|This article is part of the|
series on Politics
|Politics by country|
by name, by ideology
calendar, by country
Democracy is a form of government under which the power to alter the laws and structures of government lies, ultimately, with the citizenry. Under such a system, legislative decisions are made by the people themselves or by representatives who act through the consent of the people, as enforced by elections and the rule of law.
Table of contents
The word democracy originates from the Greek δημοκρατíα from δημος meaning "the people", plus κρατειν meaning "to rule", and the suffix íα; the term therefore means "rule by the people."
Real world meaning and definition
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 modern notions of democratic rule. However, the meaning of the term has changed over time, and the modern definition has largely evolved since the 18th century, alongside the successive introduction of "democratic" systems in many nations. Many do not see ancient Athens as a democracy since only a minority had the right to vote, women and the large slave population being excluded from the franchise.
Elections as rituals
Elections are not in themselves a sufficient condition for the existence of democracy.
- 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
In contemporary usage, democracy is often understood to be the same as liberal democracy. While democracy per se implies only a system of government defined and legitimized by elections, modern democracy can be characterized more fully by the following institutions:
- A constitution which limits the powers and controls the formal operation of government, whether written, unwritten or a combination of the two.
- Election of public officials, conducted in a free and just manner
- The right to vote and to stand for election (also see Universal suffrage)
- Freedom of expression (speech, assembly, etc.)
- Freedom of the press and access to alternative information sources
- Freedom of association
- Equality before the law and due process under the rule of law
- Educated citizens informed of their rights and civic responsibilities.
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 only extend the vote 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.
"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 more on this below). For example, James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 10 advocates a republic over a democracy precisely to protect the individual from the majority.  However, at the same time, the framers carefully created democratic institutions and major civil 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 republics.)
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.
History of democracy
Main article: History of democracy
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.
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 only used system of government in countries generally considered "democratic".
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 theoretically possible in a liberal 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. This is controversial since Hitler never gained a majority vote and this thus can be considered a tyranny of a minority. The persecutions took place after the democratic system had been abolished.
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. From this follows that the dissent of the minority is often tolerated, as persons within a majority on one democratic decision understand they may ultimately become part of a minority on a future decision.
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.
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.
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 the 1940s during the British nondemocratic rule.
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. 
- Democracy, an 1880 novel by Henry Adams.
- Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville's famous political and cultural analysis of American democracy.
- Democratic globalization
- Disapproval voting
- E-democracy/Internet democracy
- Freedom House — scores all nations on civil liberties and political rights
- The Kyklos
- Students for global democracy
- Totalitarian democracy
- Beyond Plutocracy: True Democracy for America — Free online book by Roger Rothenberger.
- Brief review of trends in political change: freedom and conflict — Review of trends in democracy over the last century and last decades, and review of related political trends.
- Democracy in the Open Directory Project
- Democracy in the Cyber Age — Article on the changing shape of democracy around the world.
- Democracy Watch (International) — Worldwide democracy monitoring organization.
- Democracy with a small "d"
- Democratic Deficit
- The Democratic State – A Critique of Bourgeois Sovereignty
- dgGovernance — Collection of resources on key issues of democracy and nation-building
- Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Democracy
- E-Democracy.Org — Non-profit using the net to build democracy in local communities.
- e.thePeople — Site promoting the people's practical connection to democracy.
- The Federalist No. 10 by James Madison — An original framer of the U.S. Constitution advocates a republic over a democracy.
- Libraries and Democracy
- The National Initiative for Democracy
- New York Times argument against the "Development first, democracy later" idea
- Publicus.Net — Steven Clift's articles on democracy in the information age.
- simpol.org — Plan to limit global competition and facilitate the emergence of a sustainable, sane global civilization.
- Students for Global Democracy
- Why democracy is wrong (note: some content in German).