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Define Democracy Essay

For a democracy that protects the rights of the individual, see Liberal democracy. For other uses, see Democracy (disambiguation) and Democrat (disambiguation).

Democracy (Greek: δημοκρατίαdēmokratía, literally "rule of the people"), in modern usage, is a system of government in which the citizens exercise power directly or elect representatives from among themselves to form a governing body, such as a parliament.[1] Democracy is sometimes referred to as "rule of the majority".[2] Democracy is a system of processing conflicts in which outcomes depend on what participants do, but no single force controls what occurs and its outcomes.

The uncertainty of outcomes is inherent in democracy, which makes all forces struggle repeatedly for the realization of their interests, being the devolution of power from a group of people to a set of rules.[3] Western democracy, as distinct from that which existed in pre-modern societies, is generally considered to have originated in city states such as Classical Athens and the Roman Republic, where various schemes and degrees of enfranchisement of the free male population were observed before the form disappeared in the West at the beginning of late antiquity. The English word dates to the 16th century, from the older Middle French and Middle Latin equivalents.

According to political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens; a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.[4]

The term appeared in the 5th century BC, to denote the political systems then existing in Greek city-states, notably Athens, to mean "rule of the people", in contrast to aristocracy (ἀριστοκρατία, aristokratía), meaning "rule of an elite". While theoretically these definitions are in opposition, in practice the distinction has been blurred historically.[5] The political system of Classical Athens, for example, granted democratic citizenship to free men and excluded slaves and women from political participation. In 1906, Finland became the first government to herald a more inclusive democracy at the national level. In virtually all democratic governments throughout ancient and modern history, democratic citizenship consisted of an elite class until full enfranchisement was won for all adult citizens in most modern democracies through the suffrage movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Democracy contrasts with forms of government where power is either held by an individual, as in an absolute monarchy, or where power is held by a small number of individuals, as in an oligarchy. Nevertheless, these oppositions, inherited from Greek philosophy,[6] are now ambiguous because contemporary governments have mixed democratic, oligarchic, and monarchic elements. Karl Popper defined democracy in contrast to dictatorship or tyranny, thus focusing on opportunities for the people to control their leaders and to oust them without the need for a revolution.[7]


No consensus exists on how to define democracy, but legal equality, political freedom and rule of law have been identified as important characteristics.[9][10] These principles are reflected in all eligible citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to legislative processes.[citation needed] For example, in a representative democracy, every vote has equal weight, no unreasonable restrictions can apply to anyone seeking to become a representative,[according to whom?] and the freedom of its eligible citizens is secured by legitimised rights and liberties which are typically protected by a constitution.[11][12] Other uses of "democracy" include that of direct democracy.

One theory holds that democracy requires three fundamental principles: upward control (sovereignty residing at the lowest levels of authority), political equality, and social norms by which individuals and institutions only consider acceptable acts that reflect the first two principles of upward control and political equality.[13]

The term "democracy" is sometimes used as shorthand for liberal democracy, which is a variant of representative democracy that may include elements such as political pluralism; equality before the law; the right to petition elected officials for redress of grievances; due process; civil liberties; human rights; and elements of civil society outside the government.[citation needed]Roger Scruton argues that democracy alone cannot provide personal and political freedom unless the institutions of civil society are also present.[14]

In some countries, notably in the United Kingdom which originated the Westminster system, the dominant principle is that of parliamentary sovereignty, while maintaining judicial independence.[15][16] In the United States, separation of powers is often cited as a central attribute. In India, parliamentary sovereignty is subject to the Constitution of India which includes judicial review.[17] Though the term "democracy" is typically used in the context of a political state, the principles also are applicable to private organisations.

Majority rule is often listed as a characteristic of democracy. Hence, democracy allows for political minorities to be oppressed by the "tyranny of the majority" in the absence of legal protections of individual or group rights. An essential part of an "ideal" representative democracy is competitive elections that are substantively and procedurally "fair," i.e., just and equitable. In some countries, freedom of political expression, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and internet democracy are considered important to ensure that voters are well informed, enabling them to vote according to their own interests.[18][19]

It has also been suggested that a basic feature of democracy is the capacity of all voters to participate freely and fully in the life of their society.[20] With its emphasis on notions of social contract and the collective will of all the voters, democracy can also be characterised as a form of political collectivism because it is defined as a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in lawmaking.[21]

While representative democracy is sometimes equated with the republican form of government, the term "republic" classically has encompassed both democracies and aristocracies.[22][23] Many democracies are constitutional monarchies, such as the United Kingdom.


Main article: History of democracy

Ancient origins[edit]

See also: Athenian democracy

The term "democracy" first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens during classical antiquity.[25][26] The word comes from demos, "common people" and kratos, strength.[27] Led by Cleisthenes, Athenians established what is generally held as the first democracy in 508–507 BC. Cleisthenes is referred to as "the father of Athenian democracy."[28]

Athenian democracy took the form of a direct democracy, and it had two distinguishing features: the random selection of ordinary citizens to fill the few existing government administrative and judicial offices,[29] and a legislative assembly consisting of all Athenian citizens.[30] All eligible citizens were allowed to speak and vote in the assembly, which set the laws of the city state. However, Athenian citizenship excluded women, slaves, foreigners (μέτοικοι / métoikoi), non-landowners, and men under 20 years of age.[citation needed][31][contradictory] The exclusion of large parts of the population from the citizen body is closely related to the ancient understanding of citizenship. In most of antiquity the benefit of citizenship was tied to the obligation to fight war campaigns.[32]

Athenian democracy was not only direct in the sense that decisions were made by the assembled people, but also the most direct in the sense that the people through the assembly, boule and courts of law controlled the entire political process and a large proportion of citizens were involved constantly in the public business. Even though the rights of the individual were not secured by the Athenian constitution in the modern sense (the ancient Greeks had no word for "rights"), the Athenians enjoyed their liberties not in opposition to the government but by living in a city that was not subject to another power and by not being subjects themselves to the rule of another person.[35]

Range voting appeared in Sparta as early as 700 BC. The Apella was an assembly of the people, held once a month, in which every male citizen of at least 30 years of age could participate. In the Apella, Spartans elected leaders and cast votes by range voting and shouting. Aristotle called this "childish", as compared with the stone voting ballots used by the Athenians. Sparta adopted it because of its simplicity, and to prevent any bias voting, buying, or cheating that was predominant in the early democratic elections.[36][37]

Even though the Roman Republic contributed significantly to many aspects of democracy, only a minority of Romans were citizens with votes in elections for representatives. The votes of the powerful were given more weight through a system of gerrymandering, so most high officials, including members of the Senate, came from a few wealthy and noble families.[38] In addition, the Roman Republic was the first government in the western world to have a Republic as a nation-state, although it didn't have much of a democracy. The Romans invented the concept of classics and many works from Ancient Greece were preserved.[39] Additionally, the Roman model of governance inspired many political thinkers over the centuries,[40] and today's modern representative democracies imitate more the Roman than the Greek models because it was a state in which supreme power was held by the people and their elected representatives, and which had an elected or nominated leader.[41] Other cultures, such as the Iroquois Nation in the Americas between around 1450 and 1600 AD also developed a form of democratic society before they came in contact with the Europeans. This indicates that forms of democracy may have been invented in other societies around the world.

Middle Ages[edit]

During the Middle Ages, there were various systems involving elections or assemblies, although often only involving a small part of the population. These included:

  • the Frostating, Gulating, Eidsivating and Borgarting in Norway,
  • the Althing in Iceland,
  • the Løgting in the Faeroe Islands,
  • ScandinavianThings,
  • the election of Uthman in the Rashidun Caliphate,
  • the South Indian Kingdom of the Chola in the state of Tamil Nadu in the Indian Subcontinent had an electoral system at 920 A.D., about 1100 years ago,[42]
  • Carantania, old Slavic/Slovenian principality, the Ducal Inauguration from 7th to 15th century,
  • the upper-caste election of the Gopala in the Bengal region of the Indian Subcontinent,
  • the Holy Roman Empire's Hoftag and Imperial Diets (mostly Nobles and Clergy),
  • Frisia in the 10th–15th Century (Weight of vote based on landownership)
  • the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (10% of population),
  • certain medieval Italian city-states such as Venice, Genoa, Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Amalfi, Siena and San Marino
  • the Cortes of León,
  • the tuatha system in early medieval Ireland,
  • the Veche in Novgorod and Pskov Republics of medieval Russia,
  • The States in Tirol and Switzerland,
  • the autonomous merchant city of Sakai in the 16th century in Japan,
  • Volta-Nigeric societies such as Igbo.
  • the Mekhk-Khel system of the Nakh peoples of the North Caucasus, by which representatives to the Council of Elders for each teip (clan) were popularly elected by that teip's members.
  • The 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh ji (Nanak X) established the world's first Sikh democratic republic state ending the aristocracy on day of 1st Vasakh 1699 and Gurbani as sole constitution of this Sikh republic on the Indian subcontinent.[citation needed]

Most regions in medieval Europe were ruled by clergy or feudal lords.

The Kouroukan Fouga divided the Mali Empire into ruling clans (lineages) that were represented at a great assembly called the Gbara. However, the charter made Mali more similar to a constitutional monarchy than a democratic republic.

The Parliament of England had its roots in the restrictions on the power of kings written into Magna Carta (1215), which explicitly protected certain rights of the King's subjects and implicitly supported what became the English writ of habeas corpus, safeguarding individual freedom against unlawful imprisonment with right to appeal.[43][44] The first representative national assembly in England was Simon de Montfort's Parliament in 1265.[45][46] The emergence of petitioning is some of the earliest evidence of parliament being used as a forum to address the general grievances of ordinary people. However, the power to call parliament remained at the pleasure of the monarch.[47]

Modern era[edit]

Early modern period[edit]

In 17th century England, there was renewed interest in Magna Carta.[48] The Parliament of England passed the Petition of Right in 1628 which established certain liberties for subjects. The English Civil War (1642–1651) was fought between the King and an oligarchic but elected Parliament,[49][50] during which the idea of a political party took form with groups debating rights to political representation during the Putney Debates of 1647.[51] Subsequently, the Protectorate (1653-59) and the English Restoration (1660) restored more autocratic rule, although Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Act in 1679 which strengthened the convention that forbade detention lacking sufficient cause or evidence. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Bill of Rights was enacted in 1689 which codified certain rights and liberties, and is still in effect. The Bill set out the requirement for regular elections, rules for freedom of speech in Parliament and limited the power of the monarch, ensuring that, unlike much of Europe at the time, royal absolutism would not prevail.[52][53]

In the Cossack republics of Ukraine in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Cossack Hetmanate and Zaporizhian Sich, the holder of the highest post of Hetman was elected by the representatives from the country's districts.

In North America, representative government began in Jamestown, Virginia, with the election of the House of Burgesses (forerunner of the Virginia General Assembly) in 1619. English Puritans who migrated from 1620 established colonies in New England whose local governance was democratic and which contributed to the democratic development of the United States;[54] although these local assemblies had some small amounts of devolved power, the ultimate authority was held by the Crown and the English Parliament. The Puritans (Pilgrim Fathers), Baptists, and Quakers who founded these colonies applied the democratic organisation of their congregations also to the administration of their communities in worldly matters.[55][56][57]

18th and 19th centuries[edit]

The first Parliament of Great Britain was established in 1707, after the merger of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland under the Acts of Union. Although the monarch increasingly became a figurehead,[58] only a small minority actually had a voice; Parliament was elected by only a few percent of the population (less than 3% as late as 1780).[59] During the Age of Liberty in Sweden (1718–1772), civil rights were expanded and power shifted from the monarch to parliament. The taxed peasantry was represented in parliament, although with little influence, but commoners without taxed property had no suffrage.

The creation of the short-lived Corsican Republic in 1755 marked the first nation in modern history to adopt a democratic constitution (all men and women above age of 25 could vote[60]). This Corsican Constitution was the first based on Enlightenment principles and included female suffrage, something that was not granted in most other democracies until the 20th century.

In the American colonial period before 1776, and for some time after, often only adult white male property owners could vote; enslaved Africans, most free black people and most women were not extended the franchise.[61] On the American frontier, democracy became a way of life, with more widespread social, economic and political equality.[62] Although not described as a democracy by the founding fathers,[63] they shared a determination to root the American experiment in the principles of natural freedom and equality.[64]

The American Revolution led to the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1787, the oldest surviving, still active, governmental codified constitution. The Constitution provided for an elected government and protected civil rights and liberties for some, but did not end slavery nor extend voting rights in the United States beyond white male property owners (about 6% of the population).[65] The Bill of Rights in 1791 set limits on government power to protect personal freedoms but had little impact on judgements by the courts for the first 130 years after ratification.[66]

In 1789, Revolutionary France adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and, although short-lived, the National Convention was elected by all men in 1792.[68] However, in the early 19th century, little of democracy – as theory, practice, or even as word – remained in the North Atlantic world.[69]

During this period, slavery remained a social and economic institution in places around the world. This was particularly the case in the United States, and especially in the last fifteen slave states that kept slavery legal in the American South until the Civil War. A variety of organisations were established advocating the movement of black people from the United States to locations where they would enjoy greater freedom and equality.

The United Kingdom's Slave Trade Act 1807 banned the trade across the British Empire, which was enforced internationally by the Royal Navy under treaties Britain negotiated with other nations.[70] As the voting franchise in the U.K. was increased, it also was made more uniform in a series of reforms beginning with the Reform Act 1832. In 1833, the United Kingdom passed the Slavery Abolition Act which took effect across the British Empire.

Universal male suffrage was established in France in March 1848 in the wake of the French Revolution of 1848.[71] In 1848, several revolutions broke out in Europe as rulers were confronted with popular demands for liberal constitutions and more democratic government.[72]

In the 1860 United States Census, the slave population in the United States had grown to four million,[73] and in Reconstruction after the Civil War (late 1860s), the newly freed slaves became citizens with a nominal right to vote for men. Full enfranchisement of citizens was not secured until after the Civil Rights Movement gained passage by the United States Congress of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.[74][75]

20th and 21st centuries[edit]

20th-century transitions to liberal democracy have come in successive "waves of democracy", variously resulting from wars, revolutions, decolonisation, and religious and economic circumstances.[76] Global waves of "democratic regression" reversing democratization, have also occurred in the 1920s and 30s, in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the 2010s.[77][78]

World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires resulted in the creation of new nation-states from Europe, most of them at least nominally democratic.

In the 1920s democracy flourished and women's suffrage advanced, but the Great Depression brought disenchantment and most of the countries of Europe, Latin America, and Asia turned to strong-man rule or dictatorships. Fascism and dictatorships flourished in Nazi Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as well as non-democratic governments in the Baltics, the Balkans, Brazil, Cuba, China, and Japan, among others.[79]

World War II brought a definitive reversal of this trend in western Europe. The democratisation of the American, British, and French sectors of occupied Germany (disputed[80]), Austria, Italy, and the occupied Japan served as a model for the later theory of government change. However, most of Eastern Europe, including the Soviet sector of Germany fell into the non-democratic Soviet bloc.

The war was followed by decolonisation, and again most of the new independent states had nominally democratic constitutions. India emerged as the world's largest democracy and continues to be so.[81] Countries that were once part of the British Empire often adopted the British Westminster system.[82][83]

By 1960, the vast majority of country-states were nominally democracies, although most of the world's populations lived in nations that experienced sham elections, and other forms of subterfuge (particularly in "Communist" nations and the former colonies.)

A subsequent wave of democratisation brought substantial gains toward true liberal democracy for many nations. Spain, Portugal (1974), and several of the military dictatorships in South America returned to civilian rule in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Argentina in 1983, Bolivia, Uruguay in 1984, Brazil in 1985, and Chile in the early 1990s). This was followed by nations in East and South Asia by the mid-to-late 1980s.

The establishment of universal male suffrage in France in 1848 was an important milestone in the history of democracy.
The number of nations 1800–2003 scoring 8 or higher on Polity IV scale, another widely used measure of democracy

A democracy means rule by the people.[1] The name is used for different forms of government, where the people can take part in the decisions that affect the way their community is run. In modern times, there are different ways this can be done:

  1. The people meet to decide about new laws, and changes to existing ones. This is usually called direct democracy.
  2. The people elect their leaders. These leaders take this decision about laws. This is commonly called representative democracy. The process of choosing is called election.[2] Elections are either held periodically, or when an officeholder dies.
  3. Sometimes people can propose new laws or changes to existing laws. Usually, this is done using a referendum, which needs a certain number of supporters.
  4. The people who make the decisions are chosen more or less at random. This is common, for example when choosing a jury for a trial. This method is known as sortition or allotment. In a trial, the jury will have to decide the question whether the person is guilty or not. In Europe, trials with a jury are only used for serious crimes, such as murder, hostage taking or arson.

To become a stable democracy, a state usually undergoes a process of democratic consolidation.

Elections[change | change source]

After people hold an election, the candidates that won are determined. The way this is done can be simple: The candidate with the most votes gets elected. Very often, the politicians being elected belong to a political party. Instead of choosing a person, people vote for a party. The party with the most votes then picks the candidates.

Usually, the people being elected need to meet certain conditions: They need to have a certain age or a government body needs to determine that they are suitably qualified to perform the job.

Not everyone can vote in an election. Suffrage is only given to people who are citizens. Some groups may be excluded, for example prisoners.

For some elections, a country may make voting compulsory. Someone who does not vote, and who does not give a good reason usually has to pay a fine.

Kinds of democracy[change | change source]

Democracy may be direct or indirect.

In a direct democracy, everyone has the right to make laws together. One modern example of direct democracy is a referendum, which is the name for the kind of way to pass a law where everyone in the community votes on it. Direct democracies are not usually used to run countries, because it is hard to get millions of people to get together all the time to make laws and other decisions. There is not enough time.

In an indirect, or representative democracy, people choose representatives to make laws for them. These people can be mayors, councilmen, members of Parliament, or other government officials. This is a much more common kind of democracy. Large communities like cities and countries use this method, but it may not be needed for a small group.

History[change | change source]

Ancient origins[change | change source]

This kind of government was developed long ago by the ancient Greeks in classical Athens. They had everyone who was a citizen (not slaves, women, foreigners, and children) get together in one area. The Assembly would talk about what kinds of laws they wanted and voted on them. The Council would suggest the laws. All citizens were allowed in the Assembly.

The Council were picked by draws (lottery). The participants in the Council would change every year and the number of people in the Council was at the most 500. For some offices the Athenian citizens would pick a leader by writing the name of their favorite candidate on a piece of stone or wood. The person with the most votes became the leader.

Middle Ages[change | change source]

In the Middle Ages, there were many systems in which there were elections, although only a few people could join in at this time. The Parliament of England began from the Magna Carta, a document which said that the King's power was limited, and protected certain rights of the people. The first elected parliament was De Montfort's Parliament in England in 1265.

However, only a few people could actually join in. Parliament was chosen by only a few percent of the people (in 1780, fewer than 3% of people joined in).[4] The ruler also had the power to call parliaments. After a long time, the power of Parliament began to grow. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, the English Bill of Rights 1689 made Parliament more powerful.[4] Later, the ruler became a symbol instead of having real power.[5]

Other[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

The Polity IV data series is one way of measuring how democratic countries are. This map dates from 2013.
This map shows the findings of Freedom House's survey Freedom in the World 2016. The survey reports how much freedom countries had. Just because countries are the same color does not mean they are exactly the same.[3]
  Free (86)   Partly Free (59)   Not Free (50)
Democracy Index as published in January, 2007. The lighter the country, the more democratic it is.
Since World War II, countries have accepted the idea of democracy. This map shows which countries that call themselves democracies. The countries that do not include Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and North Korea; also the small countries of Cuba, Brunei and Vatican City     Governments who see themselves as a democracy     Governments who do not see themselves as a democracy

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