Democracy is a form of government under which the power to alter the laws and structures of government lies, ultimately, with the citizenry. Under such a system, legislative decisions are made by the people themselves or by representatives who act through the consent of the people, as enforced by elections and the rule of law.
This definition generally comes with qualifications. The decisions taken through elections are taken not by all of the citizenry, but rather by those who choose to participate by voting. In addition, not all citizens are generally permitted to vote. Most democratic nations only extend the vote to those who are above a certain age, typically 18. Some nations also do not permit other categories of people to vote (e.g., current or previously convicted prisoners).
The term "democracy"—or more precisely, the original (ancient Greek) version of the word—was coined in ancient Athens in the 5th century BC. That state is generally seen as the earliest example of a system corresponding to modern notions of democratic rule. However, the meaning of the term has changed over time, and the modern definition has largely evolved since the 18th century, alongside the successive introduction of "democratic" systems in many nations.
Real world meaning and definition
There are many varieties of democracy, some hypothetical and some realized.
In contemporary usage, democracy is often understood to be the same as liberal democracy. This contemporary understanding of democracy to a large degree differs from how the term was originally defined and used by the ancient Greeks in the Athenian democracy political regime.
The word democracy originates from the Greek δημοκρατíα from δημος meaning "the people", plus κρατειν meaning "to rule", and the suffix íα; the term therefore means "rule by the people." The term is also sometimes used as a measurement of how much influence a people has over their government, as in how much democracy exists. Anarchism and communism (as in the final stage of social development according to Marxist theory) are social systems that employ a form of direct democracy, and have no state independent of the people themselves.
Liberal democracy is sometimes the de facto form of government, while other forms are technically the case; for example, Canada has a monarchy, but is in fact ruled by a democratically elected Parliament.
While democracy per se implies only a system of government defined and legitimized by elections, modern democracy can be characterized more fully by the following institutions:
Some summarize the definition of democracy as being "majority rule with minority rights."
Famous viewpoints on democracy
There is much debate on the ability of a democracy to properly represent both the will of the people and to do what is right.
On the one hand, Winston Churchill said:
- "Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
On the other, Edmund Burke:
- "I cannot help concurring [e.g., with Aristotle, inter alios] that an absolute democracy, no more than an absolute monarchy, is not to be reckoned among the legitimate forms of government. They think it rather the corruption and degeneracy than the sound constitution of a republic."
Burke expressed his view as agreement with Aristotle because Aristotle had called democracy one of three "evil" forms of government (the other two: oligarchy and tyranny).
Further, people who believe that any government will do more harm than good (i.e. anarchists), naturally regard the issue of whether the best government is democratic as secondary, comparing that question to "How long is the horn of a unicorn?"
Role of political parties
Some critics of representative democracy argue that party politics mean that representatives will be forced to follow the party line on issues, rather than either the will of their conscience or constituents. But it can also be argued that the electors have expressed their will in the election, which puts the emphasis on the program the candidate was elected on, which they are then supposed to follow. One emerging problem with representative democracies is the increasing cost of political campaigns, which tends to lead the candidates into making deals with wealthy supporters for legislation favorable to those supporters once the candidate is elected.
Les Marshall , an expert on the spread of democracy to nations that have not traditionally had these institutions, notes that "globally, there is no alternative to multi-party representative democracy" for those states that embrace democratic methods at all. This is not controversial: representative democracy is the most commonly used system of government in countries generally considered "democratic".
Elections as rituals
Elections are not in themselves a sufficient condition for the existence of democracy.
Firstly, elections have often been used by authoritarian regimes or dictatorships to give a false sense of democracy. This can happen in a variety of different ways:
- restrictions on who is allowed to stand for election
- restrictions on the true amount of power that elected representatives are allowed to hold, or the policies that they are permitted to choose while in office
- voting which is not truly free and fair (e.g., through intimidation of those voting for particular candidates)
- or most simply through falsification of the results
Historical examples of this include the USSR under the CPSU before its collapse in 1991, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos.
In addition, for countries without a strong tradition of democratic majority rule, the introduction of free elections alone has rarely been sufficient to achieve a transition from dictatorship to democracy, until a wider shift in the political culture and gradual formation of the institutions of democratic government have occurred too. There are various examples, such as Revolutionary France or modern Uganda or Iran, of countries that have only been able to sustain democracy in a limited form until wider cultural changes occur to enable real majority rule.
Tyranny of the majority
This issue is also discussed in the article on Majoritarianism.
Whether or not there is a very broad and inclusive franchise, majority rule may lead to a fear of so-called "tyranny of the majority". This refers to the possibility that a democratic system can empower elected representatives acting on behalf of the majority view to take action that oppresses a particular minority. This clearly has the potential to undermine the aspiration of democracy as empowerment of the citizenry as a whole. For example, it is theoretically possible in a liberal democracy to elect a representative body that will decide that a certain minority (religion, political belief, etc.) should be criminalized (either directly or indirectly).
Proponents of democracy make a number of defenses to this. One is to argue that the presence of a constitution in many democratic countries acts as a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority. A constitution (whether written or unwritten) can ensure a distinction between policy enacted through the legislature and executive, and the modification of fundamental constitutional rights , which may require a more deliberative procedure (such as an independent judiciary) and less vulnerable to the tyranny of the majority. Another common argument is that, despite these risks, majority rule is preferable to other systems, and the tyranny of the majority is at all events an improvement on a tyranny of a minority. In practice, history offers numerous examples of ruling minorities who oppressed a disenfranchised majority, as well as cases of societies that oppressed a minority of the enfranchised.
One clear conclusion from history is that possession of the franchise doesn't necessarily protect one from oppression. However, it can provide some defence.
Here are some examples of instances in which a majority has acted controversially against the wishes of a minority in relation to specific issues:
- In France, some consider current bans on personal religious symbols in public schools to be a violation of religious peoples' rights.
- In the United States:
- distribution of pornography is declared illegal if the material violates "community standards" of decency.
- "pro-life" (anti-abortion) activists have characterized unborn children as an oppressed, helpless and disenfranchised minority.
- the draft early in the Vietnam War was criticized as oppression of a disenfranchised minority, 18 to 21 year olds. In response to this, the draft age was raised to 19 and the voting age was lowered nationwide (along with the drinking age in many states). While no longer disenfranchised, those subject to the draft remained significantly outnumbered.
- The majority often taxes the minority who are wealthy at progressively higher rates, with the intention that the wealthy will incur a larger tax burden for social purposes.
Recreational drug users are seen by some as a sizable minority oppressed by the tyranny of the majority in many countries, through criminalization of drug use. In many countries, those convicted of drug use also lose the right to vote.
- Society's treatment of homosexuals is also cited in this context. One example is the criminalization of gay sex in Britain during the 19th and much of the 20th century, made famous by the prosecutions of Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing.
- Athenian democracy executed Socrates for impiety, i.e., for dissent. Whether this is pertinent to the dangers of modern democracies is itself a continuing matter of contention.
Some commentators object to the use of the term "tyranny of the majority" in relation to societies in the 19th century and earlier. They point out that few countries at that time, including democracies, had adopted universal suffrage. However, others argue that the term remains apt, as the situation that it describes can occur within the franchised community, even if that community does not extend to the whole population.
"Democracy" versus "republic"
The definition of the word "democracy" from the time of ancient Greece up to now has not been constant. In contemporary usage, the term "democracy" refers to a government chosen by the people, whether it is direct or representative.
There is another definition of democracy, particularly in constitutional theory and in historical usages and especially when considering the works of the American "Founding Fathers." According to this usage, the word "democracy" refers solely to direct democracy, whilst a representative democracy where representatives of the people govern in accordance with a constitution is referred to as a "republic". This older terminology retains some popularity in U.S. Conservative and Libertarian debate.
Modern definitions of the term republic, however, refer to any state with an elective head of state serving for a limited term, in contrast to most contemporary hereditary monarchies which are representative democracies and constitutional monarchies adhering to parliamentarism. (Older elective monarchies are also not considered republics.)
Pros and cons
Traditionally, the purpose of democracy is to prevent the accumulation of too much authority in the hands of one or a few. It rests on a balance of giving enough power for what Alexander Hamilton called "vigorous and energetic government" and avoiding giving out so much power that it becomes abused. Democracy is believed by some, such as Winston Churchill, to be the "least bad" form of government. By creating a system where the public can remove administrations, without changing the legal basis for government, democracy aims at reducing political uncertainty and instability, and assuring citizens that however much they may disagree with present policies, they will be given a regular chance to change those who are in power, or change policies with which they disagree. Democracy is also related to the idea of constitutional government, setting limits beyond which a current majority in government may not step.
Nonetheless, some people believe that there is no system that can ideally order society and that democracy is not morally ideal. These advocates say that at the heart of democracy is the belief that if a majority is in agreement, it is legitimate to harm the minority. The opponents to this viewpoint say that in a liberal democracy where particular minority groups are protected from being targeted, majorities and minorities actually take a markedly different shape on every issue; therefore, majorities will usually be careful to take into account the dissent of the minority, lest they ultimately become part of a minority on a future democratic decision.
The threat of coercive power is still the main cause for concern. A historical example would be Hitler in pre-Nazi Germany, who was "elected" in 1933 by the German people with the largest minority vote. For this reason, some countries have created constitutions/laws that protect particular issues from majoritarian decision-making. Generally, changes in these constitutions require the agreement of a supermajority of the elected representatives, or require a judge and jury to agree that evidentiary and procedural standards have been fulfilled by the state, or, very rarely, a referendum. This means a majority can still legitimately coerce a minority (which is still ethically questionable), but such a minority would be very small and, as a practical matter, it is harder to get a larger proportion of the people to agree to such actions. On the other hand, proponents of broader democracy wonder what gives a small minority of people (such as those who drafted the US Constitution, or other constitutions/laws) the right to impose their will on the majority.
In addition to constitutional protections for citizens' rights (such as the right to stay alive, express political opinions and form political organizations, independent and regardless of government approval), some electoral systems, such as the various forms of proportional representation, attempt to ensure that all political groups (including minority groups that vote for minor parties), are represented "fairly" in the nation's legislative bodies, according to the proportion of total votes they cast; rather than the proportion of electorates in which they can achieve a regional majority.
This proportional versus majoritarian dichotomy is a not just a theoretical problem, as both forms of electoral system are common around the world, and each creates a very different kind of government. One of the main points of contention is having someone who directly represents your little region in your country, versus having everyone's vote count the same, regardless of where in the country you happen to live. Some countries such as Germany and New Zealand attempt to have both regional (majoritarian) representation, and proportional representation, in such a way that one doesn't encroach on the other. This system is commonly called Mixed Member Proportional.
The democratic peace theory claims that democracies never or almost never make war against each other. A related but slightly different concept is Rummel's Law, which states that the less freedom a people have, the more likely their rulers are to murder them.