This is no bad time to ask two real questions again. What is the actual nature of the liberal democracies? Hence, what is to be said for them?

Some political philosophers and more political scientists decline in the end to answer these questions, because of certain conceptual and epistemological difficulties. Neither the philosophers nor the scientists, unlike such avowed political agents as politicians, must answer. They can carry on their lines of life without doing so. But you may suppose that political philosophy and to a lesser extent political science are bound up with politics, that they always take a side, indeed that political philosophers and to some extent scientists effectively are political agents, and therefore that at least political philosophy ought in honesty to come to final answers to the questions despite the difficulties. I do suppose this. The thought informs what I shall have to say of the two questions, although I do not get at all far with the second one.

Some politicians still sum up liberal democracy by saying that it is rule by the people. Certainly there is an attenuated idea of ruling on which they depend. But we can think more safely and indeed ordinarily about the liberal democracies, of which we could agree on a tentative list, by keeping to a primary idea of ruling. We then say a first thing of the liberal democracies:

1) The people, influenced in the course of an election, choose who is to rule, thereby limiting possible policies for the society to one set. The people, after choosing their rulers, also influence them, thereby contributing further to the society’s actual policies.

This is one of three elements of what there is reason to call the Ordinary Conception of liberal democracy.footnote1

A bit more needs to be said of it. The elections are periodic, in accord with a majority rule, and the choosing is uncoerced—voting is not done out of fear of reprisal. Also, there is the legal or constitutional possibility that the possible policies on offer, each set proposed by one party, come from at least much of the spectrum of political ideologies. Further, the mentioned influencing of the rulers after the election is important. Consider an extreme political system in which a government is wholly unaffected by a known large change since the election in the desires and judgements of a majority of the people, perhaps about war or peace, or unemployment policy in a depression. If this is a liberal democracy at all according to the Ordinary Conception, it is an imperfect one. Or, at the very least, we have what might be called an imperfect phase of a liberal democracy.

The second requirement has to do with equality. A political system we can imagine which allowed fifteen votes to each member of one part of a society, perhaps the whites or the men or the educated, and one vote to each other member, would not qualify. Why? What is the general rule having to do with equality which informs the whole of the Ordinary Conception and has this upshot as well as others? It is wholly insufficient to say, as many do, that it is no more than one person one vote, universal suffrage.