4.2.5 Three kinds of argument for democracy

Back to 4.2.4

Unit 4 Contents


Here again is the table of different forms of government, from the end of 4.2.3.

Forms of government

While we have given attention to distinguishing these different forms, we have not engaged with the following question.  Among the four forms of ‘good’ government what are the relative merits of each, and hence what is the best form of government?

The basic reason for not addressing this is that Catholic teaching does not do so – or at least hardly does.  Rather, as you know, it has long said that any form of government can be acceptable, and for this reason Church teaching has generally not entered the discussion about which is the best form.

However, ever since these distinctions were first made in ancient Greece, there has been such a debate.  The most widely favoured answer, first given by Plato, is that the mixed constitution is best, and some leading Christian thinkers have concurred with this, including St Thomas Aquinas.1  The basic reason for supporting this answer is that a constitution which has elements of monarchy, aristocracy and citizen rule can, by balancing these elements, help to prevent abuse of power by any one of them, i.e. by one person, a small group, or a majority.

Part of the long-term legacy of the American and French Revolutions was a major change in the nature of debate about the best form of government.  Since the late eighteenth century the question has gradually become recast in terms of democracy versus all other forms. At least in the Western world an almost unquestioned consensus has emerged that democracy is the best form and that all actual governments should be democratic.  Does anyone now openly oppose democracy?

But this raises the question: what arguments are there for democracy?

In other words, what are the sorts of reasons that lie behind the almost universal endorsement of democracy as the answer to the historic question of the best form of government?

During the period of the embrace and extension of democracy since 1776, huge amounts have been written about it, much in the context of vigorous debates and struggles for power.  While this writing is of course highly diverse and related to many different contexts, it is possible to distinguish three main kinds of argument for democracy within it.  On this screen, we shall look at brief outlines of each of these three ways of arguing for democracy.2

The reason for doing this here is to go further in locating our study of democracy in context.  In particular we are giving attention to what can be called the conceptual context in which discussion of democracy takes place.  What I mean by this will become clearer in light of actually looking at the three kinds of argument.  These can be labelled:

  • the classical republican argument for democracy
  • the defensive, conservative argument for democracy
  • the liberal, consent-based argument for democracy.

Here is a very brief outline of each of them.

(i)  The classical republican argument for democracy

As you know from the last two screens, from the time of Aristotle right through to the American and French revolutions, the main label used for ‘government by the many’ was ‘republican’, and ‘the many’ meant ‘citizens’ (4.2.3).  It was in the context of debates in the 1780s about the new constitution of the United States of America that ‘republican’ and ‘democratic’ began to be used almost interchangeably, and since then ‘democratic’ has taken over as the main word.

But, if ‘republican’ and ‘democratic’ are often synonyms, how can it make sense to refer to a distinct, ‘classical republican’ kind of argument for democracy?  The answer is that ‘republican’ always meant more than just a label for a system in which citizens can vote.  From ancient Greece onwards, ‘republican’ political thinking has emphasized two main things. First, good government comes about when citizens actively participate in its exercise, when they deliberate together about what they, as the community, should do together.  Second, the aim of their active citizenship is the good of the community as a whole, that is, the common good.  The aim is not the good of a set of separate individuals; republicanism is not individualistic.  The following brief definition brings these two points together: “government in a republic is in principle the common business (res publica) of the citizens, conducted by them for the common good”.3

The republican argument for democracy, then, focuses on political participation.  It sees democracy as enabling that and, thereby, co-operation by citizens for good of the community.

(ii)  The defensive, conservative argument for democracy

The fundamental point in the second way of arguing for democracy is this: democratic accountability of rulers, both to elected parliaments and to voters at the ballot box, gives rulers powerful reasons for not abusing power.  In other words, democratic procedures are defensive. They are there to stop things being worse than they otherwise would be.  People with political power tend to abuse it, so we need democracy to limit their capacity to do that.

This view may be called ‘conservative’ because it reflects a relative pessimism about government that is characteristic of conservatism.  However it is not in itself contradictory to the republican approach.  Rather, it expresses an emphasis that can be complementary to that.  In fact both classical republican and defensive arguments for democracy were prominent in the pivotally important debates about the new United States constitution in the 1780s.

In the mid-twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr, at the time a very well-known Protestant Christian writer about society and politics, published a book on democracy with the title, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defenders.  Niebuhr emphasised a defensive argument for democracy, focusing on its importance as one means of limiting the tendencies of social groups to be self-interested and unjust.

In a pithy statement by Niebuhr from that book, we can see the more optimistic, republican argument for democracy in the first half, and the more pessimistic, defensive argument in the second half:

Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.4

(iii)  The liberal, consent-based argument for democracy

Like the republican and defensive kinds of argument, the idea of government by consent of the people has been central in modern debate about democracy since the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. This proclaimed that, “Governments… instituted among Men… [derive] their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Preamble).

The consent-based argument for democracy begins by affirming that all persons are free and of equal worth, and then holds that this must be recognized in the constitutional order.  Government cannot merely presume to have authority over people – this in effect denies their freedom to determine their own lives.  Political authority lies with free and equal people before it is held by any government in particular.  The only way in which government comes to hold such authority is if people use their freedom to agree to this, i.e. if they consent to it.

Another way of putting this is in terms of ‘sovereignty’.  This term means final political authority; it refers to where authority to govern ultimately lies in any constitutional system.  In an absolute monarchy, the monarch has sovereignty.  In a democracy, the body of citizens has sovereignty – authority lies with the people before it is held by rulers.  Hence in a democracy there is ‘popular sovereignty’.  In this third kind of argument for democracy, no government holds power legitimately unless the sovereign people has freely consented to it.  A democratic system is seen as a practical means of enabling the giving or withdrawal of consent.

As you know from earlier units, the word ‘liberal’ has a range of meanings.  This consent-based way of arguing for democracy can be called ‘liberal’ because of its emphasis on the liberty of all people from subjection to arbitrary power and for self-determination.

Typically in this kind of argument, government is understood in terms of the idea of a contract.  The free and sovereign people agrees together to establish a government for certain purposes, most notably to recognise the equality of persons and to protect their freedom; this is done by upholding citizens’ rights.  The agreement is known as a ‘social contract’.

Such a contract can be understood as not only for safeguarding negative freedoms, but also for guaranteeing to people the economic means that they need to make use of freedom positively – for example, through state welfare.  This is ‘social liberalism’.

While few countries can point to a clear moment when there actually was an original ‘social contract’ which established legitimate government (although some with written constitutions can claim to do so), democratic elections are seen as the primary means by which consent can be expressed, and thereby the contract maintained.

There has been a long tradition of such social contract thinking in the modern period.  Main contributors to this have included Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in the seventeenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century, and John Rawls in the twentieth century.



In light of the above summaries of (i) classical republican, (ii) defensive, conservative, and (iii) liberal, consent-based ways of arguing for democracy, do you have a clear understanding of how the three are different?


Roughly speaking, these three kinds of argument can be ranged across the left-right political spectrum:

          • The republican argument, with its emphasis on participation by all citizens in a common project, has long been associated with the political left.  (However, this argument is certainly different from socialism’s advocacy of common ownership of property.)
          • As ‘conservative’ implies, the defensive argument, with its emphasis on the limited capacity of government and the need to avoid rapid, radical change, is associated with the political right.
          • Broadly speaking, the consent-based argument, with its emphasis on the freedom of all persons, is associated with the political centre-ground and, as I have said, the liberal tradition.

Note that the meanings of the terms that we are examining do not correspond in any meaningful way now with the names of the two main political parties in the USA, Republican and Democratic. These party names can be a little confusing.  While they go back to the nineteenth century and are part of the legacy of early debates about the US Constitution, the Democratic party has for a long time stood for relatively participatory, republican politics, and the Republican Party has had a relatively conservative position on what government can achieve.



Here is a question that is important for the rest of Unit 4: how does what we find in CST relate to the above three kinds of argument for democracy?

In light of your study so far, which of the three do you expect to fit well, and less well, with CST?


I said just after the start of this screen that, in distinguishing these three kinds of argument, we are giving attention to the conceptual context in which discussion of democracy takes place.  I hope you can now see what this means.  As we encounter points about democracy in the texts of CST we will be able to have in mind the question of whether they reflect a republican, a defensive, or a consent-based way of thinking about democracy.

We are now at the end of part 2 of this unit and have completed our study of democracy’s historical and conceptual background.  There is, of course, vastly more that it would be possible to study in order to increase our understanding of this.  But the material on 4.2.1 to 4.2.5 should be helpful for the study of what we find about democracy in modern CST that now follows.



End of 4.2.5


Module B outline

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  1. See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 105, Art. 1.  There has been considerable debate among scholars about St Thomas’s position on this question, but this is not the place to address that. 

  2. I have gratefully adopted the threefold distinction made on this page from work by Jonathan Chaplin. See for example Chaplin, ‘Christian Justifications for Democracy’, Ethics in Brief, 11.3 (Autumn 2006), published by the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge, accessed 22 Oct. 2014 at http://klice.co.uk/uploads/Ethics%20in%20Brief/chaplin%20v11.3%20pub.pdf.  Chaplin uses partly different labels for these positions. 

  3. Margaret Canovan, ‘Republicanism’, in David Miller, Janet Coleman, et al (eds), The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), p. 433-436, at p. 434 

  4. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defenders (New York: Scribners, 1944, p. vi).  The defensive way of arguing for democracy fits with a famous statement by Winston Churchill three years after Niebuhr’s book was published: “Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried…”, Churchill, House of Commons, 11 Novem­ber 1947.