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Exploring the nature of democracy

Continue Your Quest series kicks off this month in Squamish
unpacking democracy Eric Gorham (standing) will explore the ins and outs of democracy in his "What is Democracy?" course, starting Oct. 15. Photo submitted

What is democracy?

It's a commonplace word in our everyday lives, but when you really start to unpack it, there are a lot of things to consider.

"There's probably no one set answer," said Eric Gorham, founding faculty member and political science professor with Quest University in Squamish.

This fall, Gorham will explore the question in his "What is Democracy?" course at Quest, part of the university's Continue Your Quest series.

"It will be an exciting opportunity for the various students to talk and articulate their ideas," Gorham said.

"Because there really are different versions of (democracies), and the students will be exposed to them."

It's a lot of material to pack into a four-week course.

In a broad sense, Gorham said there are some important issues that arise when talking about democracy.

"Should democracies have direct participation, or should they be representative? What about the problem of participation? Why do people participate, why don't they? Why are some people apathetic towards the process, and what are the best forms of democracy?"

And further to that, have we achieved it yet?

Do we really live in a democracy in Canada, or are we merely a front for something else?

"I don't want to give away too much, but I certainly think that many issues today in contemporary Canadian political life give rise to questions about whether or not we are genuinely a democracy, at least in the classical sense," Gorham said.

"I think the question that we have to ask ourselves is, in modern democracy, are there enough checks on power so that citizens can feel reasonably secure that their voices are being heard in some way or another?"

That question gives rise to the question of the media's role in democracy.

And, branching off of that, to what extent should a government control its message?

Has the Internet helped or hindered the democratic ideal?

In discussing democracy with Gorham, one question invariably leads to several more, all of which he hopes to explore in his course starting October 15.

"Originally, democracy was a bad word," he said.

"It was kind of like the way we use the words communism or terrorism today, and folks in the ancient and medieval periods thought of democracy as 'rule by an uneducated mob.'"

But around the time of the Industrial Revolution, the thinking on democracy changed.

Democracy became the sought-after ideal — a fair and just way for the masses to participate.

But by the 20th Century, the word itself had taken on a tone of ambiguousness.

"Everybody called themselves a democracy," Gorham said.

"You had The People's Democracy of Cambodia, People's Democratic Republic of North Korea. The Nazis thought of themselves as democratic, (and) the communists thought of themselves as democratic, so we have to kind of unpack what the term means, and what it means in different contexts."

To assist in that unpacking, Gorham and his students will examine some of history's greatest thinkers — Socrates, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville and others — and their views on democracy.

"But I'd like to keep it relevant to our situation in Canada, and even in Squamish, or the Sea to Sky area," Gorham said.

"For me it's exciting because I'll have a chance to meet some local residents and hear about some of the issues that concern them, and see if we can frame it in a broader context."

While democracy itself is a deafeningly broad topic, the term can be applied to an even broader range of situations — some you might not expect at first.

"I think most people, when they think of democracy and politics, they just think of the government, and they don't think of their everyday lives as being in someway shaped by democracy," Gorham said.

But upon closer examination, elements of democracy are everywhere: In our parent teacher councils, in our workplaces, in our Internet discussion groups.

"These are practices that give voice to people, and they may not formally involve the actual mechanisms of government, but they are part of what it means to be democratic," Gorham said.

"I think there's something to be said for institutions that permit greater participation on the part of the average citizen, and so I like when I see opportunities for civic engagement in our daily life. I think that's a good thing."

Registration for Gorham's course costs $125 plus tax.

For more information, visit