It was the great American President, Abraham Lincoln, who said that democracy is a government of the people, for the people and by the people. Indeed, this statement aptly captures the fact that the people (citizenry) are a central pillar in any democratic system. However, as with any form of government, there always arises the governing and the governed. This is also the case in a democracy such as the United States of America where the elected leaders form the governing class and the rest of the citizens are the governed. For such a system to work effectively there is need for both the elected leaders and the citizens to play their roles. This paper seeks to highlight the role of citizens in a democracy.
Democracy encapsulates the notion of a participatory form of government. By extension, this demands that citizens must be ready and willing to participate in the governance of their country. They must question, criticize and where appropriate, praise their elected leaders. This is possible because a democracy is a form of government which promotes and jealously guards the freedom of speech. Put differently, in a democracy, one is allowed to exercise their freedom of speech so long as their exercise of such freedom does not infringe on the rights of any other person. Democracy thus presents the citizens with a perfect opportunity to play their role in the governance of their country. The fundamental question that begs to be answered is to what extent the citizens play this role. It must be remembered that citizens who fail to participate in their democratic governance are a recipe for the failure of the effective working of a democracy.
The notion of civic engagement also illustrates the role of citizens in a democracy. Indeed, such scholars as Alexis de Tocqueville have noted that Americans have a proclivity to form civic associations. Alexis has further argued that such civic associations play a fundamental role in making a democracy work. While the very idea of civic engagement posits that both the governed and the governing have a role to play so as to realize successful civic engagement, this submission focuses primarily on the role played by citizens. Civic engagement does not start and end at the ballot box or on the polling day. The role of a citizen as far as civic engagement is concerned begins way before the election and continues even after the election. Indeed, this is a continuous role which citizens in a democratic society must play. Before elections, the citizens must carefully interrogate the policies being advanced by the various parties contesting the election. They must question the election candidates on the sustainability of the plans they seek to implement if they win the election. They must interrogate the past successes and failures of those candidates who have previously held public office. It is only after such interrogation that citizens should then proceed to elect the leaders of their choice. After the election, the citizens must then constantly question their elected leaders so as to ensure that they deliver on what they promised. Proper civic engagement envisages a scenario where citizens keep vigilant as a way to hold their leaders accountable. This is more pronounced in a democracy. Any lethargy in discharging this role can arguably be interpreted as leaving the government to operate on auto-pilot mode.
One cannot talk about democracy without talking about the rule of law. The rule of law encompasses two key concepts. These are supremacy of the law and equality before the law. Supremacy of the law advances the argument that no one is above the law while equality before the law puts forward the position that the law will treat everyone equally irrespective of their status. These are concepts which are alien to other forms of government and governance such as dictatorships. However, this paper advances the argument that citizens in a democracy have a role to play so as to ensure that all are equal before the law and that the law reigns supreme. To that extent, the citizens must remain vigilant and be at the forefront in ensuring that there elected leaders follow the law to the letter. Citizens also have a duty to ensure that the actions and decisions of their elected leaders are of a strict legal pedigree. Where the leaders fail to adhere by these tents of the rule of law, then the citizens must raise the red flag so as to prevent any abuse of power. Where leaders persist in their illegal actions, then the citizens can seek redress in the judicial system, which in itself is an important cog in any democracy. This is because an independent judiciary serves an effective tool of checking the exercise of power by the executive. However, it must be remembered that courts of law rarely act on their own motion; a litigant has to bring a matter before the court. With respect to the subject matter of this submission, it is for the citizens to approach the court where their democratically elected leaders take actions or decisions that contravene the law. The citizens should not sit back and do nothing. They must keep their leaders on their toes.
In a democracy, the citizens have a duty to respect and uphold the law. Indeed, De Tocqueville has argued that this is one area where the United States has fared much better than other countries. Respecting the law requires all citizens to always follow the law irrespective of whether they are being watched or not. The citizens must follow the law because it is in their own best interest to abide by the laws of the land. Furthermore, the citizens have a duty to report any persons who violate the law to the relevant authorities. Every citizen equally has a duty to co-operate with law enforcement agencies so as to safeguard the law. As Thomas Paine once stated, as in absolute countries the king is law so in free countries the law should be king and there ought to be no other. The rationale underlying this important duty of citizens in a democracy is straightforward. In a democracy, the laws are made by the people either directly or indirectly through their elected representatives. Such laws are meant to ensure harmonious coexistence in the society. Without doubt, everyone desires a society that is orderly and structured and thus have a duty to uphold the law. Perhaps this is the single most important duty of citizens in a democracy because if all the citizens in a democracy, including both the governing and the governed, followed the law to the letter, then the system will work effectively.
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Clark, S., & Teachout, W. (2012). Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.