Words: Democratic

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The Independent Culture
Gerry Adams has said that Sinn Fein will use "peaceful and democratic" means to achieve its aims, and whatever the rank and file may think about that, I'm sure he's sincere: but we are all democrats now.

At least we all say we are. Even dictators claim that the country they are in charge of is a "Democratic Republic". Russia's Communists believe strongly in democracy, and have been insisting that putting Mr Chernomyrdin in as prime minister would lead to tyranny, while on his side Mr Chernomyrdin offers himself as democracy's champion against the Communists. Since everyone declares that democracy is a Good Thing, it's only natural for politicians to argue that if they label themselves `democratic' it will be generally concluded that they, too, are a Good Thing. Such is the perceived power of words.

Such, too, is the inadequacy of even the best dictionaries when it comes to pinning down distortions of meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary's definition of democracy is, of course, etymologically correct: demos is the Greek for "the people", kratos means "rule", so a democracy is "a state or community in which Government is invested in the people as a whole". This is well put. But it doesn't help us to decide whether what the People's Premier means by `democracy' is the same as what his critics mean by it, when, observing the terms of his Anti-Terrorist Bill, they accuse him of being the very reverse of democratic. ("Democratic: advocating or upholding democracy.")

Despite the crispness of the definition, democratic is clearly a comparative term. The difficulties surrounding it were nicely illustrated in the leader page of the Guardian a few days ago. "Don't knock the Duma," said the heading on its first leader: "It's democracy in action." In its second leader ("Bully Blair"), which was about the anti-terrorist Bill, it accused Mr Blair of "throwing in some crowd-pleasing mention of paedophiles and drug-traffickers". What's a poor democrat to do? If he wants sovereignty to be "invested in the people as a whole", should he not be doing his best to please the crowd? As they say in the saloon bar of the Cock and Bull, isn't that what democracy is all about? Will someone define the difference between democracy and mobocracy, and tell us at what point the one gives way to the other?

Mobocracy sounds like one of those mongrels, so deplored by purists, with an Anglo-Saxon head and a Greek tail but in fact it has a moderately good pedigree: for mob is from Latin and was originally short for mobile vulgus, the fickle crowd; it was invented in the 17th century. Mobocracy followed not long after. It was really just an easy way of discrediting democracy by giving it a rude name.

The other way, of course, is to give it an alternative definition, like HL Mencken's - "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."