in a society in which inclusion, tolerance, justice, solidarity and non-discrimination prevail. These values are an integral part of a European way of life.

Human dignity: Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected, protected and constitutes the real basis of fundamental rights.

Freedom: Freedom of movement gives citizens the right to move and reside freely within the Union. Individual freedoms such as respect for private life, freedom of thought, religion, assembly, expression and information are protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Democracy: The functioning of the EU is founded on representative democracy. Being a European citizen also means enjoying political rights. Every adult EU citizen has the right to stand as a candidate and to vote in elections to the European Parliament. EU citizens have the right to stand as candidate and to vote in their country of residence, or in their country of origin.

Equality: Equality is about equal rights for all citizens before the law. The principle of equality between women and men underpins all European policies and is the basis for European integration. It applies in all areas. The principle of equal pay for equal work became part of the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Although inequalities still exist, the EU has made significant progress.

Rule of law: The EU is based on the rule of law. Everything the EU does is founded on treaties, voluntarily and democratically agreed by its EU countries. Law and justice are upheld by an independent judiciary. The EU countries gave final jurisdiction to the European Court of Justice and its judgements have to be respected by all.

Human rights: Human rights are protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. These cover the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation, the right to the protection of your personal data, and or the right to get access to justice.

These goals and values form the basis of the EU and are laid out in the Lisbon Treaty and the EU Charter of fundamental rights. In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.

When dealing with countries outside of the EU, the EU is guided by principles that promote democracy and human rights including the principles of the United Nations charter and international law.   All new countries joining the EU are required to respect human rights and be democratic and to meet what is known as the Copenhagen criteria. According to OECD, ‘the Copenhagen criteria require (i) the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and the respect for and protection of minorities; (ii) the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU; and (iii) the ability to take on the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political unification as well as Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).’

More research and active work needs to be done to ensure that the EU is bound to keeping it commitments to promoting and defending human rights and gender equality and to ensure that all countries, either within or who wish to join the EU into the future, are fully committed to practising human rights and democracy at all levels of their society. There is no doubt that more work needs to be done to ensure a commitment to equality and human rights within the EU and around the world and to ensure that laws and principles pertaining to human rights, equality and democracy as well as the Copenhagen Criteria are rigorously pursued and adhered to.  

The Copenhagen Criteria need to be more clearly defined and a more streamlined approach taken to ensuring that democracy and human rights are adhered to at all times within the EU which is currently not the case.  There needs to be clarity on criteria, rigorous, transparent and clear commitments to ensuring that criteria are adhered to with full accountability.

The EU has faced many challenges since its creation from political debates to economic problems.  The development of the Copenhagen Criteria provided a basis upon which to spread the EU message of democracy, stability and prosperity. However the EU faces many contemporary challenges which have the potential to disrupt its very foundation. Political challenges from the rise of Nationalism, the continued threat from international terrorism and continuous global hostility between East and West means the EU faces threats from all angles.  Coupled with economic problems and debate amongst some within Europe about the validity of the EU in the first place, (The UK leaving the EU as a case in point) shows that the EU message of democracy, stability and prosperity must be one which is not only committed to, but enacted upon if the EU is to both survive and prosper in an increasingly complex and fragmented global society.