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A democracy is a form of government in which the people, either directly or
indirectly, take part in governing. The word democracy originates from
Greek, "demos" meaning "the people" and "kratein" meaning "to rule" or "the
people to rule" which meant literally: "Rule by the People."
Democratic governments can be divided into different types, based on a
number of different distinctions. One such distinction is that between
"direct" and "indirect" democracy.
A direct democracy is a political system in which all citizens are allowed
to influence policy by means of a direct vote, or referendum, on any
Proponents of direct democracy contend that it is good because it devolves
power. Because direct democracy disperses power throughout many people,
policy decisions are likely to be made for the benefit of the majority, not
for the benefit of factions or those who hold power.
The traditional, and to many still compelling, objection to democracy as a
form of government, and to direct democracy in particular, is that it is
open to demagoguery. Another objection to direct democracy is that of
practicality and efficiency. Deciding all or most matters of public
importance by direct referendum is slow and expensive, and can result in
public apathy and voter fatigue.
Indirect democracy is a broad term describing a means of governance by the
people through elected representatives. One critique of indirect democracy
is that it centralizes power into the hands of a few, thereby increasing the
likelihood of corruption in government. Moreover, while some contend
indirect democracy eliminates demagoguery, there is little reason to believe
the elected representatives are not themselves demagogues, or subject to the
persuasive appeal of demagogues
A form of indirect democracy is delegative democracy. In delegative
democracy, delegates are selected and expected to act on the wishes of the
constituency. In this form of democracy the constituency may recall the
delegate at any time. Representatives are expected only to transmit the
decisions of electors, advance their views, and if they fail to do so they
are subject to immediate representative recall with only minimal process.
The more familiar representative democracy is a system in which the people
elect government officials who then make decisions on their behalf.
Essentially, a representative democracy is a form of indirect democracy in
which representatives are democratically selected, and usually harder to recall.
A doctrine often known as Edmund Burke's Principle states that
representatives should act upon their own conscience in the affairs of a
representative democracy. This is contrasted to the expectation that such
representatives should consider the views of their electors - an expectation
particularly common in States with strong constituency links, or with
representative recall provisions (such as modern British Columbia).
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 no have the same historical background as the
current "democratic" countries.
Right to vote and to candidate
One important issue in a democracy is the limitations on rights to candidate
and on suffrage or franchise - that is the decision as to who ought to be
entitled to vote. In the Athenian democracy, slaves and women were
prohibited from voting. These, and racial prohibitions, have been common in
democracies. Often they are closely connected to legal personhood issues.
A recent example of how the "right to vote" changed over history is New
Zealand, which was the first country to give women the right to vote
(September 19, 1893), however not the right to be elected. Women voting and
participating in politics in Europe and the Americas is, largely, a 20th
Gender equity has been recognized in other ways in other societies, however.
The Iroquois Confederacy gave a strong political role to women as far back
as its origins in the 12th century, although as in 19th century New Zealand,
this was expressed as support for a specific male, not the right to sit in
council. However, they like many Native American societies recognized
rituals to allow post-menopausal or powerful widowed women to assume the
role of a man - it is likely that at some point in its long history, the
Confederacy permitted a full and formal role to women using some such
provision. Records and dates are however incomplete.
There are more limited alternative voting and official appointing systems
that claim to be democratic. Some one-party states such as the People's
Republic of China apply a limited form of disapproval voting that has the
effect of signalling the acceptance of those promoted into new posts, who do
not generally rise futher if they do not receive very high (over 80%) acceptance.
Under perestroika, shortly before its collapse, the Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics under Mikhail Gorbachev implemented reforms to allow
multiple candidates, all from the local Communist Party, to run aganst each
other. Such methods are not generally considered to provide equivalent
political expression to a right to replace the entire top level of
governments at once, as occurs in a multi-party system.
Another means of limited democracy is that practiced in the Islamic Republic
of Iran, where the right to run as a candidate is controlled by the
religious authorities, who exclude among others the Communist Party and the
Green Party of Iran. Recent elections in Iran have suffered from very low
In the United States of America, restrictions on right to vote due to
property ownership or lack thereof and literacy were common until the Civil
Rights Act of 1965. Today all but a few states deny the right to vote to
those who have suffered a felony conviction at any point in their past.
In the European Union every citizen has the right to participate in the
elections of the European Parliament. However, not every vote is counted
equally: Voters from bigger countries are significantly underrepresented
relative to voters from smaller countries. E.g., a vote from Luxembourg
carries 12 times as much weight as does a vote from Germany.
No broad franchise has ever come into existence on its own in any country -
all democracies in effect come into existence with a limited, elite,
franchise, that only over time comes available to everyone, e.g. as in the
Republic of South Africa.
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
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.
Scaling to global Democracy
Direct democracy becomes more and more difficult, and necessarily more
closely approximates representative democracy, as the number of citizens
grows. Historically, the most direct democracies would include the New
England town meeting, the political system of the ancient Greek city states
and Oligarchy of Venice.
There are concerns about how such systems would scale to larger populations,
in this subject there are a number of experiences being conducted all over
the world to increase the direct participation of citizens in what is now a
* simpol.org - an elegant plan to limit global competition and facilitate
the emergence of a sustainable, sane global civilization.
* ni4d.us - the National Initiative for Democracy to legalize U.S.
* majorityvoice.com ~ a non-partisan local/global digital system of
* Porto Alegre, Brazil
* Bologna, Italy
Referenda and semi-direct democracy
We can view direct and indirect democracies as ideal types, with actual
democracies approximating more closely to the one or the other, and such
alternatives as semi-direct democracy in between.
Some modern political entities are closest to direct democracies, such as
Switzerland or some U.S. States, where frequent use is made of referenda,
and means are provided for referenda to be initiated by petition instead of
by members of the legislature or the government.
"Democracy" versus "Republic"
The definition of the word "democracy" from the time of old Greece up to now
has not been constant. According to most political scientists today (and
most common English speakers), 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." 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
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.)
Alternative models of democracy
Some believe that the distinction between direct and representative, or
betwen broadly franchised majority rule, and more limited supervision of
police and military primarily engaged in defending property rights, are not
as important as the actual process by which decision making occurs. Some
further consider the adversarial process implied by legalist mechanisms,
e.g. Supreme Court challenges, election campaigns themselves, political
party structures, to often obscure the larger opportunities the public may
have, or the long-term dangers they may face, which are not amenable to the
kind of quick-retort interplay that characterizes both direct and
representative mans of governing. Some of the models that are proposed to
reform it include:
* anticipatory democracy which relies on some degree of disciplined and
usually market-informed anticipation of the future, to guide major
* deliberative democracy which focuses on hearing out every policy
alternative, from every direction, and providing time to research them
* grassroots democracy emphasizing trust in small decentralized units at
the municipal government level, possibly using urban secession to
establish the formal legal authority to make decisions made at this
local level binding
* participatory democracy which involves consensus decision making and
offers greater political representation, e.g. wider control of proxies
others trust them with, to those who get directly involved and actually
There are also debates about street democracy and electoral reform which
emphasize the more local and situated means by which the public comes to
know the issues, and directly encounter the consequences of making major
decisions. Some of these debates overlap with those about truth, anarchism,
and th role of tolerances versus preferences in making major public decisions.