So I've been doing a lot of reading mainly to do with democracy, its meanings and its histories and the problem that I keep running into is the impossibility of truly knowing democracy. If we are to understand, as the literature reflects, that democracy is an indefinite term with any number of possible meanings, should we then take democracy on a case by case basis? Are we to understand that it is completely contextual and that it relies on time and space, and therefore there can never be one true understanding of democracy, only many?
Democracy is a worldview, not particular object or system. Democracy is the idea that the root of governance lies in the people being governed, not in an elite group, a bloodline, a particular person, a system or ideology, or some other entity or artifact. One doesn't 'know' a worldview; one lives within it, or not.
Saying that "democracy is an indefinite term with any number of possible meanings" is misleading. We could easily say that "automobile is an indefinite term with any number of possible meanings" because we can walk down the street and see hundreds of different makes and models, all of which are called automobiles. But that doesn't mean we can't tell the difference between an automobile and a motorcycle, or between and automobile and a horse-drawn carriage. There are different kinds of democracy because there are different systems that try to ensure that governmental power ultimately devolves to citizens, each with its strengths and weaknesses. And choosing a system of democratic governance is far more contentious that choosing an automobile — the stakes are far higher, and people become far more attached to their preferences — but the fact that the choice is contentious does not imply that the options come from different worldviews.
We all know what democracy is. What we need to be wary of are those people willing to use the language of democracy as a cover for decidedly undemocratic intentions. If you want to know whether something is democratic, look to see if it shifts power and authority towards the mass of citizenry or away from it.
I would agree that any definition of democracy has to be contextual to be meaningful. For some other relevant points of reference, check out the Wikipedia article on "radical democracy". There are at least three distinct stands of this perspective but they share "the idea that democracy is an un-finished, inclusive, continuous and reflexive process." There is also a book by C. Douglas Lummis with the same title, Radical Democracy. Lummis points out that as the term democracy "literally means a political state in which the people (demos) have the power (kratia)" it is, by that definition, impossible to fix its meaning further.