2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Politics and government

Democracy (literally "rule by the people", from the Greek demos, "people," and kratos, "rule") is a form of government for a nation state, or for an organization in which all the citizens have an equal vote or voice in shaping policy. Today democracy is often assumed to be liberal democracy, but there are many other varieties and the methods used to govern differ. While the term democracy is often used in the context of a political state, the principles are also applicable to other bodies, such as universities, labor unions, public companies, or civic organizations.


The definition of democracy is made complex by the varied concepts used at different periods of history in different contexts. Political systems, or proposed political systems, claiming or claimed to be democratic have ranged very broadly. For example:

  • Aristotle contrasted rule by the many (democracy/ polity), with rule by the few (oligarchy/ aristocracy), and with rule by a single person (monarchy/ tyranny or today autocracy). He also thought that there was a good and a bad variant of each system. .
  • Sortition/Allotment have formed the basis of systems randomly selecting officers from the population: For example, Aristotle described the law courts in Athens which were selected by lot as democratic and described elections as oligarchic.
  • Certain tribes organised themselves using forms of participatory democracy.
  • Democracy is used to describe systems seeking consensus (see Deliberative democracy).
  • Many socialists have argued that socialism necessarily implies a form of democracy (see Democratic socialism).
  • Communist states claimed to be democratic, held regular elections, and sometimes went as far as to insert the word "democratic" in their official country names (e.g. the German Democratic Republic). However, Communist states are widely seen as being de facto dictatorships, since the elections they held tended to be heavily rigged.

Main varieties include:


Direct democracy is a political system where the citizens vote on all major policy decisions. It is called direct because, in the classical forms, there are no intermediaries or representatives. Current examples include many small civic organizations (like college faculties) and town meetings in New England (usually in towns under 10,000 population). Critics note that it sometimes emphasises the act of voting more than other democratic procedures such as free speech and press and civic organisations. That is, these critics argue, democracy is more than merely a procedural issue.

All direct democracies to date have been relatively small communities; usually city-states. Today, a limited direct democracy exists in some Swiss cantons that practice it in its literal form. Direct democracy obviously becomes difficult when the electorate is large--for example some 30,000 or more citizens were eligible in Athenian democracy. However, the extensive use of referenda, as in California, is akin to direct democracy in a very large polity with over 20 million potential voters. Modern direct democracy tries to accommodate this problem and sees a role for strictly controlled representatives. It is characterised by three pillars; referendums (initiated by governments or legislatures or by citizens responding to legislation), initiatives (initiated by citizens) and recall elections (on holders of public office).


Representative democracy is so named because the people select representatives to a governing body. Representatives may be chosen by the electorate as a whole (as in many proportional systems) or represent a particular district (or constituency), with some systems using a combination of the two. Some representative democracies also incorporate some elements of direct democracy, such as referenda. Representative democracy is susceptable to various problems such as Gerrymandering of constituencies.


Liberal democracy is a representative democracy (with free and fair elections) along with the protection of minorities, the rule of law, a separation of powers, and protection of liberties (thus the name liberal) of speech, assembly, religion, and property. Conversely, an illiberal democracy is one where the protections that form a liberal democracy are either nonexistent, or not enforced. The experience in some post-Soviet states drew attention to the phenomenon, although it is not of recent origin. Napoleon III for example used plebiscites to ratify his imperial decisions.


Since World War II, democracy has gained widespread acceptance. This map shows the official claims made by world governments with regard to democracy, as of June 2006.  ██ Governments that claim to be democratic and allow the existence of opposition groups, at least in theory.  ██ Governments that claim to be democratic but do not allow the existence of opposition groups.  ██ Governments that do not claim to be democratic.
Since World War II, democracy has gained widespread acceptance. This map shows the official claims made by world governments with regard to democracy, as of June 2006. ██ Governments that claim to be democratic and allow the existence of opposition groups, at least in theory. ██ Governments that claim to be democratic but do not allow the existence of opposition groups. ██ Governments that do not claim to be democratic.

Ancient origins

The word democracy was coined in ancient Greece and used interchangeably with isonomia (equality of political rights). 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. In theory, all the 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. Key to the development of Athenian democracy was its huge juries allotted from the citizenry . Most of the officers & magistrates of Athenian government were allotted; only the generals (strategoi) and a few other officers were elected.

The seeds of representative democracy were arguably sown in the Roman Republic. Democratic principles and elements were also found in the Mahajanapadas of ancient India, and also in the local Sanghas, Ganas and Panchayats that existed throughout the centuries in India. In the political climate of ancient India, many sovereign republics existed along with princely states. In the account of Alexander's campaigns in India, Arrian's Anabasis of Alexander, the Macedonian conqueror is said to have encountered "free and independent" Indian communities at every turn. However, political rights were to some extent a representative of social class and in particular the caste system. In these republics, power was typically vested in the hands of an elite class, and so the system would perhaps be better classifed as an oligarchy. In the case of the village panchayats, the picture is somewhat more democratic. A panchayat in essence is a meeting of townspeople mediated by a group of village elders, and so it is an example of a direct democracy.

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 chose 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.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, there were various systems involving elections or assemblies, 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 Slavic countries, and Scandinavian Things.

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 entirely a figurehead.

18th and 19th centuries

Although not described as a Democracy by the founding fathers, the United States can be seen as the first liberal democracy. The United States Constitution protected rights and liberties and was adopted in 1788. Already in the colonial period before 1776 most adult white men could vote; there were still property requirements but most men owned their own farms and could pass the tests. On the American frontier, democracy became a way of life, with widespread social, economic and political equality.By 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 Americans invented the grass roots party that could mobilise the voters, and had frequent elections and conventions to keep them active. The system gradually evolved, from Jeffersonian Democracy or the First Party System to Jacksonian Democracy or the Second Party System and later to the Third Party System. In Reconstruction after the Civil War (late 1860s) the newly freed slaves became citizens, and they were given the vote as well.

Later 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

 This map reflects the findings of Freedom House's survey Freedom in the World 2006, which reports the state of world freedom in 2005. It is one of the most widely used measures of democracy by researchers.[3]  ██ Free. Freedom House considers these to be liberal democracies.[4]  ██ Partly Free  ██ Not Free
This map reflects the findings of Freedom House's survey Freedom in the World 2006, which reports the state of world freedom in 2005. It is one of the most widely used measures of democracy by researchers. ██ Free. Freedom House considers these to be liberal democracies. ██ Partly Free ██ Not Free

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 nominally democratic. In the 1920 democracy flourished, but the Great Depression brought a disenchantment and most of the countries of Europe, Latin America and Asia turned to strong-man rule or dictatorships. Thus the rise of fascism and dictatorships in Nazi Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as well as nondemocratic regimes in Poland, the Baltics, the Balkans, Brazil, Cuba, China, and Japan, among others. Together with Stalin's regime in the Soviet Union, these made the 1930s the "Age of Dictators" .

World War II brought a definitive reversal of this trend in western Europe. The successful democratisation of the occupied Germany and the occupied Japan served as a model for the later theory of regime change. However, most of Eastern Europe was forced into the non-democratic Soviet bloc. The war was followed by decolonisation, and again most of the new independent states had nominally democratic constitutions.In the decades following World War II, most western democratic nations had a predominantly free-market economy 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.)

This graph shows the number of nations in the different categories given above for the period for which there are surveys, 1972-2005
This graph shows the number of nations in the different categories given above for the period for which there are surveys, 1972- 2005
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.

A subsequent wave of democratisation brought substantial gains toward true liberal democracy for many nations. Several of the military dictatorships in South America became democratic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 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 democratisation and liberalisation 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 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.

The number of liberal democracies currently stands at an all-time high and has been growing without interruption for some time. 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" theory.

Marxist/Socialist view

Many on the left view democracy as essentially a system giving ordinary people power and therefore they view Socialism, Marxism, etc. as inherently democratic because they believe they give power to the working classes. As a result many left-wing political groups in the 18th and 19th century referred to themselves as democrats or their party as "democratic" (Notable examples include the German Democratic Republic & the US Democrat Party)

Social-Democrats see liberal democracy as being compatible with the interests of working class and therefore participate in elections. According to their views once in power Socialists can improve popular welfare without needing to change the economic state.

The Marxist view is fundamentally opposed to liberal democracy believing that the capitalist state cannot be democratic by its nature, as it represents the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Marxism views liberal democracy as an unrealistic utopia. This is because they believe that in a capitalist state all "independent" media and most political parties are controlled by capitalists and one either needs large financial resources or to be supported by the bourgeoisie to win an election. According to Marx, "Universal suffrage (i.e. parliamentary elections) is an opportunity citizens of a country get every four years to decide who among the ruling classes will misrepresent them in parliament." Thus the Marxists believe that in a capitalist state, the system focusses on resolving disputes within the ruling bourgeosie class and ignores the interests of the proletariat or labour class which are not represented and therefore dependent on the bourgeoisie's good will. Moreover, even if representatives of the proletariat class are elected in a capitalist country they have limited power over the country's affairs as the economic sphere is largely controlled by private capital and therefore the representative's power to act is curtailed. Essentially, in the ideal liberal state the functions of the elected government should be reduced to the minimum (i.e. the court system and security).



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

  • 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 on most issues, most of the time, they have no clear views or their views are not very intelligent. Joseph Schumpeter articulated this view most famously in his book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy . Contemporary proponents of minimalism include William H. Riker, Adam Przeworski, and Richard Posner. This meaning of the word "democracy" has also been called polyarchy.
  • The aggregative conception of democracy holds that government should 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. Anthony Downs laid out this view in his 1957 book An Economic Theory of Democracy.
  • 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. The modern proponents of this form of government are led by Jürgen Habermas.
  • The conceptions above assume a representative democracy. Direct democracy 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.
  • Another conception of democracy is that it means political equality between all citizens. It is also used to refer to societies in which there exists a certain set of institutions, procedures and patterns which are perceived as leading to equality in political power. 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. This view 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. It may also see a problem with the wealthy having more influence and therefore argue for reforms like campaign finance reform.

"Democracy" and "Republic"

In contemporary usage, the term "democracy" refers to a government chosen by the people, whether it is direct or representative. The term " republic" has many different meanings but today often refers to a representative democracy with an elected head of state, such as a President, serving for a limited term, in contrast to states with a hereditary monarch as a head of state, even if these states also are representative democracies with an elected head of government such as a Prime Minister.

In historical usages and especially when considering the works of the Founding Fathers of the United States, the word "democracy" refers solely to direct democracy, while a representative democracy where representatives of the people are elected and whose power to govern is limited by laws enshrined in a constitution is referred to as a constitutional republic. Unlike a pure democracy, in a constitutional republic, citizens are not governed by the majority of the people but by the rule of law. Constitutional Republics are a deliberate attempt to diminish the threat of mobocracy thereby protecting minority groups from the tyranny of the majority by placing checks on the power of the majority of the population. The power of the majority of the people is checked by limiting that power to electing representatives who govern within limits of overarching constitutional law rather than the popular vote having legislative power itself. Morever, the power of elected representatives is also checked by prohibitions against any single individual having legislative, judicial, and executive powers so that basic constitutional law is extremely difficult to change. John Adams defined a constitutional republic as "a government of laws, and not of men."Using the term "democracy" to refer solely to direct democracy, or to representative democracy without checks on the power of elected officials, retains some popularity in United States conservative and libertarian circles.

The original framers of the United States Constitution were notably cognizant of what they perceived as a danger of majority rule in oppressing freedom and liberty of the individual. For example, James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 10, advocates a constitutional republic over a democracy to protect the individual from the majority. The framers carefully created the institutions within the Constitution and the United States Bill of Rights. They kept what they believed were the best elements of majority rule. But they were mitigated by a constitution with protections for individual liberty, a separation of powers, and a layered federal structure.

Republicanism and Liberalism have complex relationships to 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).

Democratic state

Though there remains some philosophical debate as to the applicability and legitimacy of criteria in defining democracy what follows may be a minimum of requirements for a state to be considered democratic (note that for example anarchists may support a form of democracy but not a state):

  1. A demos—a group which makes political decisions by some form of collective procedure—must exist. Non-members of the demos do not participate. In modern democracies the demos is the adult portion of the nation, and adult citizenship is usually equivalent to membership.
  2. A territory must be present, where the decisions apply, and where the demos is resident. In modern democracies, the territory is the nation-state, and since this corresponds (in theory) with the homeland of the nation, the demos and the reach of the democratic process neatly coincide. Colonies of democracies are not considered democratic by themselves, if they are governed from the colonial motherland: demos and territory do not coincide.
  3. A decision-making procedure exists, which is either direct, in instances such as a referendum, or indirect, of which instances include the election of a parliament.
  4. The procedure is regarded as legitimate by the demos, implying that its outcome will be accepted. Political legitimacy is the willingness of the population to accept decisions of the state, its government and courts, which go against personal choices or interests.
  5. The procedure is effective in the minimal sense that it can be used to change the government, assuming there is sufficient support for that change. Showcase elections, pre-arranged to re-elect the existing regime, are not democratic.
  6. In the case of nation-states, the state must be sovereign: democratic elections are pointless if an outside authority can overrule the result.


Anarchists oppose "coercive" majority rule, it's a common saying that "democracy is a dictatorship of the majority." Many support a non-hierarchical and non-coercive system of direct democracy within free associations. 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. The minority can refuse to consent and are free to leave and form or join another association. There are also some anarchists who expect society to operate by consensus.

Some far right, theocratic, and monarchist groups oppose democracy.

For criticisms of specific forms of democracy, see the appropriate article.

Beyond the state level

While this article deals mainly with democracy as a system to rule countries, voting and representation have been used to govern many other kinds of communities and organisations.

  • Many non-governmental organisations decide policy and leadership by voting.
  • In business, corporations elect their boards by votes weighed by the number of shares held by each owner.
  • Trade unions sometimes choose their leadership through democratic elections. In the U.S. democratic elections were rare before Congress required them in the 1950s..
  • Cooperatives are enterprises owned and democratically controlled by their customers or workers.

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