Compared to dictatorships, oligarchies, monarchies and aristocracies, in which the people have little or no say in who is elected and how the government is run, a democracy is often said to be the most challenging form of government, as input from those representing citizens determines the direction of the country. The basic definition of democracy in its purest form comes from the Greek language: The term means “rule by the people.” But democracy is defined in many ways — a fact that has caused much disagreement among those leading various democracies as to how best to run one.
The Greeks and Romans established the precursors to today’s modern democracy. The three main branches of Athenian democracy were the Assembly of the Demos, the Council of 500 and the People’s Court. Assembly and the Council were responsible for legislation, along with ad hoc boards of “lawmakers.”
Democracy also has roots in the Magna Carta, England's "Great Charter" of 1215 that was the first document to challenge the authority of the king, subjecting him to the rule of the law and protecting his people from feudal abuse.
Democracy as we know it today was not truly defined until the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, during which time the U.S. Declaration of Independence was penned, followed by the U.S. Constitution (which borrowed heavily from the Magna Carta). The term evolved to mean a government structured with a separation of powers, provided basic civil rights, religious freedom and separation of church and state.
Types of democracies
Parliamentary democracy, a democratic form of government in which the party, or coalition of parties, with the largest representation in the legislature (parliament), was originated in Britain. There are two styles of parliamentary government. The bicameral system consists of a “lower” house, which is elected, and an “upper” house can be elected or appointed.
In a parliamentary democracy, the leader of the leading party becomes the prime minister or chancellor and leads the country. Once the leading party falls out of favor, the party that takes control installs its leader as prime minister or chancellor.
In the 1790s to 1820s, Jeffersonian democracy was one of two philosophies of governing to dominate the U.S. political scene. The term typically refers to the ideology of the Democratic-Republican party, which Thomas Jefferson formed to oppose Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist party, which was the first American political party. The Jeffersonian outlook believed in equality of political opportunity for all male citizens, while Federalists political platform emphasized fiscal responsibility in government.
Jacksonian democracy, lead by Andrew Jackson, was a political movement that emphasized the needs of the common man rather than the elite and educated favored by the Jeffersonian style of government.
This period from the mid 1830s to 1854, is also referred to the Second Party System. The Democratic-Republican Party of the Jeffersonians became factionalized in the 1820s. Jackson’s supporters formed the modern Democratic Party. Adams and Anti-Jacksonian factions soon emerged as the Whigs. This era gave rise to partisan newspapers, political rallies and fervent party loyalty.
Democracies can be classified as liberal and social. Liberal democracies, also known as constitutional democracies, are built on the principles of free and fair elections, a competitive political process and universal suffrage. Liberal democracies can take on the form of constitution republics, such as France, India, Germany, Italy and the United States, or a constitutional monarchy such as Japan, Spain or the U.K.
Social democracy, which emerged in the late 19th century, advocates universal access to education, health care, workers’ compensation, and other services such as child care and care for the elderly. Unlike others on the left, such as Marxists, who sought to challenge the capitalist system more fundamentally, social democrats aimed to reform capitalism with state regulation.
The U.S. political system today is primarily a two-party system, dominated by Democrats and Republicans. The country has been a two-party system for more than a century, although independents such as Ralph Nader and Ross Perot have sought to challenge the two-party system in recent years.
There are three branches of government: the executive branch (president); legislative branch (Congress); and judicial branch (Supreme Court). These branches provide checks and balances to, in theory, prevent abuses of power. Control of Congress can be in the hands of one party or split, depending on which party is in the majority in the Senate and, separately, the House of Representatives.
For a democracy that protects the rights of the individual, see Liberal democracy. For other uses, see Democracy (disambiguation) and Democrat (disambiguation).
Democracy (Greek: δημοκρατίαdēmokratía, literally "rule of the people"), in modern usage, is a system of government in which the citizens exercise power directly or elect representatives from among themselves to form a governing body, such as a parliament. Democracy is sometimes referred to as "rule of the majority". Democracy is a system of processing conflicts in which outcomes depend on what participants do, but no single force controls what occurs and its outcomes.
The uncertainty of outcomes is inherent in democracy, which makes all forces struggle repeatedly for the realization of their interests, being the devolution of power from a group of people to a set of rules. Western democracy, as distinct from that which existed in pre-modern societies, is generally considered to have originated in city states such as Classical Athens and the Roman Republic, where various schemes and degrees of enfranchisement of the free male population were observed before the form disappeared in the West at the beginning of late antiquity. The English word dates to the 16th century, from the older Middle French and Middle Latin equivalents.
According to political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens; a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
The term appeared in the 5th century BC, to denote the political systems then existing in Greek city-states, notably Athens, to mean "rule of the people", in contrast to aristocracy (ἀριστοκρατία, aristokratía), meaning "rule of an elite". While theoretically these definitions are in opposition, in practice the distinction has been blurred historically. The political system of Classical Athens, for example, granted democratic citizenship to free men and excluded slaves and women from political participation. In 1906, Finland became the first government to herald a more inclusive democracy at the national level. In virtually all democratic governments throughout ancient and modern history, democratic citizenship consisted of an elite class until full enfranchisement was won for all adult citizens in most modern democracies through the suffrage movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Democracy contrasts with forms of government where power is either held by an individual, as in an absolute monarchy, or where power is held by a small number of individuals, as in an oligarchy. Nevertheless, these oppositions, inherited from Greek philosophy, are now ambiguous because contemporary governments have mixed democratic, oligarchic, and monarchic elements. Karl Popper defined democracy in contrast to dictatorship or tyranny, thus focusing on opportunities for the people to control their leaders and to oust them without the need for a revolution.
No consensus exists on how to define democracy, but legal equality, political freedom and rule of law have been identified as important characteristics. These principles are reflected in all eligible citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to legislative processes. For example, in a representative democracy, every vote has equal weight, no unreasonable restrictions can apply to anyone seeking to become a representative,[according to whom?] and the freedom of its eligible citizens is secured by legitimised rights and liberties which are typically protected by a constitution. Other uses of "democracy" include that of direct democracy.
One theory holds that democracy requires three fundamental principles: upward control (sovereignty residing at the lowest levels of authority), political equality, and social norms by which individuals and institutions only consider acceptable acts that reflect the first two principles of upward control and political equality.
The term "democracy" is sometimes used as shorthand for liberal democracy, which is a variant of representative democracy that may include elements such as political pluralism; equality before the law; the right to petition elected officials for redress of grievances; due process; civil liberties; human rights; and elements of civil society outside the government.Roger Scruton argues that democracy alone cannot provide personal and political freedom unless the institutions of civil society are also present.
In some countries, notably in the United Kingdom which originated the Westminster system, the dominant principle is that of parliamentary sovereignty, while maintaining judicial independence. In the United States, separation of powers is often cited as a central attribute. In India, parliamentary sovereignty is subject to the Constitution of India which includes judicial review. Though the term "democracy" is typically used in the context of a political state, the principles also are applicable to private organisations.
Majority rule is often listed as a characteristic of democracy. Hence, democracy allows for political minorities to be oppressed by the "tyranny of the majority" in the absence of legal protections of individual or group rights. An essential part of an "ideal" representative democracy is competitive elections that are substantively and procedurally "fair," i.e., just and equitable. In some countries, freedom of political expression, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and internet democracy are considered important to ensure that voters are well informed, enabling them to vote according to their own interests.
It has also been suggested that a basic feature of democracy is the capacity of all voters to participate freely and fully in the life of their society. With its emphasis on notions of social contract and the collective will of all the voters, democracy can also be characterised as a form of political collectivism because it is defined as a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in lawmaking.
While representative democracy is sometimes equated with the republican form of government, the term "republic" classically has encompassed both democracies and aristocracies. Many democracies are constitutional monarchies, such as the United Kingdom.
Main article: History of democracy
See also: Athenian democracy
The term "democracy" first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens during classical antiquity. The word comes from demos, "common people" and kratos, strength. Led by Cleisthenes, Athenians established what is generally held as the first democracy in 508–507 BC. Cleisthenes is referred to as "the father of Athenian democracy."
Athenian democracy took the form of a direct democracy, and it had two distinguishing features: the random selection of ordinary citizens to fill the few existing government administrative and judicial offices, and a legislative assembly consisting of all Athenian citizens. All eligible citizens were allowed to speak and vote in the assembly, which set the laws of the city state. However, Athenian citizenship excluded women, slaves, foreigners (μέτοικοι / métoikoi), non-landowners, and men under 20 years of age.[contradictory] The exclusion of large parts of the population from the citizen body is closely related to the ancient understanding of citizenship. In most of antiquity the benefit of citizenship was tied to the obligation to fight war campaigns.
Athenian democracy was not only direct in the sense that decisions were made by the assembled people, but also the most direct in the sense that the people through the assembly, boule and courts of law controlled the entire political process and a large proportion of citizens were involved constantly in the public business. Even though the rights of the individual were not secured by the Athenian constitution in the modern sense (the ancient Greeks had no word for "rights"), the Athenians enjoyed their liberties not in opposition to the government but by living in a city that was not subject to another power and by not being subjects themselves to the rule of another person.
Range voting appeared in Sparta as early as 700 BC. The Apella was an assembly of the people, held once a month, in which every male citizen of at least 30 years of age could participate. In the Apella, Spartans elected leaders and cast votes by range voting and shouting. Aristotle called this "childish", as compared with the stone voting ballots used by the Athenians. Sparta adopted it because of its simplicity, and to prevent any bias voting, buying, or cheating that was predominant in the early democratic elections.
Even though the Roman Republic contributed significantly to many aspects of democracy, only a minority of Romans were citizens with votes in elections for representatives. The votes of the powerful were given more weight through a system of gerrymandering, so most high officials, including members of the Senate, came from a few wealthy and noble families. In addition, the Roman Republic was the first government in the western world to have a Republic as a nation-state, although it didn't have much of a democracy. The Romans invented the concept of classics and many works from Ancient Greece were preserved. Additionally, the Roman model of governance inspired many political thinkers over the centuries, and today's modern representative democracies imitate more the Roman than the Greek models because it was a state in which supreme power was held by the people and their elected representatives, and which had an elected or nominated leader. Other cultures, such as the Iroquois Nation in the Americas between around 1450 and 1600 AD also developed a form of democratic society before they came in contact with the Europeans. This indicates that forms of democracy may have been invented in other societies around the world.
During the Middle Ages, there were various systems involving elections or assemblies, although often only involving a small part of the population. These included:
- the Frostating, Gulating, Eidsivating and Borgarting in Norway,
- the Althing in Iceland,
- the Løgting in the Faeroe Islands,
- the election of Uthman in the Rashidun Caliphate,
- the South Indian Kingdom of the Chola in the state of Tamil Nadu in the Indian Subcontinent had an electoral system at 920 A.D., about 1100 years ago,
- Carantania, old Slavic/Slovenian principality, the Ducal Inauguration from 7th to 15th century,
- the upper-caste election of the Gopala in the Bengal region of the Indian Subcontinent,
- the Holy Roman Empire's Hoftag and Imperial Diets (mostly Nobles and Clergy),
- Frisia in the 10th–15th Century (Weight of vote based on landownership)
- the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (10% of population),
- certain medieval Italian city-states such as Venice, Genoa, Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Amalfi, Siena and San Marino
- the Cortes of León,
- the tuatha system in early medieval Ireland,
- the Veche in Novgorod and Pskov Republics of medieval Russia,
- The States in Tirol and Switzerland,
- the autonomous merchant city of Sakai in the 16th century in Japan,
- Volta-Nigeric societies such as Igbo.
- the Mekhk-Khel system of the Nakh peoples of the North Caucasus, by which representatives to the Council of Elders for each teip (clan) were popularly elected by that teip's members.
- The 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh ji (Nanak X) established the world's first Sikh democratic republic state ending the aristocracy on day of 1st Vasakh 1699 and Gurbani as sole constitution of this Sikh republic on the Indian subcontinent.
Most regions in medieval Europe were ruled by clergy or feudal lords.
The Kouroukan Fouga divided the Mali Empire into ruling clans (lineages) that were represented at a great assembly called the Gbara. However, the charter made Mali more similar to a constitutional monarchy than a democratic republic.
The Parliament of England had its roots in the restrictions on the power of kings written into Magna Carta (1215), which explicitly protected certain rights of the King's subjects and implicitly supported what became the English writ of habeas corpus, safeguarding individual freedom against unlawful imprisonment with right to appeal. The first representative national assembly in England was Simon de Montfort's Parliament in 1265. The emergence of petitioning is some of the earliest evidence of parliament being used as a forum to address the general grievances of ordinary people. However, the power to call parliament remained at the pleasure of the monarch.
Early modern period
In 17th century England, there was renewed interest in Magna Carta. The Parliament of England passed the Petition of Right in 1628 which established certain liberties for subjects. The English Civil War (1642–1651) was fought between the King and an oligarchic but elected Parliament, during which the idea of a political party took form with groups debating rights to political representation during the Putney Debates of 1647. Subsequently, the Protectorate (1653-59) and the English Restoration (1660) restored more autocratic rule, although Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Act in 1679 which strengthened the convention that forbade detention lacking sufficient cause or evidence. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Bill of Rights was enacted in 1689 which codified certain rights and liberties, and is still in effect. The Bill set out the requirement for regular elections, rules for freedom of speech in Parliament and limited the power of the monarch, ensuring that, unlike much of Europe at the time, royal absolutism would not prevail.
In the Cossack republics of Ukraine in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Cossack Hetmanate and Zaporizhian Sich, the holder of the highest post of Hetman was elected by the representatives from the country's districts.
In North America, representative government began in Jamestown, Virginia, with the election of the House of Burgesses (forerunner of the Virginia General Assembly) in 1619. English Puritans who migrated from 1620 established colonies in New England whose local governance was democratic and which contributed to the democratic development of the United States; although these local assemblies had some small amounts of devolved power, the ultimate authority was held by the Crown and the English Parliament. The Puritans (Pilgrim Fathers), Baptists, and Quakers who founded these colonies applied the democratic organisation of their congregations also to the administration of their communities in worldly matters.
18th and 19th centuries
The first Parliament of Great Britain was established in 1707, after the merger of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland under the Acts of Union. Although the monarch increasingly became a figurehead, only a small minority actually had a voice; Parliament was elected by only a few percent of the population (less than 3% as late as 1780). During the Age of Liberty in Sweden (1718–1772), civil rights were expanded and power shifted from the monarch to parliament. The taxed peasantry was represented in parliament, although with little influence, but commoners without taxed property had no suffrage.
The creation of the short-lived Corsican Republic in 1755 marked the first nation in modern history to adopt a democratic constitution (all men and women above age of 25 could vote). This Corsican Constitution was the first based on Enlightenment principles and included female suffrage, something that was not granted in most other democracies until the 20th century.
In the American colonial period before 1776, and for some time after, often only adult white male property owners could vote; enslaved Africans, most free black people and most women were not extended the franchise. On the American frontier, democracy became a way of life, with more widespread social, economic and political equality. Although not described as a democracy by the founding fathers, they shared a determination to root the American experiment in the principles of natural freedom and equality.
The American Revolution led to the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1787, the oldest surviving, still active, governmental codified constitution. The Constitution provided for an elected government and protected civil rights and liberties for some, but did not end slavery nor extend voting rights in the United States beyond white male property owners (about 6% of the population). The Bill of Rights in 1791 set limits on government power to protect personal freedoms but had little impact on judgements by the courts for the first 130 years after ratification.
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 men in 1792. However, in the early 19th century, little of democracy – as theory, practice, or even as word – remained in the North Atlantic world.
During this period, slavery remained a social and economic institution in places around the world. This was particularly the case in the United States, and especially in the last fifteen slave states that kept slavery legal in the American South until the Civil War. A variety of organisations were established advocating the movement of black people from the United States to locations where they would enjoy greater freedom and equality.
The United Kingdom's Slave Trade Act 1807 banned the trade across the British Empire, which was enforced internationally by the Royal Navy under treaties Britain negotiated with other nations. As the voting franchise in the U.K. was increased, it also was made more uniform in a series of reforms beginning with the Reform Act 1832. In 1833, the United Kingdom passed the Slavery Abolition Act which took effect across the British Empire.
Universal male suffrage was established in France in March 1848 in the wake of the French Revolution of 1848. In 1848, several revolutions broke out in Europe as rulers were confronted with popular demands for liberal constitutions and more democratic government.
In the 1860 United States Census, the slave population in the United States had grown to four million, and in Reconstruction after the Civil War (late 1860s), the newly freed slaves became citizens with a nominal right to vote for men. Full enfranchisement of citizens was not secured until after the Civil Rights Movement gained passage by the United States Congress of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
20th and 21st centuries
20th-century transitions to liberal democracy have come in successive "waves of democracy", variously resulting from wars, revolutions, decolonisation, and religious and economic circumstances. Global waves of "democratic regression" reversing democratization, have also occurred in the 1920s and 30s, in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the 2010s.
World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires resulted in the creation of new nation-states from Europe, most of them at least nominally democratic.
In the 1920s democracy flourished and women's suffrage advanced, but the Great Depression brought disenchantment and most of the countries of Europe, Latin America, and Asia turned to strong-man rule or dictatorships. Fascism and dictatorships flourished in Nazi Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as well as non-democratic governments in the Baltics, the Balkans, Brazil, Cuba, China, and Japan, among others.
World War II brought a definitive reversal of this trend in western Europe. The democratisation of the American, British, and French sectors of occupied Germany (disputed), Austria, Italy, and the occupied Japan served as a model for the later theory of government change. However, most of Eastern Europe, including the Soviet sector of Germany fell into the non-democratic Soviet bloc.
The war was followed by decolonisation, and again most of the new independent states had nominally democratic constitutions. India emerged as the world's largest democracy and continues to be so. Countries that were once part of the British Empire often adopted the British Westminster system.
By 1960, the vast majority of country-states were nominally democracies, although most 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 (1974), and several of the military dictatorships in South America returned to civilian rule in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Argentina in 1983, Bolivia, Uruguay in 1984, Brazil in 1985, and Chile in the early 1990s). This was followed by nations in East and South Asia by the mid-to-late 1980s.
Economic malaise in the 1980s, along with resentment of Soviet 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. In 1986, after the toppling of the most prominent Asian dictatorship, the only democratic state of its kind at the time emerged in the Philippines with the rise of Corazon Aquino, who would later be known as the Mother of Asian Democracy.