Democracy: what is it? definition and characteristics
Democracy: This article explains the concept of democracy in a practical way. The article includes the definition of the term, followed by information about its origin and important points to consider in this topic. You will then read all about challenges for democracy in 2023 and beyond. Enjoy reading!
What is Democracy?
Democracy is a form of government in which the people are given the power to decide on legislation (direct democracy), or where elected representatives are chosen to do so (representative democracy). The representative form, or indirect democracy, is the dominant form today, which is found in most Western countries. The representative form can also take on several forms, such as a parliamentary democracy, like in the Netherlands with political parties and the House of Representatives, or a presidential democracy, like in the United States.
The concept of democracy comes from the ancient Greek. Demos means people, and kratos means power. The word democracy thus translates to power of the people. Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “of the people, by the people, for the people”.
Democracy differs from, for example, autocracy, dictatorship and oligarchy. In these forms of government, 1 or a small group of people decides on all matters of government.
Democracy also does not mean that the will of the majority must always be accepted, if that means completely ignoring the interests and wishes of minorities. A democracy stands for government on behalf of all people, including minorities.
In a liberal democracy, the powers of the majority are exercised within a representative democracy, but the constitution limits the majority and protects the minority through individual rights, like freedom of speech.
Characteristics of Democracy
Democracy has changed a lot over time. Agreements between countries that have this form of government are often freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, political freedom, legal equality, rule of law and rights to property.
The term was coined in the 5th century BC, in Athens, Greece. Rule by the people, as opposed to rule by the elite, did not then mean that all citizens could vote. In Athenian democracy, there was such a thing as democratic citizenship: only the elite class could decide who would conduct government affairs.
Initially, the system consisted of an elite class of citizens. Only later was this extended to a right to vote for all adult citizens. First only men, then women too. That was achieved through efforts by suffrage movements in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Fundamental questions regarding the form of democracy
The term democracy is so old that people have been thinking about the problems surrounding this form of government for many centuries. For example, when is a unit suited for this form of government? Should this be organized at the village level? Or at city level? Or on a larger scale, for example a country? Should organizations be managed in this way? Or a university?
Once the above question has been answered, the next question arises: who should be included in the board? Is that everyone? Can children participate in decision-making? Or only adults? Are all adults suitable for decision-making? And if it concerns a small subset of adults, how large should this group be?
The next question is then how should the members of these groups govern? Which organizations do they need for this? How are differences between members of the groups handled? And are there actually major differences between a small village or a large country when it comes to administrative law issues?
Citizens often disagree on many issues. Then the next question arises: which points of view are more important than the others? And do circumstances still matter? Should the majority always be right? Or should minorities also be heard? Or should they sometimes be given power? Or is a veto an option?
By default, the majority has the upper hand, who is that majority? Are those all citizens? Or only voters? Should a majority be made up of citizens? Or from groups or associations of citizens?
As soon as a democracy has existed for a long time, other, more fundamental questions arise. Such as: should the people actually rule? Can they do that better than monarchs? Is a democracy actually better than, say, an aristocracy? Plato, a well-known Greek philosopher, said that the best government is led by a minority of the most qualified persons. In reality, that amounts to an aristocracy of philosophers.
Challenges to democracy in 2023 and beyond
Democracy in many countries is under increasing pressure. This is the conclusion of the Weatherhead Research Cluster on Global Populism to Democracy. This institution focuses on the various threats to democracy faced by countries worldwide. The aim is to foster conversations between countries and scholars to develop more and more and to protect established democracies, including those in America, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, many policymakers and experts believed that authoritarianism was on the decline. Not only is authoritarianism alive and well in Russia, China and certain parts of the population in Central Asia today, much of the Middle East, Venezuela, Thailand, the Philippines, Poland and Turkey are also the subject of conversation. The topic in this context is often: can democracies today survive?
But why is democracy actually under pressure? To answer this question, we need to look at some current issues.
1. Increasing polarization
Polarization is the process in which contradictions between groups in societies become increasingly stronger, resulting in these groups becoming more opposed to each other. Some polarization is often healthy for a democracy, because it is a result of freedoms. However, intense polarization is not healthy. It is one of the main reasons for democratic decline in new and existing democracies. Political opponents are increasingly seeing each other as enemies, allowing the establishment to abuse norms to keep the opposition in check.
The question is how to overcome this intense polarization. Some see the answer in institutional reform, others emphasize the importance of reforming economic and social norms.
Immigration is another major challenge for democracies. Making multi-ethnic societies function properly appears to be a complex matter. The growing ethnic diversity reinforces polarization due to the fact that there are more contradictions between citizens. This leads to political challenges. Right-wing political parties see this polarization as an opportunity to gain more influence. Left-wing parties see their chances of maintaining the welfare state diminishing.
Economic inequality driven by global economic forces is also endangering the viability of democracies worldwide. It examines how shifts in the global economy have caused this and how this can be tackled. The idea is that it is precisely these shifts that cause polarization.
4. Institutional reforms
Another question is whether institutional reforms can solve some of the problems nations are facing. Many of the Western democracies are based on constitutions and electoral systems whose origins lie far in the past. The fact that these democratic systems and institutions are so old is a point of pride for many citizens. Think, for example, of Americans and the Constitution.
The idea is that existing democratic institutions may no longer be suitable for the challenges that need to be dealt with today. That is why scientists and other experts are exploring institutional innovations to improve democracies.
Now It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about democracy? Are you a supporter of democracy? Which form of democracy do you think works best? Or which form is fairest? Do you think democratic governments will continue to exist? Do you have any tips or comments?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Berglund, S., Aarebrot, F., Vogt, H., & Karasimeonov, G. (2001). Challenges to Democracy. 2013, 57.
- Sobirovich, T. B. (2022). National and universal principles of democracy. Asian Journal of Research in Social Sciences and Humanities, 12(1), 334-338.
- Tilly, C. (2007). Democracy. Cambridge University Press.
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Janse, B. (2023). Democracy: what is it? definition and characteristics. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero: https://www.toolshero.com/sociology/democracy/
Published on: 03/06/2023 | Last update: 03/06/2023
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