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The term democracy indicates a form of government where all the state's decisions are exercised directly or indirectly by a majority of its citizenry through a fair elective process. When these factors are met a government can be classified as such. This can apply to a multitude of government systems as these concepts transcend and often occur concomitantly with other types.


The word democracy originates from the Greek δημοκρατ�mp;alpha; from δημος meaning "the people," plus κρατειν meaning "to rule," and the suffix �mp;alpha;; the term therefore means "rule by the people."

Real world meaning and definition

Evolution of 'democracy'

Main article: History of democracy

The term 'democracy'—or more precisely, the original (ancient Greek) version of the word—was coined in ancient Athens in the 5th century BC. That state is generally seen as the earliest example of a system corresponding to some of the modern notions of democratic rule. However, many do not see ancient Athens as a democracy since only a minority had the right to vote, women, slaves, and foreigners being excluded from the franchise. Only an estimated 16% of the total population had the right to vote. However, the ancient Athenian vote applied to making decisions directly, rather than voting for representatives as is seen with modern democracy.

Over time, the meaning of 'democracy' has changed, and the modern definition has largely evolved since the 18th century, alongside the successive introduction of "democratic" systems in many nations.

Freedom House argues that there was not a single liberal democracy with universal suffrage in the world in 1900, but that today 120 (62.5%) of the world's 192 nations are such democracies. They count 25 (19.2%) nations with restricted democratic practices in 1900 and 16 (8.3%) today. They find 19 (14.6%) constitutional monarchies in 1900 in which a constitution delineates the powers of the monarch and in which some power may have devolved to elected legislatures, and no such nations today. Other nations had and have various forms of non-democratic rule. [1] (

Today, there are many refined categorizations of the term 'democracy', some hypothetical and some realized.

Elections as rituals

Elections are not in themselves a sufficient condition for the existence of democracy.

Elections have often been used by authoritarian regimes or dictatorships to give a false sense of democracy. This can happen in a variety of different ways:

  • restrictions on who is allowed to stand for election
  • restrictions on the true amount of power that elected representatives are allowed to hold, or the policies that they are permitted to choose while in office
  • voting which is not truly free and fair (e.g., through intimidation of those voting for particular candidates)
  • or most simply through falsification of the results

Historical examples of this include the USSR under the CPSU before its collapse in 1991, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos.

Liberal democracy

Main article: Liberal democracy

In common usage, democracy is often understood to be the same as liberal democracy. While democracy itself is a system of government defined and legitimized by elections, liberal democracy can be characterized by the incorporation of constitutional liberalism, where certain culturally subjective individual rights are protected from a simple majority vote, inversely; in illiberal democracies no such restrictions exist. Qualities of many liberal democracies include:

This definition generally comes with qualifications. The decisions taken through elections are taken not by all of the citizenry, but rather by those who choose to participate by voting. In addition, not all citizens are generally permitted to vote. Most democratic nations extend voting rights to those who are above a certain age, typically 18. Some nations also do not permit other categories of people to vote (e.g., current or previously convicted prisoners).

Liberal democracy is sometimes the de facto form of government, while other forms are technically the case; for example, Canada has a monarchy, but is in fact ruled by a democratically elected Parliament.

Some summarize the definition of democracy as being "majority rule with minority rights."

Direct versus representative democracy or 'democracy' versus 'republic'

The definition of the word 'democracy' from the time of ancient Greece up to now has not been constant. In contemporary usage, the term 'democracy' refers to a government chosen by the people, whether it is direct or representative.

There is another definition of democracy, particularly in constitutional theory and in historical usages and especially when considering the works of the American "Founding Fathers." According to this usage, the word 'democracy' refers solely to direct democracy, whilst a representative democracy where representatives of the people govern in accordance with a constitution is referred to as a 'republic.' This older terminology retains some popularity in U.S. conservative and Libertarian debate.

The original framers of the U.S. Constitution were notably cognizant of what they perceived as a danger of majority rule in oppressing freedom of the individual. (See Tyranny of the majority below). For example, James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 10 advocates a republic over a democracy precisely to protect the individual from the majority. [2] ( However, at the same time, the framers carefully created democratic institutions and major open society reforms within the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They kept what they believed were the best elements of democracy, but mitigated by a balance of power and a layered federal structure.

Modern definitions of the term 'republic,' however, refer to any state with an elective head of state serving for a limited term, in contrast to most contemporary hereditary monarchies which are representative democracies and constitutional monarchies adhering to parliamentarism. (Older elective monarchies are also not considered to be republics.)

Socialist democracy

Anarchism and communism (as in the ultimate stage of social development according to Marxist theory) are political theories that in theory employ a form of direct democracy, and have no state independent of the people themselves.

However, all states governed by a communist party have become dictatorships and have remained as such as long as the party stayed in power. However, socialist theorists such as Tony Cliff have argued that this is the case because the countries in which Communist parties have come to power have all been countries in which the productive forces of development have not reached a level sufficient to support socialism.

Democratic culture

For countries without a strong tradition of democratic majority rule, the introduction of free elections alone has rarely been sufficient to achieve a transition from dictatorship to democracy, until a wider shift in the political culture and gradual formation of the institutions of democratic government have occurred too. There are various examples, such as Revolutionary France or modern Uganda or Iran, of countries that have only been able to sustain democracy in a limited form until wider cultural changes occur to enable real majority rule.

One of the key aspects of democratic culture is the concept of a "loyal opposition". This is an especially difficult cultural shift to achieve in nations where transitions of power have historically taken place through violence. The term means, in essence, that all sides in a democracy share a common commitment to its basic values. Political competitors may disagree, but they must tolerate one another and acknowledge the legitimate and important role that each has to play. The ground rules of the society must encourage tolerance and civility in public debate. In such a society, the losers accept the judgment of the voters when the election is over, and transfer power peacefully accordingly. The losers are safe in the knowledge that they will not lose their lives or liberty, but can continue to participate in public life. They are loyal not to the specific policies of the government, but to the fundamental legitimacy of the state and to the democratic process itself.

Proportional versus majoritarian representation

Some electoral systems, such as the various forms of proportional representation, attempt to ensure that all political groups (including minority groups that vote for minor parties), are represented "fairly" in the nation's legislative bodies, according to the proportion of total votes they cast; rather than the proportion of electorates in which they can achieve a regional majority (majoritarian representation).

This proportional versus majoritarian dichotomy is a not just a theoretical problem, as both forms of electoral system are common around the world, and each creates a very different kind of government. One of the main points of contention is having someone who directly represents your little region in your country, versus having everyone's vote count the same, regardless of where in the country you happen to live. Some countries such as Germany and New Zealand attempt to have both regional representation, and proportional representation, in such a way that one doesn't encroach on the other. This system is commonly called Mixed Member Proportional.

Arguments for and against democracy

Role of political parties

Some critics of representative democracy argue that party politics mean that representatives will be forced to follow the party line on issues, rather than either the will of their conscience or constituents. But it can also be argued that the electors have expressed their will in the election, which puts the emphasis on the program the candidate was elected on, which they are then supposed to follow.

One emerging problem with representative democracies is the increasing cost of political campaigns, which tends to lead the candidates into making deals with wealthy supporters for legislation favorable to those supporters once the candidate is elected.

Tyranny of the majority

This issue is also discussed in the article on Majoritarianism.

Whether or not there is a very broad and inclusive franchise, majority rule may lead to a fear of so-called "tyranny of the majority." This refers to the possibility that a democratic system can empower elected representatives acting on behalf of the majority view to take action that oppresses a particular minority. This clearly has the potential to undermine the aspiration of democracy as empowerment of the citizenry as a whole. For example, it is possible in a democracy to elect a representative body that will decide that a certain minority (religion, political belief, etc.) should be criminalized (either directly or indirectly).

Here are some examples of claimed instances in which a majority has acted controversially against the wishes of a minority in relation to specific issues:

  • In France, some consider current bans on personal religious symbols in public schools to be a violation of religious peoples' rights.
  • In the United States:
    • distribution of pornography is declared illegal if the material violates "community standards" of decency.
    • "pro-life" (anti-abortion) activists have characterized unborn children as an oppressed, helpless and disenfranchised minority.
    • the draft early in the Vietnam War was criticized as oppression of a disenfranchised minority, 18 to 21 year olds. In response to this, the draft age was raised to 19 and the voting age was lowered nationwide (along with the drinking age in many states). While no longer disenfranchised, those subject to the draft remained significantly outnumbered.
  • The majority often taxes the minority who are wealthy at progressively higher rates, with the intention that the wealthy will incur a larger tax burden for social purposes.
  • Recreational drug users are seen by some as a sizable minority oppressed by the tyranny of the majority in many countries, through criminalization of drug use. In many countries, those convicted of drug use also lose the right to vote.
  • Society's treatment of homosexuals is also cited in this context. One example is the criminalization of gay sex in Britain during the 19th and much of the 20th century, made famous by the prosecutions of Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing.
  • Athenian democracy executed Socrates for impiety, i.e., for dissent. Whether this is pertinent to the dangers of modern democracies is itself a continuing matter of contention.
  • Adolf Hitler, who gained the largest minority vote in the democratic Weimar republic in 1933. Some might consider this an example of "tyranny of a minority" since Hitler never gained a majority vote. On the other hand, democratic systems endemically, and perhaps necessarily, end up putting power into the hands of a person or faction that commands the largest minority, so the rise of Hitler can not a priori be considered irrelevant to the merits of democracy. However, the large scale human rights violations took place after the democratic system had been abolished. Also, the Weimar constitution in an "emergency" allowed dictatorial powers and suspension of the essentials of the constitution itself without any vote or election, something not possible in most liberal democracies.

Proponents of democracy make a number of defenses to this. One is to argue that the presence of a constitution in many democratic countries acts as a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority. Generally, changes in these constitutions require the agreement of a supermajority of the elected representatives, or require a judge and jury to agree that evidentiary and procedural standards have been fulfilled by the state, or two different votes by the representatives separated by an election, or, very rarely, a referendum. These requirements are often combined. The separation of powers into legislative branch, executive branch, judicial branch also makes it more difficult for a small majority to impose their will. This means a majority can still legitimately coerce a minority (which is still ethically questionable), but such a minority would be very small and, as a practical matter, it is harder to get a larger proportion of the people to agree to such actions.

Another argument is that majorities and minorities can take a markedly different shape on different issues. People often agree with the majority view on some issues and agree with a minority view on other issues. One's view may also change. Thus, the members of a majority may limit oppression of a minority since they may well in the future themselves be in a minority.

A third common argument is that, despite the risks, majority rule is preferable to other systems, and the "tyranny of the majority" is in any case an improvement on a "tyranny of a minority." Proponents of democracy argue that empirical statistical evidence strongly shows that more democracy leads to less internal violence and democide. This is sometimes formulated as Rummel's Law, which states that the less democratic freedom a people have, the more likely their rulers are to murder them.

Political stability

One argument for democracy is that by creating a system where the public can remove administrations, without changing the legal basis for government, democracy aims at reducing political uncertainty and instability, and assuring citizens that however much they may disagree with present policies, they will be given a regular chance to change those who are in power, or change policies with which they disagree. This is preferable to a system where political change takes place through violence.


More democracy correlates with a higher GDP per capita, a higher score on the human development index and a lower score on the human poverty index.

However, there is disagreement regarding how much credit the democratic system can take for this. It has been argued that most evidence support the theory that more capitalism, measured for example with the Index of Economic Freedom, increases economic growth and that this in turn increases general prosperity, reduces poverty, and causes democratization.

A prominent economist, Amartya Sen, has noted that no functioning democracy has ever suffered a large scale famine. This includes democracies that have not been very prosperous historically, like India, which had its last great famine in 1943 and many other large scale famines before that in the late nineteenth century, all under British rule. However, some others ascribe the Bengal famine of 1943 to the effects of World War II. (It should be added that the government of India had been becoming progressively more democratic for years; and that provincial government had been entirely so since the Government of India Act of 1935.)


The democratic peace theory claims that empirical evidence shows that democracies never or almost never make war against each other. One example is a study of all wars from 1816 to 1991 where war was defined as any military action with more than 1000 killed in battle and democracy was defined as voting rights for at least 2/3 of all adult males. The study found 198 wars between non-democracies, 155 wars between democracies and non-democracies, and 0 wars between democracies. [3] ( However, this theory remains controversial in some circles and is the subject of much academic research and debate.

Democracies are sometimes slow to react when in war situations, because of the bureaucratic and legislative requirements for making decisions. In a democracy, the legislature usually must pass a declaration of war before hostilities can be commenced or joined, although sometimes the executive has some power to take the initiative while keeping the legislature informed. Further, if conscription is instituted, people can protest it. Monarchies and dictatorships can in theory act immediately, but often do not; and historic monarchies generally also issued declarations of war. In spite of these things, or perhaps because of them, democracies historically have been generally able to maintain their security.

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