A democracy is a form of government in which the people, either directly or indirectly, take part in governing. However, the term is also sometimes used as a measurement of how much influence a people has over their government, as in how much democracy exists. The word democracy originates from the Greek "demos" meaning "the people" and "kratein" meaning "to rule" or "the people to rule" which meant literally: "Rule by the People."

A modern democracy implies certain rights for citizens:

  • right to elect government through free and fair elections
  • freedom of speech
  • the rule of law
  • human rights
  • freedom of assembly
  • freedom from discrimination

There is much debate on the ability of a democracy to properly represent both the 'will of the people' and to do what is 'right', but to quote Winston Churchill:

'Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.'

Table of contents
1 Distinctions
2 Elections as rituals
3 Scaling to global Democracy
4 Referenda and semi-direct democracy
5 "Democracy" versus "Republic"
6 Alternative models of democracy
7 See also


Democratic governments can be divided into different types, based on a number of different distinctions. One such distinction is that between "direct" and "indirect" democracy.

Direct democracy

A direct democracy is a political system in which all citizens are allowed to influence policy by means of a direct vote, or referendum, on any particular issue.

Proponents of direct democracy contend that it is good because it devolves power. Because direct democracy disperses power throughout many people, policy decisions are likely to be made for the benefit of the majority, not for the benefit of factions or those who hold power.

The traditional, and to many still compelling, objection to democracy as a form of government, and to direct democracy in particular, is that it is open to demagoguery. Another objection to direct democracy is that of practicality and efficiency. Deciding all or most matters of public importance by direct referendum is slow and expensive, and can result in public apathy and voter fatigue.

Indirect democracy

Indirect democracy is a broad term describing a means of governance by the people through elected representatives. One critique of indirect democracy is that it centralizes power into the hands of a few, thereby increasing the likelihood of corruption in government. Moreover, while some contend indirect democracy eliminates demagoguery, there is little reason to believe the elected representatives are not themselves demagogues, or subject to the persuasive appeal of demagogues

A form of indirect democracy is delegative democracy. In delegative democracy, delegates are selected and expected to act on the wishes of the constituency. In this form of democracy the constituency may recall the delegate at any time. Representatives are expected only to transmit the decisions of electors, advance their views, and if they fail to do so they are subject to immediate representative recall with only minimal process.

The more familiar representative democracy is a system in which the people elect government officials who then make decisions on their behalf.

Essentially, a representative democracy is a form of indirect democracy in which representatives are democratically selected, and usually harder to recall.

A doctrine often known as Edmund Burke's Principle states that representatives should act upon their own conscience in the affairs of a representative democracy. This is contrasted to the expectation that such representatives should consider the views of their electors - an expectation particularly common in States with strong constituency links, or with representative recall provisions (such as modern British Columbia).

Role of party

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 he then is supposed to follow. One emerging problem with representative democracies is the increasing cost of political campaigns which lends the candidates to making deals with well heeled supporters for legislation favorable to those supporters once the candidate is elected.

Les Marshall, an expert on the spread of democracy to nations that have not traditionally had these institutions, notes that "globally, there is no alternative to multi-party representative democracy" for those states that embrace democratic methods at all. This is not controversial: representative democracy is the most commonly used system of government in countries generally considered "democratic". However, it should be noted that the definition used to classify countries as "democratic" was crafted by Europeans and is directly influenced by the dominating cultures in those countries; care should be taken when applying it to other cultures that are tribal in nature and do not have the same historical background as the current "democratic" countries.

Right to vote and to candidate

One important issue in a democracy is the limitations on rights to candidate and on suffrage or franchise - that is the decision as to who ought to be entitled to vote. In the Athenian democracy, slaves and women were prohibited from voting. These, and racial prohibitions, have been common in democracies. Often they are closely connected to legal personhood issues.

A recent example of how the "right to vote" changed over history is New Zealand, which was the first country to give women the right to vote (September 19, 1893), however not the right to be elected. Women voting and participating in politics in Europe and the Americas is, largely, a 20th century phenomenon.

Gender equity has been recognized in other ways in other societies, however. The Iroquois Confederacy gave a strong political role to women as far back as its origins in the 12th century, although as in 19th century New Zealand, this was expressed as support for a specific male, not the right to sit in council. However, they like many Native American societies recognized rituals to allow post-menopausal or powerful widowed women to assume the role of a man - it is likely that at some point in its long history, the Confederacy permitted a full and formal role to women using some such provision. Records and dates are however incomplete.

There are more limited alternative voting and official appointing systems that claim to be democratic. Some one-party states such as the People's Republic of China apply a limited form of disapproval voting that has the effect of signalling the acceptance of those promoted into new posts, who do not generally rise further if they do not receive very high (over 80%) acceptance.

Under perestroika, shortly before its collapse, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics under Mikhail Gorbachev implemented reforms to allow multiple candidates, all from the local Communist Party, to run aganst each other. Such methods are not generally considered to provide equivalent political expression to a right to replace the entire top level of governments at once, as occurs in a multi-party system.

Another means of limited democracy is that practiced in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the right to run as a candidate is controlled by the religious authorities, who exclude among others the Communist Party and the Green Party of Iran. Recent elections in Iran have suffered from very low turnout.

In the United States of America, restrictions on right to vote due to property ownership or lack thereof and literacy were common until the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Today all but a few states deny the right to vote to those who have suffered a felony conviction at any point in their past.

In the European Union every citizen has the right to participate in the elections of the European Parliament. However, not every vote is counted equally: Voters from bigger countries are significantly underrepresented relative to voters from smaller countries. E.g., a vote from Luxembourg carries 12 times as much weight as does a vote from Germany.

No broad franchise has ever come into existence on its own in any country - all democracies in effect come into existence with a limited, elite, franchise, that only over time comes available to everyone, e.g. as in the Republic of South Africa.

Elections as rituals

Elections are not a sufficient condition for the existence of democracy, in fact elections can be used by totalitarian regimes or dictatorships to give a false sense of democracy. Some examples are 1960s right-wing military dicatorships in South America, left-wing totalitarian states like the USSR until 1991.

Even the form and rituals associated with elections seem to make a genuinely democratic transition of power possible with much less violence and turmoil than if democratic mechanisms are simply put in place to replace a strict dictatorship - many such countries, e.g. Revolutionary France or modern Uganda or Iran, have simply lapsed back into at best limited democracy until the political maturity and education exists to support real majority rule.

Tyranny of the majority

When there is a very broad and inclusive franchise, but also on some issues with only a few elite voters, majority rule often gives rise to a fear of so-called "tyranny of the majority," i.e. fear of a majority empowered to do anything it wanted to an adversary minority. For example, it is theoretically possible for a majority to vote that a certain religion should be criminalized, and its members punished with death.

Proponents of democracy argue that just as there is a special constitutional process for constitutional changes, there could be a distinction between legislation which would be handled through direct democracy and the modification of constitutional rights which would have a more deliberative procedure there attached, and thereby less vulnerable to the tyranny of the majority.

Scaling to global Democracy

Direct democracy becomes more and more difficult, and necessarily more closely approximates representative democracy, as the number of citizens grows. Historically, the most direct democracies would include the New England town meeting, the political system of the ancient Greek city states and Oligarchy of Venice.

There are concerns about how such systems would scale to larger populations, in this subject there are a number of experiences being conducted all over the world to increase the direct participation of citizens in what is now a representative system:

  • simpol.org - an elegant plan to limit global competition and facilitate the emergence of a sustainable, sane global civilization.
  • ni4d.us - the National Initiative for Democracy to legalize U.S. democracy
  • majorityvoice.com ~ a non-partisan local/global digital system of democracy
  • Porto Alegre, Brazil
  • Bologna, Italy

Referenda and semi-direct democracy

We can view direct and indirect democracies as ideal types, with actual democracies approximating more closely to the one or the other, and such alternatives as
semi-direct democracy in between.

Some modern political entities are closest to direct democracies, such as Switzerland or some U.S. States, where frequent use is made of referenda, and means are provided for referenda to be initiated by petition instead of by members of the legislature or the government.

"Democracy" versus "Republic"

The definition of the word "democracy" from the time of old Greece up to now has not been constant. According to most political scientists today (and most common English speakers), the term "democracy" refers to a government chosen by the people, whether it be direct or representative.

There is another definition of democracy, particularly in constitutional theory and in historical usages and especially when considering the works of Aristotle or the American "Founding Fathers." According to this definition, the word "democracy" refers solely to direct democracy, whilst a representative democracy is referred to as a "republic". This older terminology also has some popularity in U.S Conservative and Libertarian debate.

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 republics.)

Alternative models of democracy

Some believe that the distinction between direct and representative, or between broadly franchised majority rule, and more limited supervision of police and military primarily engaged in defending property rights, are not as important as the actual process by which decision making occurs. Some further consider the adversarial process implied by legalist mechanisms, e.g. Supreme Court challenges, election campaigns themselves, political party structures, to often obscure the larger opportunities the public may have, or the long-term dangers they may face, which are not amenable to the kind of quick-retort interplay that characterizes both direct and representative mans of governing. Some of the models that are proposed to reform it include:

  • anticipatory democracy which relies on some degree of disciplined and usually market-informed anticipation of the future, to guide major decisions
  • deliberative democracy which focuses on hearing out every policy alternative, from every direction, and providing time to research them all
  • grassroots democracy emphasizing trust in small decentralized units at the municipal government level, possibly using urban secession to establish the formal legal authority to make decisions made at this local level binding
  • participatory democracy which involves consensus decision making and offers greater political representation, e.g. wider control of proxies others trust them with, to those who get directly involved and actually participate

There are also debates about street democracy and electoral reform which emphasize the more local and situated means by which the public comes to know the issues, and directly encounter the consequences of making major decisions. Some of these debates overlap with those about truth, anarchism, and the role of tolerances versus preferences in making major public decisions.

See also


  • Rogue States: The rule of force in world affairs, Noam Chomsky, Pluto books, 2000, ISBN 074531709X +
  • The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria, W.W. Norton & Company, 2003 ISBN 0393047644
  • Democracy: A Very Short Introduction, Bernard Crick, Oxford University Press, 2002 ISBN 019280250X

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