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> A democracy is a form of government in which ordinary citizens may take part in governing, in contrast with a monarchy or dictatorship. In contemporary usage, democracy is often understood to be the same as liberal democracy. This contemporary understanding of democracy differs from how the term was originally used by the ancient Greeks in the Athenian democracy political regime.

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to Liberalism
This article is part of the
series on Politics
Political philosophy
aristocracy, democracy,
monarchy, oligarchy,
and tyranny.
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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.

The word democracy originates from the Greek "demos" meaning "the people" and "kratein" meaning "to rule" or, literally: "the people to rule", which 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, but have no state independent of the people.

Modern democracy can be characterised by the following institutions:

Some summarize the definition of democracy as being "majority rule with minority rights."

Table of contents
1 Famous viewpoints on democracy
2 Pros and cons
3 Role of party
4 Elections as rituals
5 "Democracy" versus "republic"
6 See also
7 References
8 External links

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, but to quote Winston Churchill:

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."

Edmund Burke gives an opposing viewpoint:

"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's agreement with Aristotle is in reference to the fact that Aristotle called democracy one of three "evil" forms of government (the other two: ochlocracy and tyranny).

Further, people who believe, as does David Friedman, that any government will do more harm than good, naturally regard the issue of whether the best government is democratic as secondary, like the issue of how long is the horn of a unicorn.

Pros and cons

Traditionally the purpose of democracy is to prevent tyranny (the accumulation of too much authority in the hands of one or a few). That is, democracy is not necessarily intended to give us "good" government, but to put some limits to the abuse of power, and to ensure that any bad government can be deposed and replaced peacefully.

Nonetheless, many people think 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 take care to take into account the dissent of the minority, lest they ultimately are part of a minority on a future democratic decision.

While a clear improvement over tyranny, this potential threat of coercive power is still cause for concern. For this reason, some countries (such as the USA) have created constitutions that protect particular issues from majoritarian decision-making. Generally, changes in these constitutions require the agreement of a super-majority. This means a majority can still legitimately coerce a minority (which is still ethically questionable), but as a practical matter it is harder to get a larger proportion of the people to agree to such actions.

As well as constitutional protections for citizens' rights (such as the right to stay alive, express political opinions and form political organisations, independent and regardless of government approval); some electoral systems, such as the various forms of Proportional Representation, attempt to ensure that minorities are represented fairly and equally in the nation's legislative bodies, according to their proportion in the community. This differs from majoritarian forms of democracy that tend to give legislative power only to the two most popular political parties. This, proponents of PR often argue, results in more bitter partisanship and systemic discrimination against political minorities.

Role of party

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 he then is supposed to follow. One emerging problem with representative democracies is the increasing cost of political campaigns which lends the candidates to making deals with well heeled 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". However, it should be noted that the definition used to classify countries as "democratic" was crafted by Europeans and is directly influenced by the dominating cultures in those countries; care should be taken when applying it to other cultures that are tribal in nature and do not have the same historical background as the current "democratic" countries.

Elections as rituals

Elections are not a sufficient condition for the existence of democracy, in fact elections can be used by totalitarian regimes or dictatorships to give a false sense of democracy. Some examples are 1960s right-wing military dicatorships in South America, left-wing totalitarian states like the USSR until 1991.

Even the form and rituals associated with elections seem to make a genuinely democratic transition of power possible with much less violence and turmoil than if democratic mechanisms are simply put in place to replace a strict dictatorship - many such countries, e.g. Revolutionary France or modern Uganda or Iran, have simply lapsed back into at best limited democracy until the political maturity and education exists to support real majority rule.

Tyranny of the majority

When there is a very broad and inclusive franchise, but also on some issues with only a few elite voters, majority rule often gives rise to a fear of so-called "tyranny of the majority," i.e. fear of a majority empowered to do anything it wanted to an adversary minority. For example, it is theoretically possible for a majority to vote that a certain religion should be criminalized, and its members punished with death.

Proponents of democracy argue that just as there is a special constitutional process for constitutional changes, there could be a distinction between legislation which would be handled through direct democracy and the modification of constitutional rights which would have a more deliberative procedure there attached, and thereby less vulnerable to the tyranny of the majority.

"Democracy" versus "republic"

The definition of the word "democracy" from the time of old Greece up to now has not been constant. In contemporary usage, the term "democracy" refers to a government chosen by the people, whether it be direct or representative.

There is another definition of democracy, particularly in constitutional theory and in historical usages and especially when considering the works of Aristotle or the American "Founding Fathers." Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle never used the words democracy or republic interchangeably. See classical definition of republic. According to this definition, the word "democracy" refers solely to direct democracy, whilst a representative democracy is referred to as a "republic". This older terminology also has 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.)

See also


External links