What Is Democracy? Definition and Examples

The essence of democracy.
The essence of democracy. Emma Espejo/Getty Images

A democracy is a form of government that empowers the people to exercise political control, limits the power of the head of state, provides for the separation of powers between governmental entities, and ensures the protection of natural rights and civil liberties. In practice, democracy takes many different forms. Along with the two most common types of democracies—direct and representative—variants such as participatory, liberal, parliamentary, pluralist, constitutional, and socialist democracies can be found in use today.

Key Takeaways: Democracy

  • Democracy, literally meaning “rule by the people,” empowers individuals to exercise political control over the form and functions of their government.
  • While democracies come in several forms, they all feature competitive elections, freedom of expression, and protection of individual civil liberties and human rights.
  • In most democracies, the needs and wishes of the people are represented by elected lawmakers who are charged with writing and voting on laws and setting policy.
  • When creating laws and policies, the elected representatives in a democracy strive to balance conflicting demands and obligations to maximize freedom and protect individual rights.

Despite the prominence in the headlines of non-democratic, authoritarian states like China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, democracy remains the world’s most commonly practiced form of government. In 2018, for example, a total of 96 out of 167 countries (57%) with populations of at least 500,000 were democracies of some type. Statics show that the percentage of democracies among the world’s governments has been increasing since the mid-1970s, currently standing just short of its post-World War II high of 58% in 2016.

Democracy Definition

Meaning “rule by the people,” democracy is a system of government that not only allows but requires the participation of the people in the political process to function properly. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, in his famed 1863 Gettysburg Address may have best-defined democracy as a “…government of the people, by the people, for the people…”

Semantically, the term democracy comes from the Greek words for “people” (dēmos) and “rule” (karatos). However, achieving and preserving a government by the people—a “popular” government—is far more complicated than the concept’s semantic simplicity might imply. In creating the legal framework under which the democracy will function, typically a constitution, several crucial political and practical questions must be answered.

Is “rule by the people” even appropriate for the given state? Do the inherent freedoms of a democracy justify dealing with its complex bureaucracy and electoral processes, or would the streamlined predictability of a monarchy, for example, be preferable?

Assuming a preference for democracy, which residents of the country, state, or town should enjoy the political status of full citizenship? Simply stated, who are the “people” in the “government by the people” equation? In the United States, for example, the constitutionally established doctrine of birthright citizenship provides that any person born on U.S. soil automatically becomes a U.S. citizen. Other democracies are more restrictive in bestowing full citizenship.

Which people within the democracy should be empowered to participate in it? Assuming that only adults are allowed to fully participate in the political process, should all adults be included? For example, until the enactment of the 19th Amendment in 1920, women in the United States were not allowed to vote in national elections. A democracy that excludes too many of the governed from taking part in what is supposed to be their government runs the risk of becoming an aristocracy—government by a small, privileged ruling class—or an oligarchy—government by an elite, typically wealthy, few.

If, as one of the foundational principles of democracy holds, the majority rules, what will a “proper” majority be? A majority of all citizens or a majority of citizens who vote only? When issues, as they inevitably will, divide the people, should the wishes of the majority always prevail, or should, as in the case of the American Civil Rights Movement, minorities be empowered to overcome majority rule? Most importantly, what legal or legislative mechanisms should be created to prevent the democracy from becoming a victim of what one of America’s Founding Fathers, James Madison, called “the tyranny of the majority?”

Finally, how likely is it that a majority of the people will continue to believe that democracy is the best form of government for them? For a democracy to survive it must retain the substantial support of both the people and the leaders they choose. History has shown that democracy is a particularly fragile institution. In fact, of the 120 new democracies that have emerged around the world since 1960, nearly half have resulted in failed states or have been replaced by other, typically more authoritarian forms of government. It is therefore essential that democracies be designed to respond quickly and appropriately to the internal and external factors that will inevitably threaten them.

Democratic Principles

While their opinions vary, a consensus of political scientists agree that most democracies are based on six foundational elements:

  • Popular sovereignty: The principle that the government is created and maintained by the consent of the people through their elected representatives.
  • An Electoral System: Since according to the principle of popular sovereignty, the people are the source of all political power, a clearly defined system of conducting free and fair elections is essential.
  • Public Participation: Democracies rarely survive without the active participation of the people. Health democracies enable and encourage the people to take part in their political and civic processes. 
  • Separation of Powers: Based on a suspicion of power concentrated in a single individual—like a king—or group, the constitutions of most democracies provide that political powers be separated and shared among the various governmental entities.
  • Human Rights: Along with their constitutionally enumerated rights freedoms, democracies protect the human rights of all citizens. In this context, human rights are those rights considered inherent to all human beings, regardless of nationality, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other considerations.
  • A Rule of Law: Also called due process of law, the rule of law is the principle that all citizens are accountable to laws that are publicly created and equitably enforced in a manner consistent with human rights by an independent judicial system.

Types of Democracy

Throughout history, more types of democracy have been identified than there are countries in the world. According to social and political philosopher Jean-Paul Gagnon, more than 2,234 adjectives have been used to describe democracy. While many scholars refer to direct and representative as the most common of these, several other types of democracies can be found around the world today. While direct democracy is unique, most other recognized types of democracy are variants of representative democracy. These various types of democracy are generally descriptive of the particular values emphasized by the representative democracies that employ them.

Direct

Originated in Ancient Greece during the 5th century BCE, direct democracy, sometimes called “pure democracy,” is considered the oldest non-authoritarian form of government. In a direct democracy, all laws and public policy decisions are made directly by a majority vote of the people, rather than by the votes of their elected representatives.

Functionally possible only in small states, Switzerland is the only example of a direct democracy applied on a national level today. While Switzerland is no longer a true direct democracy, any law passed by the popularly elected national parliament can be vetoed by a direct vote of the public. Citizens can also change the constitution through direct votes on amendments. In the United States, examples of direct democracy can be found in state-level recall elections and lawmaking ballot initiatives.

Representative

Also called indirect democracy, representative democracy is a system of government in which all eligible citizens elect officials to pass laws and formulate public policy on their behalf. These elected officials are expected to represent the needs and viewpoints of the people in deciding the best course of action for the nation, state, or other jurisdiction as a whole.

As the most commonly found type of democracy in use today, almost 60% of all countries employ some form of representative democracy including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

Participatory

In a participatory democracy, the people vote directly on policy while their elected representatives are responsible for implementing those policies. Participatory democracies rely on the citizens in setting the direction of the state and the operation of its political systems. While the two forms of government share similar ideals, participatory democracies tend to encourage a higher, more direct form of citizen participation than traditional representative democracies.

While there are no countries specifically classified as participatory democracies, most representative democracies employ citizen participation as a tool for social and political reform. In the United States, for example, so-called “grassroots” citizen participation causes such as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s have led elected officials to enact laws implementing sweeping social, legal, and political policy changes.

Liberal

Liberal democracy is loosely defined as a form of representative democracy that emphasizes the principles of classical liberalism—an ideology advocating the protection of individual civil liberties and economic freedom by limiting the power of the government. Liberal democracies employ a constitution, either statutorily codified, as in the United States or uncodified, as in the United Kingdom, to define the powers of the government, provide for a separation of those powers, and enshrine the social contract.

Liberal democracies may take the form of a constitutional republic, like the United States, or a constitutional monarchy, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

Parliamentary

In a parliamentary democracy, the people directly elect representatives to a legislative parliament. Similar to the U.S. Congress, the parliament directly represents the people in making necessary laws and policy decisions for the country.

In parliamentary democracies such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Japan, the head of government is a prime minister, who is first elected to parliament by the people, then elected prime minister by a vote of the parliament. However, the prime minister remains a member of the parliament and thus plays an active role in the legislative process of creating and passing laws. Parliamentary democracies are typically a feature of a constitutional monarch, a system of government in which the head of state is a queen or king whose power is limited by a constitution.

Pluralist

Women’s rights march in New York.
Women’s rights march in New York. Stephanie Noritz/Getty Images

In a pluralist democracy, no single group dominates politics. Instead, organized groups within the people compete to influence public policy. In political science, the term pluralism expresses the ideology that influence should be spread among different interest groups, rather than held by a single elite group as in an aristocracy. Compared to participatory democracies, in which individuals take part in influencing political decisions, in a pluralist democracy, individuals work through groups formed around common causes hoping to win the support of elected leaders.

In this context, the pluralist democracy assumes that the government and the society as a whole benefit from a diversity of viewpoints. Examples of pluralist democracy can be seen in the impact special interest groups, such as the National Organization for Women, have had on American politics.

Constitutional

Elementary school teacher holds up a copy of the U.S. Constitution.
Elementary school teacher holds up a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

While the exact definition continues to be debated by political scientists, constitutional democracy is generally defined as a system of government based on popular sovereignty and a rule of law in which the structures, powers, and limits of government are established by a constitution. Constitutions are intended to restrict the power of the government, typically by separating those powers between the various branches of government, as in the United States’ constitution’s system of federalism. In a constitutional democracy, the constitution is considered to be the “supreme law of the land.”

Socialist

Democratic socialism is broadly defined as a system of government based on a socialist economy, in which most property and means of production are collectively, rather than individually, controlled by a constitutionally established political hierarchy—the government. Social democracy embraces government regulation of business and industry as a means of furthering economic growth while preventing income inequality.

While there are no purely socialist governments in the world today, elements of democratic socialism can be seen in Sweden’s provision of free universal health care, education, and sweeping social welfare programs. 

Is America a Democracy

Students holding buttons at voter registration drive.
Students holding buttons at voter registration drive. Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

While the word “democracy” does not appear in the United States Constitution, the document provides the basic elements of representative democracy: an electoral system based on majority rule, separation of powers, and a dependence on a rule of law. Also, America’s Founding Fathers used the word often when debating the form and function of the Constitution.  

However, a long-running debate over whether the United States is a democracy or a republic continues today. According to a growing number of political scientists and constitutional scholars, it is both—a “democratic republic.”

Similar to democracy, a republic is a form of government in which the country is governed by the elected representatives of the people. However, since the people do not govern the state themselves, but do so through their representatives, a republic is distinguished from direct democracy.

Professor Eugene Volokh of the UCLA School of Law argues that the governments of democratic republics embrace the principles shared by both republics and democracies. To illustrate his point, Volokh notes that in the United States, many decisions on local and state levels are made by the people through the process of direct democracy, while as in a republic, most decisions at the national level are made by democratically elected representatives.

Brief History

Archeological evidence suggests that disorganized practices at least resembling democracy existed in some parts of the world during prehistoric times, However, the concept of democracy as a form of populist civic engagement emerged during the 5th century BCE in the form of the political system used in some of the city-states of Ancient Greece, most notably Athens. At that time, and for the next several centuries, tribes or city-states remained small enough that if democracy was practiced at all, it took the form of direct democracy. As city-states grew into larger, more heavily populated sovereign nation-states or countries, direct democracy became unwieldy and slowly gave way to representative democracy. This massive change necessitated an entirely new set of political institutions such as legislatures, parliaments, and political parties all designed according to the size and cultural character of the city or country to be governed.

Until the 17th century, most legislatures consisted only of the entire body of citizens, as in Greece, or representatives selected from among a tiny oligarchy or an elite hereditary aristocracy. This began to change during the English Civil Wars from 1642 to 1651 when members of the radical Puritan reformation movement demanded expanded representation in Parliament and the universal right to vote for all male citizens. By the middle 1700s, as the power of the British Parliament grew, the first political parties—the Whigs and Tories—emerged. It soon became obvious that laws could not be passed or taxes levied without the support of the Whig or Tory party representatives in Parliament.

While the developments in the British Parliament showed the feasibility of a representative form of government, the first truly representative democracies emerged during the 1780s in the British colonies of North America and took its modern form with the formal adoption of the Constitution of the United States of America on March 4, 1789.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Desilver, Drew. “Despite global concerns about democracy, more than half of countries are democratic.” Pew Research Center, May 14, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/14/more-than-half-of-countries-are-democratic/.
  • Kapstein, Ethan B., and Converse, Nathan. “The Fate of Young Democracies.” Cambridge University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780511817809.
  • Diamond, Larry. “Democracy in Decline?” Johns Hopkins University Press, October 1, 2015, ISBN-10 1421418185.
  • Gagnon, Jean-Paul. “2,234 Descriptions of Democracy: An Update to Democracy's Ontological Pluralism.” Democratic Theory, vol. 5, no. 1, 2018.
  • Volokh, Eugene. “Is the United States of America a republic or a democracy?” The Washington Post, May 13, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/05/13/is-the-united-states-of-america-a-republic-or-a-democracy/. 
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Democracy? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Jun. 7, 2021, thoughtco.com/democracy-definition-and-examples-5084624. Longley, Robert. (2021, June 7). What Is Democracy? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/democracy-definition-and-examples-5084624 Longley, Robert. "What Is Democracy? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/democracy-definition-and-examples-5084624 (accessed October 17, 2021).