2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Systems of government

Voting is an important part of the democratic process.
Voting is an important part of the democratic process.

Democracy is a system of government by which political sovereignty is retained by the people and either exercised directly by citizens or through their elected representatives. It is derived from the Greek δημοκρατία ( [dimokratia] ), "popular government" which was coined from δήμος (dēmos), "people" and κράτος (kratos), "rule, strength" in the middle of the 5th century BC to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens.

In political theory, democracy describes a small number of related forms of government and also a political philosophy. Even though there is no universally accepted definition of 'democracy', there are two principles that any definition of democracy is required to have. The first principle is that all members of the society have equal access to power and the second that all members enjoy universally recognised freedoms and liberties.

There are several varieties of democracy, some of which provide better representation and more freedoms for their citizens than others. However, if any democracy is not carefully legislated to avoid an uneven distribution of political power with balances such as the separation of powers, then a branch of the system of rule is able to accumulate power in a way that is harmful to democracy itself. The " majority rule" is often described as a characteristic feature of democracy, but without responsible government it is possible for the rights of a minority to be abused by the " tyranny of the majority". An essential process in representative democracies are competitive elections, that are fair both substantively and procedurally. Furthermore, freedom of political expression, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are essential so that citizens are informed and able to vote in their personal interests.

Popular sovereignty is common but not a universal motivating philosophy for establishing a democracy. In some countries, democracy is based on the philosophical principle of equal rights. Many people use the term "democracy" as shorthand for liberal democracy, which may include additional 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. In the United States, separation of powers is often cited as a supporting attribute, but in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, the dominant philosophy is parliamentary sovereignty (though in practice judicial independence is generally maintained). In other cases, "democracy" is used to mean direct democracy. Though the term "democracy" is typically used in the context of a political state, the principles are also applicable to private organizations and other groups.

Democracy has its origins in Ancient Greece. However other cultures have significant contributed to the evolution of democracy such as Ancient Rome, Europe, and North and South America. Democracy has been called the "last form of government" and has spread considerably across the globe. Suffrage has been expanded in many jurisdictions over time from relatively narrow groups (such as wealthy men of a particular ethnic group), but still remains a controversial issue with regard disputed territories, areas with significant immigration, and countries that exclude certain demographic groups.

Forms of democracy


Representative democracy involves the selection of government officials by the people being represented. The most common mechanisms involve election of the candidate with a majority or a plurality of the votes.

Representatives may be elected or become diplomatic representatives by a particular district (or constituency), or represent the entire electorate proportionally proportional systems, with some using a combination of the two. Some representative democracies also incorporate elements of direct democracy, such as referendums. A characteristic of representative democracy is that while the representatives are elected by the people to act in their interest, they retain the freedom to exercise their own judgment as how best to do so.

Parliamentary democracy

Parliamentary democracy where government is appointed by parliamentary representatives as opposed to a 'presidential rule' by decree dictatorship. Under a parliamentary democracy government is exercised by delegation to an executive ministry and subject to ongoing review, checks and balances by the legislative parliament elected by the people.

Liberal democracy

A Liberal democracy is a representative democracy in which the ability of the elected representatives to exercise decision-making power is subject to the rule of law, and usually moderated by a constitution that emphasizes the protection of the rights and freedoms of individuals, and which places constraints on the leaders and on the extent to which the will of the majority can be exercised against the rights of minorities (see civil liberties).

Direct Democracy

Direct democracy is a political system where the citizens participate in the decision-making personally, contrary to relying on intermediaries or representatives. The supporters of direct democracy argue that democracy is more than merely a procedural issue (i.e., voting). Most direct democracies to date have been weak forms, relatively small communities, usually city-states. However, some see the extensive use of referendums, as in California, as akin to direct democracy in a very large polity with more than 20 million in California, 1898-1998 (2000) ( ISBN 0-8047-3821-1). In Switzerland, five million voters decide on national referendums and initiatives two to four times a year; direct democratic instruments are also well established at the cantonal and communal level. Vermont towns have been known for their yearly town meetings, held every March to decide on local issues.

Socialist Democracy

Socialist thought has several different views on democracy. Social democracy, democratic socialism, and the dictatorship of the proletariat (usually exercised through Soviet democracy) are some examples. Many democratic socialists and social democrats believe in a form of participatory democracy and workplace democracy combined with a representative democracy.

Within Marxist orthodoxy there is a hostility to what is commonly called "liberal democracy", which they simply refer to as parliamentary democracy because of its often centralized nature. Because of their desire to eliminate the political elitism they see in capitalism, Marxists, Leninists and Trotskyists believe in direct democracy implemented though a system of communes (which are sometimes called soviets). This system ultimately manifests itself as council democracy and begins with workplace democracy. (See Democracy in Marxism)

Anarchist Democracy

The only form of democracy considered acceptable to many anarchists is direct democracy. Some anarchists oppose direct democracy while others favour it. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon argued that the only acceptable form of direct democracy is one in which it is recognized that majority decisions are not binding on the minority, even when unanimous. However, anarcho-communist Murray Bookchin criticized individualist anarchists for opposing democracy, and says "majority rule" is consistent with anarchism. Some anarcho-communists oppose the majoritarian nature of direct democracy, feeling that it can impede individual liberty and opt in favour of a non-majoritarian form of consensus democracy, similar to Proudhon's position on direct democracy.

Iroquois Democracy

Iroquois society had a form of participatory democracy and representative democracy. Iroquois government and law was discussed by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Because of this, some scholars regard it to have influenced the formation of American representative democracy. However scholars who reject multiculturalism disagree that the influence existed or was of any great importance.


Sometimes called "democracy without elections", sortition is the process of choosing decision makers via a random process. The intention is that those chosen will be representative of the opinions and interests of the people at large, and be more fair and impartial than an elected official. The technique was in widespread use in Athenian Democracy and is still used in modern jury selection. It is not universally agreed that sortition should be considered "democracy" due to the lack of actual elections.

Consensus democracy

Consensus democracy requires varying degrees of consensus rather than just a mere democratic majority. It typically attempts to protect minority rights from domination by majority rule.

Interactive Democracy

Interactive Democracy seeks to utilise information technology to involve voters in law making. It provides a system for proposing new laws, prioritising proposals, clarifying them through parliament and validating them through referendum.


War II, democracy has gained widespread acceptance. This map displays the official self identification made by world governments with regard to democracy, as of March 2008. It shows the de jure status of democracy in the world.      Governments self identified as democratic      Governments not self identified as democratic.">Since World War II, democracy has gained widespread acceptance. This map displays the official self identification made by world governments with regard to democracy, as of March 2008. It shows the de jure status of democracy in the world.       Governments self identified as democratic       Governments not self identified as democratic.
Since World War II, democracy has gained widespread acceptance. This map displays the official self identification made by world governments with regard to democracy, as of March 2008. It shows the de jure status of democracy in the world.      Governments self identified as democratic      Governments not self identified as democratic.
This map reflects the findings of Freedom House's survey Freedom in the World 2007, which reports the state of world freedom in 2006. It is one of the most widely used measures of democracy by researchers.[citation needed] Note that although these measures (another is the Polity data described below) are highly correlated, this does not imply interchangeability.       Free. Freedom House considers these to be liberal democracies.       Partly Free       Not Free
This map reflects the findings of Freedom House's survey Freedom in the World 2007, which reports the state of world freedom in 2006. It is one of the most widely used measures of democracy by researchers. Note that although these measures (another is the Polity data described below) are highly correlated, this does not imply interchangeability.      Free. Freedom House considers these to be liberal democracies.      Partly Free      Not Free
This is one attempted measurement of democracy called the Polity IV data series. This map shows the data presented in the polity IV data series report as of 2003. The lightest countries get a perfect score of 10, while the darkest countries (Saudi Arabia and Qatar), considered the least democratic, score -10.
This is one attempted measurement of democracy called the Polity IV data series. This map shows the data presented in the polity IV data series report as of 2003. The lightest countries get a perfect score of 10, while the darkest countries (Saudi Arabia and Qatar), considered the least democratic, score -10.
Number of nations 1800-2003 scoring 8 or higher on Polity IV scale, another widely used measure of democracy.
Number of nations 1800-2003 scoring 8 or higher on Polity IV scale, another widely used measure of democracy.
Democracy Index as published in January, 2007. The palest blue countries get a score above 9.5 out of 10 (with Sweden being the most democratic country at 9.88), while the black countries score below 2 (with North Korea being the least democratic at 1.03).
Democracy Index as published in January, 2007. The palest blue countries get a score above 9.5 out of 10 (with Sweden being the most democratic country at 9.88), while the black countries score below 2 (with North Korea being the least democratic at 1.03).

Ancient origins

The term democracy first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought. The philosopher Plato contrasted democracy, the system of "rule by the governed", with the alternative systems of monarchy (rule by one individual), oligarchy (rule by a small élite class) and timocracy. Although Athenian democracy is today considered by many to have been a form of direct democracy, originally it had two distinguishing features: firstly the allotment (selection by lot) of ordinary citizens to government offices and courts, and secondarily the assembly of all the citizens. All the male Athenian citizens were eligible to speak and vote in the Assembly, which set the laws of the city-state, but neither political rights, nor citizenship, were granted to women, slaves, or metics. Of the 250,000 inhabitants only some 30,000 on average were citizens. Of those 30,000 perhaps 5,000 might regularly attend one or more meetings of the popular Assembly. Most of the officers and magistrates of Athenian government were allotted; only the generals ( strategoi) and a few other officers were elected.

Even though the Roman Republic contributed significantly into certain aspects of democracy, such as Laws, it never became a democracy. The Romans had elections for choosing representatives, but again women, slaves, and the large foreign population were excluded. Also the votes of the wealthy were given more weight and almost all high officials, such as being member of Senate, come from a few wealthy and noble families.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, there were various systems involving elections or assemblies, although often only involving a minority of the population, such as the election of Gopala in Bengal, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Althing in Iceland, certain medieval Italian city-states such as Venice, the tuatha system in early medieval Ireland, the Veche in Novgorod and Pskov Republics of medieval Russia, Scandinavian Things, The States in Tyrol and Switzerland and the autonomous merchant city of Sakai in the 16th century in Japan. However, participation was often restricted to a minority, and so may be better classified as oligarchy. Most regions during the middle-ages were ruled by clergy or feudal lords.

The Parliament of England had its roots in the restrictions on the power of kings written into Magna Carta. The first elected parliament was De Montfort's Parliament in England in 1265. However only a small minority actually had a voice; Parliament was elected by only a few percent of the population (less than 3% in 1780.), and the system had problematic features such as rotten boroughs. The power to call parliament was at the pleasure of the monarch (usually when he or she needed funds). After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the English Bill of Rights was enacted in 1689, which codified certain rights and increased the influence of the Parliament. The franchise was slowly increased and the Parliament gradually gained more power until the monarch became largely a figurehead.

Democracy was also seen to a certain extent in bands and tribes such as the Iroquois Confederacy. However, in the Iroquois Confederacy only the males of certain clans could be leaders and some clans were excluded. Only the oldest females from the same clans could choose and remove the leaders. This excluded most of the population. An interesting detail is that there should be consensus among the leaders, not majority support decided by voting, when making decisions. Band societies, such as the Bushmen, which usually number 20-50 people in the band often do not have leaders and make decisions based on consensus among the majority. In Melanesia, farming village communities have traditionally been egalitarian and lacking in a rigid, authoritarian hierarchy. Although a "Big man" or "Big woman" could gain influence, that influence was conditional on a continued demonstration of leadership skills, and on the willingness of the community. Every person was expected to share in communal duties, and entitled to participate in communal decisions. However, strong social pressure encouraged conformity and discouraged individualism.

18th and 19th centuries

Although not described as a democracy by the founding fathers, the United States founders shared a commitment to the principle of natural freedom and equality. The United States Constitution, adopted in 1788, provided for an elected government and protected civil rights and liberties. However, in the colonial period before 1776, only adult white male property owners could vote; enslaved Africans, free black people and women were not extended the franchise. On the American frontier, democracy became a way of life, with widespread social, economic and political equality. However the frontier did not produce much democracy in Canada, Australia or Russia. By the 1840s almost all property restrictions were ended and nearly all white adult male citizens could vote; and turnout averaged 60-80% in frequent elections for local, state and national officials. The system gradually evolved, from Jeffersonian Democracy to Jacksonian Democracy and beyond. In Reconstruction after the Civil War (late 1860s) the newly freed slaves became citizens with (in the case of men) the right to vote.

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 males.

Liberal democracies were few and often short-lived before the late nineteenth century. Various nations and territories have claimed to be the first with universal suffrage.

20th century

20th century transitions to liberal democracy have come in successive "waves of democracy," variously resulting from wars, revolutions, decolonization, and economic circumstances. World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires resulted in the creation of new nation-states in Europe, most of them at least nominally democratic. In the 1920s democracy flourished, 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 nondemocratic regimes in the Baltics, the Balkans, Brazil, Cuba, China, and Japan, among others.

World War II brought a definitive reversal of this trend in western Europe. The successful democratization of the American, British, and French sectors of occupied Germany (disputed ), Austria, Italy, and the occupied Japan served as a model for the later theory of regime change. However, most of Eastern Europe, including the Soviet sector of Germany was forced into the non-democratic Soviet bloc. The war was followed by decolonization, and again most of the new independent states had nominally democratic constitutions. India, however emerged as the world's largest democracy and continues to be so. In the decades following World War II, most western democratic nations had mixed economies and developed a welfare state, reflecting a general consensus among their electorates and political parties. In the 1950s and 1960s, economic growth was high in both the western and Communist countries; it later declined in the state-controlled economies. By 1960, the vast majority of nation-states were nominally democracies, although the majority 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 democratization 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. Economic malaise in the 1980s, along with resentment of communist oppression, contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the associated end of the Cold War, and the democratization and liberalization of the former Eastern bloc countries. The most successful of the new democracies were those geographically and culturally closest to western Europe, and they are now members or candidate members of the European Union . The liberal trend spread to some nations in Africa in the 1990s, most prominently in South Africa. Some recent examples of attempts of liberalization include the Indonesian Revolution of 1998, the Bulldozer Revolution in Yugoslavia, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan.

Currently, there are 123 countries that are democratic, and the trend is increasing (up from 40 in 1972). As such, it has been speculated that this trend may continue in the future to the point where liberal democratic nation-states become the universal standard form of human society. This prediction forms the core of Francis Fukayama's " End of History" controversial theory. These theories are criticized by those who fear an evolution of liberal democracies to Post-democracy, and other who points out the high number of illiberal democracies.



Aristotle contrasted rule by the many (democracy/ polity), with rule by the few (oligarchy/ aristocracy), and with rule by a single person ( tyranny/monarchy or today autocracy). He also thought that there was a good and a bad variant of each system (he considered democracy to be the degenerate counterpart to polity).

For Aristotle the underlying principle of democracy is freedom, since only in a democracy the citizens can have a share in freedom. In essence, he argues that this is what every democracy should make its aim. There are two main aspects of freedom: being ruled and ruling in turn, since everyone is equal according to number, not merit, and to be able to live as one pleases.

But one factor of liberty is to govern and be governed in turn; for the popular principle of justice is to have equality according to number, not worth, and if this is the principle of justice prevailing, the multitude must of necessity be sovereign and the decision of the majority must be final and must constitute justice, for they say that each of the citizens ought to have an equal share; so that it results that in democracies the poor are more powerful than the rich, because there are more of them and whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign. This then is one mark of liberty which all democrats set down as a principle of the constitution. And one is for a man to live as he likes; for they say that this is the function of liberty, inasmuch as to live not as one likes is the life of a man that is a slave. This is the second principle of democracy, and from it has come the claim not to be governed, preferably not by anybody, or failing that, to govern and be governed in turns; and this is the way in which the second principle contributes to equalitarian liberty.


Among political theorists, there are many contending conceptions of democracy.

  • Aggregative democracy uses democratic processes to solicit citizens’ preferences and then aggregate them together to determine what social policies society should adopt. Therefore, proponents of this view hold that democratic participation should primarily focus on voting, where the policy with the most votes gets implemented. There are different variants of this:
    • Under minimalism, democracy is a system of government in which citizens give teams of political leaders the right to rule in periodic elections. According to this minimalist conception, citizens cannot and should not “rule” because, for example, on most issues, most of the time, they have no clear views or their views are not well-founded. Joseph Schumpeter articulated this view most famously in his book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Contemporary proponents of minimalism include William H. Riker, Adam Przeworski, Richard Posner.
    • Direct democracy, on the other hand, holds that citizens should participate directly, not through their representatives, in making laws and policies. Proponents of direct democracy offer varied reasons to support this view. Political activity can be valuable in itself, it socializes and educates citizens, and popular participation can check powerful elites. Most importantly, citizens do not really rule themselves unless they directly decide laws and policies.
    • Governments will tend to produce laws and policies that are close to the views of the median voter — with half to his left and the other half to his right. This is not actually a desirable outcome as it represents the action of self-interested and somewhat unaccountable political elites competing for votes. Downs suggests that ideological political parties are necessary to act as a mediating broker between individual and governments. Anthony Downs laid out this view in his 1957 book An Economic Theory of Democracy.
    • Robert A. Dahl argues that the fundamental democratic principle is that, when it comes to binding collective decisions, each person in a political community is entitled to have his/her interests be given equal consideration (not necessarily that all people are equally satisfied by the collective decision). He uses the term polyarchy to refer to societies in which there exists a certain set of institutions and procedures which are perceived as leading to such democracy. First and foremost among these institutions is the regular occurrence of free and open elections which are used to select representatives who then manage all or most of the public policy of the society. However, these polyarchic procedures may not create a full democracy if, for example, poverty prevents political participation. Some see a problem with the wealthy having more influence and therefore argue for reforms like campaign finance reform. Some may see it as a problem that the majority of the voters decide policy, as opposed to majority rule of the entire population. This can be used as an argument for making political participation mandatory, like compulsory voting or for making it more patient (non-compulsory) by simply refusing power to the government until the full majority feels inclined to speak their minds.
  • Deliberative democracy is based on the notion that democracy is government by discussion. Deliberative democrats contend that laws and policies should be based upon reasons that all citizens can accept. The political arena should be one in which leaders and citizens make arguments, listen, and change their minds.
  • Radical democracy is based on the idea that there are hierarchical and oppressive power relations that exist in society. Democracy's role is to make visible and challenge those relations by allowing for difference, dissent and antagonisms in decision making processes.

Democracy and republic

Constitutional monarchs and upper chambers

Initially after the American and French revolutions the question was open whether a democracy, in order to restrain unchecked majority rule, should have an elitist upper chamber, the members perhaps appointed meritorious experts or having lifetime tenures, or should have a constitutional monarch with limited but real powers. Some countries (as Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavian countries and Japan) turned powerful monarchs into constitutional monarchs with limited or, often gradually, merely symbolic roles. Often the monarchy was abolished along with the aristocratic system (as in the U.S., France, China, Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Greece and Egypt). Many nations had elite upper houses of legislatures which often had lifetime tenure, but eventually these senates lost power (as in Britain) or else became elective and remained powerful (as in the United States).

Supranational democracy

Qualified majority voting (QMV) is designed by the Treaty of Rome to be the principal method of reaching decisions in the European Council of Ministers. This system allocates votes to member states in part according to their population, but heavily weighted in favour of the smaller states. This might be seen as a form of representative democracy, but representatives to the Council might be appointed rather than directly elected. Some might consider the "individuals" being democratically represented to be states rather than people, as with many other international organizations.

European Parliament members are democratically directly elected on the basis of universal suffrage, may be seen as an example of a supranational democratic institution.

Non-government democracy

Aside from the public sphere, similar democratic principles and mechanisms of voting and representation have been used to govern other kinds of communities and organizations.

  • Many non-governmental organisations decide policy and leadership by voting.
  • Most trade unions choose their leadership through democratic elections.
  • Cooperatives are enterprises owned and democratically controlled by their customers or workers.

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