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Democracy describes a series of related forms of government. With origins in ancient Greece, Rome and south Asia, democracy has generally grown and expanded throughout history. Today, democracy is the predominant form of government in the world. The term democracy is typically used in the context of a political state, the principles are also applicable to other groups and organizations.



The word democracy derives from the classical Greek demokratia, formed from the roots demos, "people, " [1]"the mob, the many [2] and kratos, "rule". [3]

Forms of democracy

Main article: Democracy (varieties)

The definition of democracy is simple, the rule of the people, but great complexity and diversity has arisen from the varied concepts used at different periods of history and in different situations. A great variety of ideas have been proposed from early history on, though some of them have yet to be implemented.


Representative democracy involves the selection of government officials by the people. Representatives may be elected by a particular district (or constituency), or represent the electorate as a whole as in many Proportional representation|proportional systems, with some using a combination of the two. Some representative democracies also incorporate elements of direct democracy, such as referenda. 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 judgement as how best to do so. While considerations such as party alignment, perception of voter wishes or the public interest, re-election prospects and other factors can be of influence, there are generally few binding restrictions.

Liberal democracy

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. [3] [4] 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.


Direct democracy is largely referred to as 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. All direct democracies to date have been relatively small communities, usually city-states. However, some see the extensive use of referenda, as in California, as akin to direct democracy in a very large polity with more than 20 million potential voters. [4]

Today, a limited direct democracy exists in some Cantons of Switzerland|Swiss cantons. Other current examples include many small civic organizations (like college faculties) and town meetings in New England (usually in towns under 10,000 population).

Direct democracy obviously becomes difficult when the electorate is large. Modern direct democracy tries to accommodate this and sees a role for strictly controlled representatives. It is characterized 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). [5]

Socialist Democracy

Socialism is a broad movement and has several different views on democracy. (Social democracy), (democratic socialism), (Soviet democracy), and the (dictatorship of the proletariat) are some examples.

Anarchist Democracy

oppose democracy while others favor 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. [5] However, (anarcho-communist Murray Bookchin) criticized individualist anarchists for opposing democracy [6], and says "majority rule" is consistent with anarchism. [7] Some anarcho-communists oppose the majoritarian nature of democracy, feeling that it can impede individual liberty and opt in favor of a non-majoritarian form of consensus. [8]

The notion of direct democracy, or participatory democracy, is very common to many anarchist movements, especially in libertarian communism, as a form of organizing and management based upon consensus, collective action, freedom and responsibility. This goes with the fundamental anarchist principle of denying authoritarian or alienating organizational structures.


Sortition (or Allotment) has formed the basis of systems randomly selecting officers from the population. [6]

Tribal democracy

Certain tribes organised themselves using different forms of participatory democracy. [7]


Consensus democracy and deliberative democracy seek consensus among the people.[8]


Main article: History of democracy
Since World War II, democracy has gained widespread acceptance. This map displays the official "claims" made by world governments with regard to democracy, as of June 2006. It shows the de jure status of democracy in the world.      Governments that claim to be democratic      Governments that do not claim to be 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. [1]      Free. Freedom House considers these to be liberal democracies. [2]      Partly Free      Not Free
This graph shows Freedom House's evaluation of 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.
Still another measure of democracy is The Economist's Democracy Index. The palest blue countries get a score above 9, while the black countries score below 2.

Ancient origins

The word democracy was coined in ancient Greece. 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, [11] 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. Most of the officers and magistrates of Athenian government were allotted; only the generals strategoi and a few other officers were elected. [12]

One of the earliest instances of civilizations with democracy, or sometimes disputed as oligarchy, was found in the republics of ancient India, which were established sometime before the 6th century BC, and prior to the birth of Gautama Buddha. These republics were known as Maha Janapadas, and among these states, Vaishali (in what is now Bihar, India) would be the world's first republic. The democratic Sangha, Gana and Panchayat systems were used in some of these republics; the Panchayat system is still used today in Indian villages. Later during the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, the Greeks wrote about the Sabarcae and Sambastai states in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, whose "form of government was democratic and not regal" according to Greek scholars at the time. [13]

The Roman Republic had elections but again women, slaves, and the large foreign population were excluded. The votes of the wealthy were given more weight and almost all high officials come from a few noble families. [9] Democratic principles and elements have also been argued for the Mahajanapadas of ancient India, and also in the local Sanghas, Ganas and Panchayats that existed throughout the centuries in India. 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 classified as an oligarchy. [10] 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 band society|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. [11] [12]

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 (Pala king)|Gopala in Bengal, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Althing in Iceland, certain medieval Italy|medieval Italian city-states such as Venice, the tuatha system in early medieval Ireland, the Veche in Slavic peoples|Slavic countries, Scandinavian Thing (assembly)|Things and the autonomous merchant city of Sakai, Osaka|Sakai in the 16th century in Japan. 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. [13]), 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. [14] The franchise was slowly increased and the Parliament gradually gained more power until the monarch became entirely a figurehead. [15]

18th and 19th centuries

Although not described as a democracy by the founding fathers, the United States has been described as the first liberal democracy on the basis that its founders shared a commitment to the principle of natural freedom and equality. [14] 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. [15] 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. [16]

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 empire|Ottoman and Austria-Hungary|Austro-Hungarian empires resulted in the creation of new nation-states in Europe, most of them nominally democratic. In the 1920s democracy flourished, but the Great Depression brought disenchantment, and most 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 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" [17].

World War II brought a definitive reversal of this trend in western Europe. The successful democratization of the Allied Control Council|American, British, and French sectors of occupied Germany, Austria, Italy, and the occupied Japan served as a model for the later theory of regime change. However, most of Eastern Europe, including the German Democratic Republic|Soviet sector of Germany 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 mixed economy|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 communism|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 democratisation brought substantial gains toward true liberal democracy for many nations. Spain, Portugal, and several of the military dictatorships in South America became democratic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was followed by nations in East Asia|East and South Asia by the mid- to late 1980s. Economic malaise in the 1980s, along with resentment of communist oppression, contributed to the History of the Soviet Union (1985-1991)|collapse of the Soviet Union, the associated end of the Cold War, and the democratization 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 5th October Overthrow|Bulldozer Revolution in Yugoslavia, the Rose Revolution in Georgia (country)|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 "The End of History and the Last Man|End of History" theory.



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). [18] [19].


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. [20] 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 [16]. 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.
    • 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. [17]
    • 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. [18]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 <ref>[21][22]</ref> 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. One modern proponents of this form of government are led by Jürgen Habermas.

"Democracy" and "Republic"

In 18th centurty historical usages, especially when considering the works of the Founding Fathers of the United States, the word "democracy" was associated with radical equalitarianism and was often defined to mean what we today call direct democracy. In the same historical context, the word "republic" was used to refer to what we now call representative democracy. [19] For example, James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 10, advocates a constitutional republic over a democracy to protect the individual from the majority. [20] Madison was seeking to distinguish between a direct democracy and a representative democracy, but his choice to do so using the words "democracy" and "republic" had no basis in prior usage of the words. [21]

In contemporary western usage, the term "democracy" usually refers to a government chosen by the people, whether it is direct or representative. [23] 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.Therefore, today the term is used by states which are quite different from the earlier use of the term, such as the the former German Democratic Republic and the USSR.

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.

Note that the US constitution states that the power comes from the people "We the people..." However, some argue that unlike a pure democracy, in a constitutional republic, citizens in the US are not governed by the majority of the people but by the rule of law. [22]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. Thomas Jefferson stated that majority rights cannot exist if individual rights do not. [23]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 or government having power to deny any inalienable right [24]. Moreover, 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.

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. 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. Inalienable rights refers to a set of human rights that are not awarded by human power, and cannot be surrendered. [25] The Constitution of the United States was written to protect the inalienable rights of citizens from potential excesses of government, even if taken by majority rule. Inalienable rights are not granted by government, but by nature. [26] Republicanism and Liberalism have complex relationships to democracy and republic. See these articles for more details.

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 philosophy|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. Legitimacy (political science)|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 sovereignty|sovereign: democratic elections are pointless if an outside authority can overrule the result.


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

Some far right, theocracy|theocratic, anarchist, and monarchism|monarchist groups oppose all forms of democracy.

Beyond the public 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 organizations.

  • 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.

See also

  • Deliberative democracy
  • List of democratic states
  • List of types of democracy
  • Poll
  • Media democracy
  • Islamic democracy


<references />

Further reading

  • Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (1992)
  • Becker, Peter, Juergen Heideking and James A. Henretta, eds. Republicanism and Liberalism in America and the German States, 1750-1850. Cambridge University Press. 2002.
  • Benhabib, Seyla, ed., Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political (Princeton University Press, 1996)
  • Charles Blattberg, From Pluralist to Patriotic Politics: Putting Practice First, Oxford University Press, 2000, ch. 5. ISBN 0-19-829688-6
  • Castiglione, Dario. "Republicanism and its Legacy," European Journal of Political Theory (2005) v 4 #4 pp version
  • Copp, David, Jean Hampton, and John E. Roemer, eds. The Idea of Democracy Cambridge University Press (1993)
  • Dahl, Robert. Democracy and its Critics, Yale University Press (1989)
  • Dahl, Robert. On Democracy Yale University Press, 2000
  • Dahl, Robert. Ian Shapiro, and Jose Antonio Cheibub, eds, The Democracy Sourcebook MIT Press 2003
  • Diamond, Larry and Marc Plattner, The Global Resurgence of Democracy, 2nd edition Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996
  • Diamond, Larry and Richard Gunther, eds. Political Parties and Democracy (2001)
  • Diamond, Larry and Leonardo Morlino, eds. Assessing the Quality of Democracy (2005)
  • Diamond, Larry, Marc F. Plattner, and Philip J. Costopoulos, eds. World Religions and Democracy (2005)
  • Diamond, Larry, Marc F. Plattner, and Daniel Brumberg, eds. Islam and Democracy in the Middle East (2003)
  • Elster, Jon (ed.). Deliberative Democracy Cambridge University Press (1997)
  • Gabardi, Wayne. "Contemporary Models of Democracy," Polity 33#4 (2001) pp 547+.
  • Held, David. Models of Democracy Stanford University Press, (1996), reviews the major interpretations
  • Inglehart, Ronald. Modernization and Postmodernization. Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies Princeton University Press. 1997.
  • Khan, L. Ali, A Theory of Universal Democracy. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers(2003)
  • Lijphart, Arend. Patterns of Democracy. Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries Yale University Press (1999)
  • Lipset, Seymour Martin. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy”, American Political Science Review, (1959) 53 (1): 69-105. online at JSTOR
  • Macpherson, C. B. The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy. Oxford University Press (1977)
  • Edmund Morgan, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (1989)
  • Plattner, Marc F. and Aleksander Smolar, eds. Globalization, Power, and Democracy (2000)
  • Plattner, Marc F. and João Carlos Espada, eds. The Democratic Invention (2000)
  • Putnam, Robert. Making Democracy Work Princeton University Press. (1993)
  • Raaflaub, Kurt A.; Ober, Josiah; Wallace, Robert W. Origins of democracy in ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007 (hardcover, ISBN 0520245628).
  • Riker, William H., The Theory of Political Coalitions (1962)
  • Sen, Amartya K. “Democracy as a Universal Value”, Journal of Democracy (1999) 10 (3): 3-17.
  • Weingast, Barry. “The Political Foundations of the Rule of Law and Democracy”, American Political Science Review, (1997) 91 (2): 245-263. online at JSTOR
  • Whitehead, Laurence ed. Emerging Market Democracies: East Asia and Latin America (2002)
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1993), examines democratic dimensions of republicanism

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