Democracy is an ancient Greek word meaning the rule (kratos) of the people (demos). It refers primarily to a form of government in which political decisions are made by a majority of the citizens (direct democracy) or their elected representatives (representative democracy). Democracy also signifies a country, society, or culture that possesses or tends toward a democratic form of government. Thus one might say that the future states of America knew democracy before officially gaining independence from the British Empire.
Varieties of democracy and of democratic theory abound, but a remarkable consensus exists as to the value of democracy: To call a country democratic today is virtually synonymous with saying its government is legitimate. Since World War II, almost all countries, however authoritarian, have called themselves democratic and have held elections—even if fraudulent—to maintain this reputation.
Direct democracy requires a small and close-knit society and is generally associated with historical polities, such as ancient Athens or the Italian city-states of the Renaissance, though it also survives today in town meetings and plebiscites, such as referenda, initiatives, and recalls. Most democracies now use representation, which is organized according to one or a mixture of two models. In presidential systems such as the one used in the United States, government is divided into branches— legislative, executive, and sometimes judicial— separately elected or appointed, with distinct but overlapping responsibilities and powers. This produces a system of “checks and balances” in which different representations of the popular will struggle to prevail or achieve compromise in public policy. Parliamentary systems such as Great Britain’s instead give the bulk of effective powers to a single branch—the “lower” or popular branch of the legislature—with executive and judicial authority subordinated to its membership and laws, respectively. This tends to facilitate the formation of centralized, energetic administrations that founder only when public opinion demonstrably turns against them or when intraparliamentary alliances and loyalties fail.
From the first accounts of democracy in ancient Greece, the concept has been associated with the claim to equal freedom on the part of each member of the demos, or qualified citizenry. The meaning and social impact of democracy thus changes with the definition of citizenship. Factors such as race, gender, age, education, and economic condition have historically been applied to limit political participation and its concomitants, now referred to as civil liberties. Today the prevailing tendency is to enfranchise all adults, with some exceptions; for instance, in the United States resident aliens and felons may not vote, there are minimum ages for political office, and only natural-born citizens may run for president.
The concepts of equal freedom and majority rule are not perfectly congruent, as citizens who tend to be in the minority need not be treated fairly by democratic majorities. Examples include those whose race, ethnicity, religion, or way of life gives them interests truly or seemingly contrary to those of their fellows, a problem long noted. Aristotle and the American founders both warned, for example, that unrestrained majorities might seek to use government to divest the wealthy of their property and redistribute it to the people, undermining the economic system upon which politics relies. Political philosophers have insisted on the distinction between the good of the majority and the good of all; when the former supplants the latter, it is often called the “tyranny of the majority.”
Solutions to majority tyranny are numerous but entail two broad strategies. Classical political philosophy sought to curb the excesses of the democratic faction by recommending a mixed regime—one in which government is divided among offices representing members of the various social classes. The modern approach eschews any institutional recognition of class, relying instead on various procedural mechanisms to guard against majority tyranny. These include (a) requiring a supermajority or qualified majority vote on certain important measures, (b) the aforementioned checks and balances among branches or levels of government, (c) the concept of enumerated powers outside of which government may not act, (d) proportional representation of various groups within society, and (e) the provision of individual rights, which the government may be barred from infringing. Governments that employ such strategies to protect minority interests are often referred to as liberal democracies.
Most democracies today are liberal democracies, and it could be argued that the spirit that animates them is as much liberal (focused on individual rights) as democratic (focused on majority rule). When U.S. leaders speak of promoting democracy in the Middle East, for example, they are thinking of government with constitutional protections for women and ethnic and religious minorities, not of regimes such as that of Iran, an Islamic Republic in which key offices are elected, but Shi’a Islam is the official religion, and councils of clerics apply Islamic law to legislative, executive, and judicial decisions. Liberal democracy, by contrast, is generally thought to be incompatible with an establishment of religion or legal restrictions on the religious beliefs of individuals.
One consequence of the focus on liberal democracy has been the gradual enhancement of the power of courts in deciding political issues. The United States pioneered this trend when its Supreme Court claimed the power of judicial review: the ability to negate laws or governmental acts that, in the Court’s judgment, conflict with the Constitution. Originally, this power was defended by noting that laws passed by popular representatives are subordinate to the Constitution, embraced as a “higher law” by a supermajority of eligible citizens at the time of its ratification (the same applying to subsequent amendments). Today, the Court argues more broadly that modern democracy implies the “rule of law,” including vital but indeterminate constitutional rights, and that as the final interpreter of these rights, the Supreme Court serves an indispensable function within democracy. In the United States and elsewhere, this trend has empowered courts vis-a-vis elected officials.
- 1984. Politics. Translated and edited by Carnes Lord. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Tocqueville, Alexis de. 2000. Democracy in America.
- Translated and edited by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Zakaria, Fareed. 2004. The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy, at Home and Abroad. New York: Norton.
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