A democracy is a form of government in which the leaders are chosen by the citizens’ votes, and in which the people have a say in decisions about the state’s affairs. The primary characteristics of democracy include political freedom, rule of law, and legal equality. In order for these principles to be authentic, every eligible citizen must have equal access to the legislative process, and the legal system. To explore this concept, consider the following democracy definition.

Definition of Democracy


  1. A form of government in which the power is held by the people, often administered by agents elected in a free election system.
  2. A form of government in which the people choose leaders by voting.


1525-1535       Middle French démocratie

What is Democracy

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, democracy is “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” A democratic government contrasts with forms of government in which the power is wielded by a single individual, or a small number of privileged individuals, such as a monarchy, oligarchy, or dictatorship.

In modern times, the concept of democracy is often misunderstood. The terms freedom and democracy are often used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing at all. While democracy is a set of fundamental beliefs and principles of freedom, it differentiates from freedom, in that it involves the implementation of procedures and practices to ensure freedom. Most governments in today’s world are a mixture of governmental methods.

Democracy in the United States

While most Americans consider their nation to be ruled by a democratic government, the truth is, the U.S. operates as a Constitutional Federal Republic. This means that, while Americans embrace democracy, the actual operating of the country is complex. Because individual states retain a great deal of autonomy, a written constitution is necessary to define the authority, responsibilities, and limitations of the federal government, and its relationship with the states.

In the U.S., the power remains with the people, both on the state and federal levels, as they elect representatives through the voting process. While this is commonly thought of as a true democracy, that would require the people to have direct control over legislation. Instead, U.S. citizens participate in the legislative process only through their elected representatives. This is where the term representative democracy originates.

Direct Democracy

A direct democracy is a form of government in which all laws are created or abolished by a direct vote of the citizens. This would mean that everything from a change in speed limit on the state highways, to the guilt or innocence of someone being tried for a crime, would be put to a direct vote by the people, rather than their representatives.

Many Americans don’t give a lot of thought to the large number of representatives at various levels of government who make decisions on their behalf every single day. From state and federal senators and representatives, who make laws for their constituents, to elected judges and other government officials, the great wheel of the nation runs by the actions of these representatives.

Imagine what today’s society would look like if the United States operated as a true democracy, requiring the people to take time out on a regular basis to vote on every important decision to be made. It is likely that today’s complex society could never have evolved had this time commitment be required of the nation’s citizens.

Direct Democracy in History

In ancient Athens (about 508-322 B.C.), all citizens voted on all major issues. Athenian citizens were actively involved in all aspects of political life, from voting on the operation of the city, to the trying of all crimes. In fact, in every court case, the assembled citizens voted to determine the outcome. In this example of democracy, it may be true that a direct democracy breeds more political participation. However, the reality of the commitment involved in such an undertaking may deter a great many people in modern times.

Direct Democracy Now

“Direct Democracy Now!” is not a reference to democracy in today’s world, but a grass roots organization of ordinary Greek citizens who were actively involved in Greek protests over the organization of their government, in 2011. Direct Democracy Now! Found they could no longer support any of Greece’s traditional political parties. The movement is not a political party, but operates as a forum for members to exchange ideas on the political situation in Greece.

Representative Democracy

A system that works for many nations is the representative democracy, which allows the nation’s citizens to be involved in the workings of government, without the heavy burden of needing to make daily decisions in its operations. In a representative democracy, all eligible citizens of the nation elect representatives to enact laws, create legislation, and judge legal complaints.

Also known as “indirect democracy,” or “representative republic,” many consider the representative democracy to have been born of the French and American revolutions, in the 18th century. As chaos and brutality flowed from the lack of a central government in medieval times, the people sought refuge from pervasive death and destruction. The stronger people provided such protection for the weaker people, in exchange for their labor and allegiance. This was the rise of the kings.

As time went by, the people began to feel oppressed, as many were kept in squalor, with little food or other necessities of life. Poor housing and filthy conditions bred disease and death. The people questioned the king’s right to rule them, especially in such a manner. In the 18th century, English philosopher John Locke held that a king’s right to rule came only from the “consent of the governed.”

French political philosopher Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron Montesquieu, commonly known simply as “Montesquieu,” was the first to describe a system in which three separate branches of government – executive, legislative, and judicial – kept one another in check. In his example of democracy and freedom, Montesquieu wrote:

“When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty … Again, there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive powers. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would then be the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with all the violence of an oppressor. There would be an end to every thing, were the same man, or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and that of judging the crimes or differences of individuals …”

By this notion, both communities and nations would be most honorably governed by the majority will of the people. This advanced the idea that, while rule of law is imperative to a peaceful and harmonious society, individual freedoms should not be sacrificed to a monarch.

Parliamentary Democracy

A parliamentary democracy is a form of government in which citizens elect the ruling body, referred as a “parliament,” by popular vote in a democratic election. The members of parliament then appoint a leader, known as a “prime minister,” who then chooses members of parliament for his cabinet. Parliament, and the prime minister, remain answerable to the people.

Because the prime minister remains a member of parliament, even while he serves in this elevated role, he is able to draft legislation himself, submitting it to parliament for approval. This further differentiates parliamentary democracy from the representative democracy used in the U.S., as the President is no longer part of the legislative body, but is set apart in the executive branch of government. Parliamentary democracy has its origins in Britain, where it is still in effect today. Many of Britain’s former colonies have adopted some form of parliamentary democracy.

Slap in the Face of Democracy Example in the Polling Place

In May, 2016, Arizona voters approved Proposition 123, by the skin of their teeth. With 51 percent voting “yes,” and 49 percent voting “no,” the state was set to infuse an additional $3.5 billion into Arizona’s K-12 public schools over the next 10 years. Opponents of Prop 123 didn’t give up when the people exercised their democratic right to have the final say on issues put up for popular vote.

Raising concerns over the source of the additional funding for the school systems, the state’s land trust fund, Arizona resident Michael Pierce filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that the funding plan violates the state’s Enabling Act. Pierce claims that the state needs congressional approval in order to increase the amount of monies paid out of the land trust.

Many citizens of the state are concerned about the legitimacy of the lawsuit, pointing out that having the people vote on an issue is supposed to be giving them the final say. In this example of democracy, to ask the courts to intervene when one is unhappy with the outcome of any election is seen by many to be a slap in the face of democracy.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Dictatorship – A form of government in which a single person has absolute power.
  • Monarchy – A system of government in which a single person – usually a member of the royal family – reigns.
  • Oligarchy – A form of government in which all power is vested in a small group of people, usually a dominant class.

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