Countries self-identified as democracies. (Image by BruceHallman, GFDL)


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Scope and meaning

Secondary meanings

Democracy as a form of government

Prospects and alternatives


The term democracy indicates both a set of ideals and a political system—a feature it shares with the terms communism and socialism. “Democracy” is harder to pin down, however, than either “socialism” or “communism”; for while the latter labels have found in Marxism an ideological matrix, or at least a point of reference, democracy has never become identified with a specific doctrinal source—it is rather a by-product of the entire development of Western civilization. No wonder, therefore, that the more “democracy” has come to be a universally accepted honorific term, the more it has undergone verbal stretching and has become the loosest label of its kind. Not every political system claims to be a socialist system, but even communist systems claim to be democracies. Since World War ii, “democracy” encompasses everything; as stated by a UNESCO report: “… for the first time in the history of the world … practical politicians and political theorists agree in stressing the democratic element in the institutions they defend and in the theories they advocate” (United Nations … 1951, p. 522).

One reaction to this state of affairs has been to avoid using the term. As has been forcibly stated, “… discussions about democracy … are intellectually worthless because we do not know what we are talking about” (Jouvenel 1945, p. 338 in 1948 edition). The alternative is, of course, to dissect the term as analytically as possible.

Scope and meaning

Democratic legitimacy

Democracy is, to begin with, a principle of legitimacy [see alsoLegitimacy]. So conceived it is both the minimal and the sole common denominator of any and all democratic doctrine. From the democratic viewpoint nobody denies that power is legitimate only when it is derived from the authority of the people and based upon their consent. Nobody questions that democracy is the opposite of autocracy. But this agreement is short-lived and indeed rests on fragile foundations. For democracy as a legitimizing principle lends itself to two diverging interpretations: (1) that the consent of the people can be a mere presumption, an untested assumption; or (2) that there is no democratic consent unless it is verified through ad hoc procedures (which exclude, notably, consent by sheer acclamation). And these opposing views are related to an even more fundamental disagreement over the very meaning of the term people—a hazy notion indeed.

“The people” can be understood as a singular term (in fact, peuple, Volk, and popolo are singular nouns in French, German, and Italian) or as a plural, that is, as a single entity or as “everybody.” And, clearly, it is only the latter notion that calls for a legitimacy ascertained by means of reliable procedures; for “the people” conceived as an entity, or as an organic whole, easily combines with a legitimacy assumed on the sole basis of acclamations and plebiscitary approbations. Therefore, on the grounds of democracy conceived merely as a principle of legitimacy, any and all governments can easily claim to be democracies simply by switching from verified consensus to presumed consensus. By itself, then, popular consent does not suffice to qualify any particular political system as a democracy. Such qualification is given only by the procedures of consent—and these are controversial.

The normative focus

From a normative standpoint the definition of democracy strictly derives from the literal meaning of the term—“power of the people.” We may say that the ought of democracy amounts to the etymology of the term. There are, however, three different normative approaches: oppositional, realistic, and perfectionistic (or Utopian). Used as an oppositional concept, democracy indicates what ought not to be; realistic normativism points to what could be; while Utopian normativism presents the image of the perfect society that must be. Moreover, since the normative attitude is basically future-oriented, it is easily converted into “futurism” in the sense that “democracy” becomes a long-range projection unrelated to current deeds. The use of undemocratic means to achieve democratic ends finds its justification precisely in this attitude.

The descriptive focus

A descriptive standpoint leads to definitions that bear little resemblance, if any, to the normative definitions of democracy. A concern with what democracy is in the real world seldom, if ever, makes reference to the notion of people. As Dahl puts it, in actuality democracies are “poliarchies” (1956, pp. 63–89). And the standard definition provided by most authors describes democracy as a system based on competitive parties, in which the governing majority respects the rights of minorities. The discussion is focused on the concepts of representation, majority rule, opposition, competition, alternative government, control, and the like—hardly ever on the notion of a self-governing people. Even descriptively, however, the approaches can be quite different: structural, procedural, or behavioral. These are not clear-cut distinctions, for both the structures and the procedures of democracy are meant to elicit and to enforce a given behavior. Yet procedures are not necessarily related to institutional structures; and moreover the behavioral definition may be incompatible with the structural and procedural definitions, as we shall see.

The typological focus

Democracy is also one type of political system among others, and from this viewpoint the problem becomes to define the properties that distinguish it from nondemocratic polities. When the issue arises, the attempt is often made to qualify democracy with reference to an ought rather than to the is. Clearly, however, the identity of a political system cannot be ascertained on normative grounds. It can only be assessed on factual grounds, that is, with reference to the possibility of verification provided by a descriptive account.

Another source of confusion lies in the intermingling of three different standards. At times democracy is taken to include all the political systems falling short of outright dictatorships. This identification is purely negative; the standard is very low, and we are thus confronted with an unspecific type. However, since no political system has a definite form at the moment of its inception, this minimal standard of democracy may aptly indicate its “initial” type. In other instances the standards are higher, and democracy is identified positively by the existence of developed representative institutions and by the establishment of “constitutional government” [seeConstitutions and constitutionalism; see also Friedrich 1937]. Since this is the more frequent case, as well as the meaning in which the term democracy is more frequently used, we may speak of it as the medium or normal type. Finally, when we use a high standard and refer to maximum achievement, we are confronted with a strict meaning of democracy, according to which the term denotes an advanced type.

According to the minimal standard, roughly half of the world may be included in the realm of democracy; according to the medium standard the number of democratic countries dwindles; and according to the high standard a mere dozen or so countries have achieved a satisfactory degree of democracy. And it requires little effort to imagine how easily the label “democratic” can be turned into “undemocratic,” and vice versa, simply by switching from one standard to another.

The dimensional focus

A distinction must also be made between small-scale and large-scale operations, between microdimensions and macrodimensions. Microdemocracy applies to face-to-face relationships, i.e., to small groups. Macrodemocracy applies whenever a collectivity is too large and/or spatially too scattered to allow any direct interchange among its members and any kind of face-to-face relationships. The distinction implies that a macrodemocracy is not some kind of enlargement of a microprototype. Their respective properties have very little, if anything, in common, at least in the sense that voluntary associations and small political units provide no clues for understanding a modern political democracy. They are perhaps the most essential inner nourishment of a democratic political system, but they can neither replace it nor dispense with it. In particular, they provide no model for macrodemocracy. It may be argued that no definite line can be drawn between small and large, which are indeed relative concepts; nonetheless the fact remains that micro- and macrodemocracy are inversely correlated: the greater the geographical extension of democracy, the less its intensity as a real experience of shared decision making.

Secondary meanings

From the time the term demokratía was coined in the fifth century b.c. until roughly a century ago, democracy was used as a political concept. Tocqueville was struck, however, by the social aspect of American democracy, and we thus speak of “social democracy”; Marxism has popularized the expression “economic democracy”; and guild socialism, particularly the Webbs’ book, Industrial Democracy (1897), has given currency to the label “industrial democracy.” These are the major secondary usages of the term democracy; and since we shall be concerned mainly with the primary political usage, they will only be briefly considered.

Social democracy

“Social democracy” is generally conceived as an endogenous state and style of the society and should therefore not be confused with “socialist democracy,” which is a policy enforced by the state upon the society. The expression social democracy usually points to the democratization of the society itself, as expressed by its manners and customs, and particularly by the belief in what Bryce called “equality of estimation,” that is, equal treatment and equal respect for every man. Social democracy may thus be defined as an ethos and a way of life characterized by a general leveling of status differences. By implication it may also indicate a “multigroup society” in which a lively network of microdemocracies sustains and implements political macrodemocracy.

Economic democracy

Since political democracy is primarily concerned with political and juridical equality, and since the expression social democracy denotes equality of status, it follows that concern for the equalization of wealth may be called economic democracy. In this generic and obvious sense then, the label denotes a democracy whose primary policy goal is the redistribution of wealth and the equalization of economic opportunities. So conceived, economic democracy presupposes political democracy—indeed, it is meant to be the ultimate feedback of a democratic form of government.

However, in the Marxist sense—which is by far the prevalent association of the expression—“economic democracy” does not presuppose political democracy; it replaces it. This follows from the materialistic conception of history, i.e., from negation of the autonomy of politics. In the Marxist approach political democracy has no value in itself, for it is only a superstructure of bourgeois and capitalistic oppression, and “political” democracy is thus reduced to “capitalistic” democracy. But once the domain of politics disappears from our purview, there remains little, if anything, that one can say about democracy in constructive terms. One can oppose the “false” existing democracies, but what can one propose for the sake of rebuilding a “true” democracy? Therefore in the Marxist meaning “economic democracy” is only an oppositional concept, and a distorted one at that, for it is not really the obverse of capitalist democracy but merely the obverse of capitalist economy. In other terms, in this context, democracy only means an economic system, and one based on the assumption that politics can be taken out of politics.

Industrial democracy

“Industrial democracy” is a narrower but more constructive term for pinning down the problems associated with the idea of economic democracy. Basically, industrial democracy is democracy within industrial plants. In many ways it is an adaptation of the Greek formula to an industrial society: it is a microdemocracy in which the member of the political community, the polítes, is replaced by the member of an economic community, the worker. In its ultimate form, industrial democracy calls for self-government by the workers in a plant—a direct self-government which could or should be crowned at the national level by a “functional democracy,” that is, by a political system based on functional representation [seeRepresentation]. In practice, the ideal of industrial democracy has materialized only at the microlevel in a number of schemes concerning the workers’ participation in management: “codetermination” in Germany and Austria, workers’ councils and “self-management” in Yugoslavia, and institutionalized practices of joint consultation between management and trade unions in various other countries (reviewed, for example, in Clegg 1960).

To sum up, nobody will deny the importance of social democracy as a vital basis of a democratic polity; and it is usually conceded that economic equalization and industrial democracy are valuable goals. Nonetheless, all these conceptualizations are secondary in that they presuppose, explicitly or implicitly, a political democracy. In other words, these democracies are not sovereign. In particular, if the over-all political system is not a democratic system, economic equality has little meaning and industrial democracy can be eliminated overnight. This is the reason why democracy is first and foremost political democracy, with the understanding that “the importance of the democratic political method lies mainly in its nonpolitical by-products” (Frankel 1962, p. 167).

People’s democracy

The labels “people’s democracy,” “progressive democracy,” “Soviet democracy,” and the like, pose a special problem. The difficulty is not simply that they point to a cluster of manifold elements but that the components of the cluster are so slippery that they defy analysis. A communist democracy is a “politico-economic” democracy, a “macro–micro” democracy, and a “supra–infra” democracy. It is almost impossible, therefore, to classify a people’s democracy in terms of the distinction between the political and extra-political meanings of democracy. The notion is clearly derivative, however, and may be considered in this sense as another secondary meaning of democracy.

For one thing, the expression “people’s democracy” was coined and launched only after World War ii, as a transparent response to the “goodness” of the word democracy. The derivative nature of the notion is also revealed by its thinness. The range of any discourse about the communist-type democracy is basically confined to a normative context and leans particularly on normative–futuristic democracy. In any case, it remains refractory to empirical verification, since the communist theory bypasses both structural and procedural arguments and draws exclusively on a behavioral definition of democracy that cannot be disproved. It follows that the theory of communist democracy does not succeed in showing how this democracy is meaningfully related to the facts. All in all, by no criterion can the systems labeled “people’s democracy,” “Soviet democracy,” etc., be differentiated from nondemocratic political systems [seeCommunism].

Democracy as a form of government

Greek and modern democracy

Greek democracy, as practiced in Athens during the fourth century b.c., was the closest approximation to the literal meaning of the term. One could argue, in effect, that the Athenian demos had more kratos (power) than any other people since. At the same time Greek democracy represents the maximum conceivable enlargement of a microdemocracy. When the demos gathered, the Athenian system actually operated as a “town-meeting” democracy in which some thousands of citizens expressed their ayes and nays.

To be sure, when the demos was assembled “democracy” consisted largely of decisions made by acclamation. But the town-meeting aspect was only the impressive part of the system. Its most effective part resided in the mechanism that made “all command each, and each in his turn all,” as Aristotle concisely put it; i.e., the exercise of power was effectively and largely shared by means of a rapid turnover of officials. The sharing in the exercise of power was also effective in that it occurred at random, for most officials were chosen by lot. On both counts—the collective “self-governing” and the individual “governing in turn”—Greek democracy was a direct democracy based on the actual participation of the citizens in their government.

Modern democracy is entirely different. It is based not on participation but on representation; it presupposes not direct exercise of power but delegation of power; it is not, in short, a system of self-government but a system of control and limitation of government. While Greek democracy can be defined literally as a “government of the people over the people,” modern democracy cannot, for the people who are governed are not the same people who govern. Therefore, we should not be misled into believing that present-day “electoral participation” resembles the real participation of the Greek citizen and even less that the devices we call “direct democracy” (referendum, initiative, etc.) can bridge the gap between the Greek and the modern formulas.

Greek and modern democracy are also entirely different in respect to political freedom. In fact, only the modern form can be called “liberal democracy.” The vagueness of the term liberalism and the multifarious aspects of freedom make this a controversial topic, with some authors flatly denying that men of antiquity were free (for example, Fustel de Coulanges 1864) and other scholars (recently, Havelock 1957) affirming the contrary. Yet there is at least one sense, and a very real one, in which we can follow Benjamin Constant in contrasting ancient and modern liberty (1819). The freedom of the citizen of the polis consisted in his part of sovereignty. Moreover, his freedom was not conceived as liberty for each individual rooted in, and protected by, “personal rights.” The individual as such, “each body,” was absorbed in the collective “Allbody,” that is, the polítes was called to exist for the polis; whereas we are likely to hold the opposite, that the state exists for the sake of the citizens. And while this does not imply that the Greeks called freedom what we consider oppression, it does point to the fact that their liberty was entirely dependent upon the existence of a diffuse and relatively small political community (hardly a “state” in our sense of the term) in which the liberty of the individual could still be entrusted to his share in the exercise of sovereignty [seeFreedom].

It is fairly obvious that the Greek type of democracy is inapplicable to modern conditions. Modern political societies are large societies, and the greater the number of the people involved, the less their participation can be effective and meaningful. Furthermore, the modern nationwide state confronts us with spatial or extensional impossibility, for real self-government cannot occur among absentees; it requires a demos to be present in person on the spot. Finally, it should not escape our attention that the “directness” of a democracy is strictly related to political primitivism: the government of all in turn is, in effect, the counterpart of a low degree of distinctiveness, explicitness, and specialization of the political functions.

It would seem that we are confronted with a paradox. To the Greeks democracy, literally understood, was a possible form of government. To us, instead, literal democracy is an impossible form of government. The query is: Why did we reinstate—after two thousand years of oblivion and disrepute—a term whose original and literal meaning calls for a blatant impossibility?

It does not suffice to reply that we give the Greek term a different meaning. Names are important in themselves, and the fact is that all over the world the common man of the twentieth century understands the word democracy very much in the same way as did the citizen of ancient Athens: its utterance elicits similar behavior, similar expectations, and similar demands. Nor can the issue be evaded simply by saying that the choice of the term democracy was unfortunate. For the word has gained acceptance not despite but because of its Utopian bent. It is not a coincidence that while the Greeks coined the term democracy to describe a possible form of government, we have revived a term that prescribes an impossible form. In the modern world, then, “democracy” is first and foremost a normative word: it does not describe a thing, it prescribes an ideal.

The ideal

Westerners have lived under democratic systems long enough to have reached the phase of democratic disillusionment. They are therefore likely to underestimate the impact of ideals and especially the force of the democratic “illusion”—no matter under which apocalyptic banner—in the rest of the world. Westerners are thus inclined to miss the peculiar temper of modern politics and—ironically enough—the fundamental change that Western rationalism has brought about in man’s attitude toward history.

Until the Enlightenment political forms were not conceived as future-oriented paradigms; for the paradigm was in the past, in a lost paradise, or in a state of nature. For millennia political theorists have been concerned with what could be. But from the French Revolution onward we have become concerned with what should be. Classical liberalism still belonged to an age of reasonableness in which men were content with regulating the tide; democracy, socialism, and communism were born, instead, out of a Promethean attitude, out of the ambition to swim against the tide. The difference between the names liberalism and democracy is hardly descriptive; it is normative. The latter label has absorbed the former one in large part because “democracy” has a Utopian potential that “liberalism” lacks [seeLiberalism].

In fact, by any other criterion the term liberalism would have been a more advantageous choice. It was not associated with a memorable failure, an experiment that had rapidly degenerated into both sectional government—the “rule of the poor against the rich,” as Aristotle realistically put it—and “mobocracy,” a lawless rule of the mob. Moreover, the term liberalism pointed to the very crowning of the long-sought ideal of a mixed and balanced form of government. Thus the current success of the name democracy draws on the same reason that accounts for its previous abandonment, namely, that “democracy” points to an extreme ideal—no less extreme qua ideal than “communism,” and so much so that in a purely normative context the two ideals can ultimately be joined.

This is not to say, of course, that “democracy” was deliberately reinstated because modern man has fallen into a Utopian mood. The adoption of the name democracy was also a response to the entry into politics of ever-growing masses. The small literate elites of former times could well dispense with miranda and credenda, to use Charles Merriam’s terms; but the more politics opens up to comparatively illiterate masses, the more miranda and credenda are needed to feed them no less than to mobilize and to manipulate them.

In a historical purview, then, it is the ought, the deontology of democracy, that comes to the fore. And a historical approach also helps to place the various forms of democratic normativism in perspective.

During the nineteenth century, the term democracy was mainly used in progressive circles as an oppositional ideal. As Louis Hartz points out, the image of democracy depicted by its early advocates was basically the negation of what they wanted to destroy (Chambers & Salisbury [1960] 1962, p. 27). Democracy so conceived is simply the reverse of absolutism, a polemical notion whose function is to oppose, not to propose. The utterance of “democracy” is a way of saying no to inequality, injustice, and coercion. But once the enemy is defeated the problem becomes to specify what ought to be, that is, to identify equality, justice, and freedom in a positive fashion. Faced with this problem democratic normativism splits: it can either adapt itself to the real world or consolidate itself into a future-oriented perfectionism.

Realistic normativism follows from awareness of the “opposite principle” (Herz 1951, pp. 168–189), or of the principle of the “opposite danger” (Sartori [1962] 1965, pp. 63–67). Its proponents realize that as an ideal is converted into reality, it must be continuously adjusted as it approaches fulfillment. Therefore, the more an actual democracy is maximized, the more its deontology must be minimized. If within an established democracy the democratic ought is maintained in its extreme form, it militates against the very system it has produced, that is, it produces “opposite” results.

Utopian normativism, on the other hand, maintains an oppositional attitude within an existing democracy. It refuses to admit that ideals have a countervailing function and will not allow the ideal to fade in victory. The normative attitude is to maximize ideals in their purity, in anticipation of a future in which the ought will finally overcome the is.

Theoretically, one can easily dismiss both oppositional and Utopian normativism. But the fact remains that we live in a time of explosion of expectations and in which the high tide of democratic perfectionism has yet to come in most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We are thus faced with an apparently insoluble dilemma. In order to make democracy succeed in the real world we have adopted a realistic normativism; but a realistic image of democracy, and often a disillusioned one, can hardly compete on a world-wide scale against the appeal of Utopia. A realistic normativism loses the dimension of the future, and this suggests that Western democracies may well lose control over the explosive potentialities of the democratic ideal.

The reality

The ought and the is of democracy are inextricably intertwined. A democracy exists only insofar as its ideals and values bring it into being. Therefore, to deal separately with the norms and the facts is an analytical device. It is a necessary device, however, for while the name democracy is fitting for prescriptive purposes, it can be very misleading for descriptive purposes. Only in the Greek world did the name and the thing coincide. In our world the descriptive meaning of “democracy” cannot be explained and derived from its literal meaning.

When we come to the how of democracy, a democratic polity is usually identified by the manner of selection of its leaders and by the fact (which is also a corollary) that their power is checked and restrained. As Schumpeter puts it, in a democracy “the role of the people is to produce a government,” and therefore “the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” ([1942] 1962, p. 269). The emphasis here is definitely procedural. It is also procedural in all the definitions concerned with majority rule and minority rights [seeMajority rule]. On the other hand, when we deal with the institutional arrangements and agencies of “constitutional democracy” the emphasis tends to be structural. But in many cases the structural and procedural focuses are so tightly interlinked that we may well speak of a combined “structural–procedural” definition.

A neat distinction may be made instead between structural–procedural democracy, on the one hand, and the behavioral definition of democracy on the other. In this latter focus a democracy is identified by the activity of its leaders rather than by the manner of their selection. And the contention may follow that whenever one finds a “rule for the people” one finds a democracy.

No one denies that governing for the people is the very purpose of a democratic government; for nobody affirms that democratic structures and procedures are an end in themselves. The question is whether political altruism should be left to the gods or whether it should be secured precisely by structural and procedural means. Furthermore, the way in which the rulers happen to rule does not suffice to qualify a political system. A benevolent despotism remains a despotism no matter how benevolently the despot happens to behave. By the same token, ruling for the people is “demophily,” not democracy. For democracy is not merely a manner of governing; it is a form of government, a political system.

The distinguishing mark of “real” democracy—i.e., of democracy in the real world—is provided, then, by the means that are conducive to the end of governing for the people. The step from demophily to democracy is indeed a long step. It occurs after endless deceptions and failures, and it occurs only when leaders are forced to respond to the people by means of structural and procedural safeguards [seeRepresentation, article onrepresentational systems].

The standards

In order to define democracy as a type of political system it is essential to ascertain what democracy is not. This in turn presupposes clarification of the standards of democracy. For, depending on the standards, a political system may or may not be considered a democracy. Indeed, different standards have to be used, for democracy is not a static entity: democracy in the nineteenth century cannot be assessed like democracy in the twentieth, and a developed democracy is different from a developing democracy. The problem then is to make coherent use of the pertinent standard.

With reference to the developed and successful democracies of the Anglo–American or Scandinavian type, the standards are high. Here “democracy” denotes more than political machinery; it also denotes a way of living, a “social democracy.” In particular, these democracies have gone a long way toward the maximization of equality—equality of status, of opportunity, and of starting points. We may thus speak of “full” or advanced democracy to denote the maximum current achievement of democracy in the real world. In this sense, then, democracy is a polar type, just as totalitarianism is the polar extreme of dictatorship.

In areas in which democracy has never been stable or effective—including a number of European countries—the standard is considerably lower. In this instance a polity qualifies as a democracy because of its machinery rather than its achievement and is more of a political arrangement than a state of the society. This more limited political character is revealed by the fact that emphasis is laid less on equality and more on liberty—as is only natural, for liberty has a procedural priority over equality. The test is provided by free elections, a competitive party system, and a representational system of government. It would be unfair to require a more exacting standard; for only the successful functioning of the machinery over time allows democracy to strike roots in the society. Aside from the United States, hardly any country was a full democracy before World War I, not even Great Britain; and even currently the existence of constitutional government, as opposed to arbitrary government, still represents the highest performance of democracy in most of the world. It is fair to say, therefore, that the standard provided by a constitutional government that secures political freedom, personal security, and impartial justice is the average standard, i.e., that this is what democracy “normally” means.

Up to this point we are able to specify what democracy is: the border between a democratic and a nondemocratic political system is still definite. But no sooner do we apply the word democracy to most of the Third World, and in particular to the so-called developing nations, than the standard becomes so low that one may well wonder whether the word democracy is still appropriate. At this point we speak of democracy simply to indicate that a given political system is not an overt dictatorship, that is, a dictatorship that allows no freedom, no opposition, and no independence to the courts. Some scholars are inclined to go even further. Shils speaks of “tutelary democracy” ([1959–1960] 1962, pp. 60–68), thereby implying that the standard can be reduced to the sole condition that the ruling elite earnestly profess democratic beliefs and pursue the goal of future establishment of some kind of democratic structure.

From the point of view of the classification of political systems it appears that the category of “initial” democracy cannot be stretched to include tutelary democracy. For promises are not deeds, and an authoritarian method of achieving democracy has to surmount the additional difficulty that the means shape the ends. A tutelary democracy may be even less than a mere “behavioral” democracy; it is only a possible future, only a futuristic democracy. Yet, the notion of tutelary democracy has its merits. For one thing, to profess democratic ideals is better than nothing at all; that is, the notion has the merit of singling out the importance of a belief system, in contrast to the somewhat deterministic and mechanical view that democracy follows from a set of socioeconomic conditions. In the second place, to raise the problem of democracy in the context of formless or transitional societies has the virtue of stimulating our imagination.

The question arises: When we speak of Western experience, is the key term “Western” or “experience”? In other words, can there be a non-Western path to democracy? But it would be premature to venture into these speculations without first discussing the conditions of democracy.

The conditions

Conditions are usually divided into necessary and/or sufficient. But we really know so little about the conditions of democracy that in most cases the best we can do is speak of facilitating conditions.

Economic development. Recently the trend has been to relate the conditions of democracy to a given stage of socioeconomic development. For example, Lipset argues that “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy.” If the hypothesis is tested by the usual indexes of economic development, one finds that the average wealth, degree of industrialization and urbanization, and level of education is indeed much higher for the more democratic countries (Lipset 1960, pp. 45–76; Almond & Coleman 1960, pp. 538–544).

It has been pointed out, however, that if we look at specific cases rather than at over-all averages the correlation between democracy and economic development is weak, and that between the great extremes of wealth and sheer poverty is a large no man’s land where apparently any political system can exist (Eckstein 1961, pp. 38–40). Moreover, a correlation is not a causal link. And even assuming that some sort of causal link does exist between welfare and democracy, we may still wonder whether a country became democratic because it was prosperous, or prosperous because it was democratic. If we abide by the low standard of initial democracy, then England surely became a democracy, i.e., a constitutional government, before the advent of industrialization, prosperity, and literacy. On the other hand, if we judge by the advanced type, it is fairly obvious that there can be no equalization of wealth until a people becomes wealthy. It would seem, therefore, that economic growth is a condition for the growth of democracy —not for its establishment [seeEconomic growth, article onnoneconomic aspects].

Two more specific caveats are also in order. First, much of the available evidence is statistically biased, in the sense that our findings are narrowly confined to the variables that are susceptible to quantification, and measurability is not a criterion of relevance. In this respect the objection could be that indexes of economic development correlate meaningfully only with the temperature of politics. Granted that prosperity is likely to moderate the tensions of the class struggle and the intensity of ideology, “cool” politics facilitates any regime, and therefore prosperity may help to stabilize a dictatorship as much as a democracy.

The second caution is that much of the available statistical evidence is gathered under categories that hopelessly lack discrimination. For instance, a strong positive correlation has been found between stable democracy and degree of literacy (with the perplexing exceptions of Germany and France), and it is often argued that the most important single factor in promoting democracy is the degree of education. In itself, however, literacy is only exposure to communications; and this implies that literacy can be conducive to mass manipulation no less than to individual self-realization. It appears, therefore, that our faith in education rests on the hidden premise that what we really mean is “liberal education,” the kind that inculcates, among other things, liberal and democratic values. The problem is, then, whether a merely technological literacy, or a type of education that inculcates illiberal values, may not promote autocracy. And the statistical figures collected under the literacy category do not make the discrimination that we need most [seeModernization].

Intermediate structures. The foregoing reservations remind us of the view held by Tocqueville (1856), followed by Durkheim and recently restated, for example, by Kornhauser, that democracy presupposes the backbone of an “intermediate structure” of independent groups and voluntary associations (1959, pp. 76–90). Unquestionably, the support of a vital and active “infrastructure” of self-governing organisms and institutions is of great help. One may say that political macrodemocracy is safer and more authentic the more it reflects and presupposes an “infrademocracy.” Once again, however, one should be wary of considering this a necessary condition for any stage of democracy. The necessary condition (though in no way a sufficient one) should be stated in broader and less exacting terms, for example, by pointing to the fact that no modern democracy has yet succeeded until the development of a middle class bridges the gap between the populace and the state.

Leadership. Furthermore, the fact that we have developed a keen interest in the socioeconomic preconditions of democracy should not lead us to underplay the strictly political conditions of democracy—as Aron has recently underlined (Aron et al. 1960). Since the current emphasis on the prepolitical requisites of democracy is partly due to a research bias (because of research facilities and the greater facility of the research), it is all the more necessary to stress the importance of leadership. Leadership is a disturbing variable in two senses: it disturbs the social scientist because of its “subjective” elusiveness, and it has a disturbing effect on the “objective” data. On the first count the social scientist should eliminate it; but on the second count he cannot. Prolonged effectiveness gives legitimacy to a political system, whereas in a modernizing society no legitimacy can withstand prolonged ineffectiveness (Lipset 1960, pp. 77–90). The effectiveness of democracy depends first and foremost on the efficiency and skill of its leadership. This becomes even truer the less favorable the objective conditions [seeLeadership].

All in all, the conditions of democracy are still largely unknown. On the one hand, whenever our hypotheses can be tested empirically—as in the case of indexes of economic growth—the findings are somewhat circular, for we are told that the kind of soil that favors democracy is the soil that has been cultivated best. On the other hand, when we come to examine the specifically political conditions of democracy, our assumptions remain poorly verified. Although this follows from the intrinsic difficulties of the domain of politics, we surely could do better by formulating our queries with more precision.

Clearly the conditions of advanced democracy are not those of initial democracy, and the problem of implementing a political democracy is different from the problem of planting it. For instance, an open class system, an equalitarian value system, and an industrial society are necessary conditions neither for the take-off into democracy nor for normal democracy; in fact, these so-called conditions presuppose the successful performance of normal democracy and can be viewed, therefore, as consequences rather than antecedents. The rewarding query is, then, “which are the conditions for each standard?” and, conversely, “which level of democratization canned be attained under given conditions?”

The point is not simply that there is no one factor crucially associated with the success of democracy; the point is also that the cluster of factors has a historical dimension, in the sense that all the relevant factors have to be considered in a sequence, with reference to their order of succession, their tempo, and their timing. It would seem, in fact, that “objective” factors are less important in initiating a democracy than (1) the will of an efficient and capable leadership, and (2) regulation of the flow of demands in such a way that the political system can process it without getting overloaded. For what throws a political system off balance—and particularly a democracy—is a sudden im-balance between an outburst of expectations and the capacity for meeting them.

Prospects and alternatives

The ways of history are not infinite, but they are varied. And the prospects for democracy in most of the world are related to the search for new solutions or, better said, to the search for adaptations and substitutions. If the question is whether there are “alternative forms of democracy,” the reply can only be that this kind of new solution has not been discovered. But if the question is whether there are alternative ways of achieving democracy more quickly, this is surely pertinent and vital. In fact, the problem of the developing countries is to catch up, a matter of speed and short cuts. And there is no better evidence that economizing is possible and that elimination of steps is feasible than the evidence provided by the Western experience itself.

Let it be recalled that for a long time constitutional lawyers believed that bicameralism was an essential safety, and yet there are unicameral systems that do just as well. Likewise, we often claim that rotation in office is part and parcel of democracy; but there are political systems in which one predominant party competitively gains and keeps an absolute majority, thereby providing an instance of democracy without governmental turnover. In a similar vein we tend to think that the interplay between majority and opposition is the keystone of a democratic system, and only recently have we started to realize that the argument does not apply to any kind of opposition—indeed, the institutionalization of the opposition may not improve things at all, and an irresponsible and purely demagogic opposition is likely to wreck any democracy. This does not imply that there can be a democracy where dissent and contestation are impeded; it does suggest, however, that whenever the stakes are too high to allow a peaceful transmission of power to the opposer, we should explore the possibility of subsidiary forms and mechanisms of contest.

Finally, most people equate democracy with universal suffrage; and it is surprising how little attention is being paid to the tempo and sequence that enable a political system to process the entry into politics of hitherto excluded and far-removed masses, that is, to cope with the so-called crisis of participation. And this in spite of the evidence that a sudden, massive enfranchisement is either a sham or is likely to shatter any developing democracy. Universal suffrage, in fact, seems to be the one taboo that we are not prepared to break—again a confirmation of the extent to which we are fascinated by the word at the expense of the substance. To be sure, “people” means “all the people,” and therefore in a literal sense there is no democracy until “everybody” is given the power to vote. But in our macrodemocracies the power of each amounts to a powerless fraction of power; and therefore the substance of the matter no longer is that everybody should be equally entitled to self-government (by virtue of his vote), but that as many people as possible should not be misgoverned. Thus, as long as free elections do occur, the size of the electorate matters far less than the essential goal, namely, the establishment of a political system that makes a government responsive and accountable.

The foregoing considerations are meant only to suggest that we need to cross-examine our dogmas and to acquire a fresh vision. In matters of polity building, genuine invention is very rare and very slow, and the successful innovations have usually been accidental. Before speculating about “new solutions” we should reduce to a minimum the requirements of the solutions that have been tested. Democracy, as Woodrow Wilson said, is the most difficult form of government. We cannot hope, therefore, to export the “complete” Western type. On the other hand, it is equally obvious that the new states and developing nations cannot pretend to start from the level of achievement at which the Western democracies have arrived. In fact, no democracy would ever have materialized if it had set for itself the advanced goals that a number of modernizing states currently claim to be pursuing. In a world-wide perspective, the problem is to minimize arbitrary and tyrannical rule and to maximize a pattern of civility rooted in respect and justice for each man—in short, to achieve a humane polity. Undue haste and overly ambitious goals are likely to lead to opposite results.

Giovanni Sartori

[See alsoConsensus; Constitutions and constitutionalism; Delegation of powers; Elections; Liberalism; Parties, political; Representation. Other relevant material may be found inDictatorship; Political theory; Power.]


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Aron, Raymond 1965 Démocratic et totalitarisme. Paris: Gallimard.

Aron, Raymond et al. 1960 La démocratic à l’épreuve du XX siècle. Paris: Calmann-Lèvy.

Bryce, James (1888) 1909 The American Commonwealth. 3d ed., 2 vols. New York and London: Macmillan. → An abridged edition was published in 1959 by Putnam.

Bryce, James 1921 Modern Democracies. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan.

Chambers, William N.; and Salisbury, Robert H. (editors) (1960) 1962 Democracy Today: Problems and Prospects. 2d ed. New York: Collier. → See especially Eric A. Havelock’s article.

Clegg, Hugh A. 1960 A New Approach to Industrial Democracy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Constant de Rebecque, Henri Benjamin 1819 De la liberté des anciens comparée à celle des modernes. Volume 4, part 1, page 238 in Henri Benjamin Constant de Rebecque, Collection complète des ouvrages publiés sur le gouvernement représentatif et la constitution actuelle de la France. Paris: Plancher.

Dahl, Robert A. (1956)1963 A Preface to Democratic Theory. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Democracy in the New States: Rhodes Seminar Papers. 1959 New Delhi: Congress for Cultural Freedom, Office for Asian Affairs.

Downs, Anthony 1957 An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.

Eckstein, Harry 1961 A Theory of Stable Democracy. Center of International Studies Research Monograph No. 10. Princeton Univ., Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Frankel, Charles 1962 The Democratic Prospect. New York: Harper.

Friedrich, Carl J. (1937)1950 Constitutional Government and Democracy: Theory and Practice in Europe and America. Rev. ed. Boston: Ginn. → First published as Constitutional Government and Politics: Nature and Development.

Fustel de Coulanges, Numa Denis (1864) 1956 The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published in French.

Hartz, Louis (1960) 1962 Democracy: Image and Reality. Pages 13–29 in William N. Chambers and Robert H. Salisbury (editors), Democracy Today: Problems and Prospects. 2d ed. New York: Collier.

Havelock, Eric A. (1957) 1964 The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Hermens, Ferdinand A. 1958 The Representative Republic. Univ. of Notre Dame (Ind.) Press.

Herz, John H. 1951 Political Realism and Political Idealism: A Study in Theories and Realities. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Jouvenel, Bertrand de (1945) 1952 Power: The Natural History of Its Growth. Rev. ed. London: Batch-worth. → First published in French.

Kelsen, Hans 1929 Vom Wesen und Wert der Demokratie. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr.

Kelsen, Hans 1955 Foundations of Democracy. Ethics 66, part 2:1–101.

Kornhauser, William 1959 The Politics of Mass Society. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Lindsay, A. D. (1943) 1959 The Modern Democratic State. Oxford Univ. Press.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1960 Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Mayo, Henry B. 1960 An Introduction to Democratic Theory. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Naess, Arne 1956 Democracy, Ideology and Objectivity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Paraf, Pierre 1962 Les démocraties populaires. Paris: Payot.

Sartori, Giovanni (1962) 1965 Democratic Theory. New York: Praeger. → Based on the author’s translation of his Democrazia e definizione.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1942) 1950 Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. 3d ed. New York: Harper; London: Allen & Unwin. → A paperback edition was published by Harper in 1962.

Shils, Edward (1959–1960) 1962 Political Development in the New States. The Hague: Mouton.

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Tocqueville, Alexis de (1856) 1955 The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday → First published in French.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization 1951 Democracy in a World of Tensions: A Symposium. Edited by Richard McKeon. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Webb, Sidney; and Webb, Beatrice (1897) 1920 Industrial Democracy. New ed., 2 vols. London and New York: Longmans.

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Democracy, a direct translation of the Greek dēmokratia, means rule (kratos ) by the people (dēmos ). Both as a political idea, and as a political institution, democracy originated in the thought and practice of the ancient Greeks. They understood democracy literally: the people, deliberating and acting together in an assembly, was both sovereign and legislator. The people was not only the source of legitimate authority, but also the wielder of political power. In modern times the role of the people is limited to the legitimation of political authority, and power is wielded by elected representative assemblies.

Greek Origins

In the history of Western political thought the Greeks were the first to think and reflect about their political and social organization. The polis, with its multiple forms and varied institutions, was the center of Greek life and culture. This plurality of political associations engendered intense philosophical speculation and lively intellectual debate regarding the relative merits of different types of government. In the process the Greeks elaborated a language and a vocabulary adequate to the analysis of the political world they had constructed.

Herodotus (484420 b.c.e.), in his constitutional debate, weighed the value of the three governmental forms of a polis: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Democracy promotes equality before the law, yet it brings to power the many who are ignorant, incompetent, unstable, and violent. Oligarchy is equally unstable and violent, and both forms eventually lead to tyranny. Only a law-abiding monarchy can inhibit the few and the many from succumbing to tyranny.

The "Old Oligarch," a short pamphlet from the fifth century b.c.e., presents a similar picture of the many and their democracy: feckless, unreliable, and irrational. Only the best and cleverest, that is, the few, are capable of rule. At the same time the argument adds a novel element to the analysis of democracy: class conflict and factional strife. The problem is whether the demos is capable of understanding and recognizing their own particular good, a question that permeates classical political thought.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides (d. c. 401 b.c.e.) describes the moderate democracy under Pericles (c. 495429 b.c.e.), and praises his prudence and wisdom in leading the people. The distinction he makes between Pericles and Cleon (d. 422 b.c.e.) underlines his dislike of the many and his preference for a democracy guided by the wise and the best. He attributes the fall of Athens to the rise of demagogic leaders who flattered the masses and catered to their appetites and desires. Athens was defeated by Sparta because the war generated among Athenians factionalism, greed, violence, and lust for power and for acquisition. He introduces a theme later amplified by Plato and Aristotle: external expansion and imperialism are directly related to the rise of democracy in Athens. Democracy whets the many's appetite for power, which only expansion can satisfy and secure. For Thucydides the desire for power and the appetite for expansion are inherent to the nature of the people such that their rule is always accompanied by violent disturbances, expropriation, and instability. The rise of the many to power liberates the passions and the appetites to such an extent that the democracy is inexorably led to imperial conquest, overextension, and finally violent collapse.

Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.), in such works as Gorgias, The Statesman, and The Republic, translated Thucydides' historical narrative of the Athenian decline and fall into a thoroughgoing critique of contemporary practices and institutions within the polis. He found all politics wanting, because those who possess knowledge are powerless, and those who have power are ignorant and thus do not know how to rule. The problem was to discover ways in which power and knowledge, politics and philosophy may be so wedded as to ensure a just and stable sociopolitical order. Statesmanship requires within the individual the rule of reason over appetite, and within the polis the rule of those who know over those who do not know. As such, it means the exercise of self-discipline and self-restraint by both the rulers and the ruled.

To Plato, all states are divided into the few who are rich and the many who are poor, and therefore class struggle and class strife are endemic to all states. Both democrats and oligarchs pursue their particular self-interest, and thus both are motivated not by rational thought but by appetite, desire, and lust for power. Each faction when in power pursues its interest to the exclusion of the other's, such that the polis is subjected to unstable and violent cycles of revolution and counterrevolution. The conflict between the two factions leads to the destruction of both and to the rise of tyranny. Thus no just society is possible unless the passions and appetites are subordinated to rational control, and unless the conflicts they engender are resolved and harmonized by wise and just leadership.

Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), following Plato, presents in his Politics a six-fold classification of constitutions or governments: the rule of one is monarchy or tyranny, the rule of the few is oligarchy or aristocracy, and the rule of many is either law-abiding or lawless democracy. Three are just and legitimate, three are unjust and illegitimate. The first of each set is lawful and rule is for the good of all, the second is lawless and rule is in the rulers' particular interest. Each in its pure form is inherently unstable because its foundation is narrow and exclusive. Democracy rests on mere number and thus excludes ability and property. Similarly, because oligarchy is based on property and birth, it excludes the propertyless many. Thus each type tends toward faction, strife, and instability. The problem is to construct a type that would combine stability, legitimacy, and competent rule. This type is the polity, a constitutional government that includes the best elements of democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. It combines number, ability, and property, and so guarantees that the class base of polity avoids the opposing poles of overly rich and overly poor. The welding of the best elements of democracy and oligarchy enables the polity to escape the cycle of violence and instability endemic to many Greek cities.

The polis, whether oligarchic or democratic, was class based, and most writers, especially Aristotle, recognized the close relationship between property, power, and stability. They also recognized, and never questioned, the centrality of slavery to the polis. Even in democratic Athens the slavery and subjection that prevailed within the private sphere of the household made possible the liberty and equality of the male citizens as they came together in public to deliberate in the assembly.

After the Polis

Greek political theory is a reaction to the decline of the polis, which was superseded first by the territorial Hellenistic monarchies and later by the Roman republic. Polybius (c. 200c. 118 b.c.e.), who wrote his history to show how Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean, ascribes its success to its republican institutions. He superimposes Greek categories onto Roman political experience, and using the six-fold classification of governments, sees Rome as having a mixed constitution. The consuls represent the monarchical element, the senate the aristocratic, and the popular assemblies the democratic. Wealth, ability, birth, and number were each given a role in the constitution. When the people became too violent and tumultuous, or the senate too arrogant and selfish, the republic nevertheless survived. The mixed constitution established a self-regulating system in which each element checked and balanced the other.

Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) repeated the now-standard Greek classification of governments (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy) as well as the traditional critiques of each. Although he preferred monarchy, he understood that practical prudence required a mixed form that combined the best of all three. The state is a res publica, or "public affair," and is therefore also a res populi, or "people's affair." It exists to provide justice, security, and peace. Although legitimacy and power emanate from the people, competent administration and stable authority require the wisdom and ability of the senate.

The fall of the republic and the rise of monarchy signaled the death of republican and democratic politics. The growth of quietistic philosophies such as Stoicism, the advent of Christianity, and the barbarian invasions together combined to destroy the classical world and to create a feudal and medieval civilization in which democracy and republic had no meaning.

Democratic and republican thought and practice regained their vitality and importance with the rise of the Italian communes and the concomitant rebirth of classical thought. Such an interest, when added to the historical experience of the Italianespecially Florentine and Venetiancity-states culminated in Niccolò Machiavelli's (14691527) rediscovery of the people (and of the "opinion of the many") as the foundation and ground for a new type of politics, both republican and democratic.

The passing of medieval society was a long process of religious, social, political, and economic transformation. It culminated in profound social, cultural, and political change: the disintegration of traditional ties, the Protestant Reformation and the resulting fragmentation of European Christianity, the spread of commerce and trade, the proliferation and dissemination of knowledge and wealth, literacy and printing.

The English Civil War (16421649), the Dutch rebellion (16211648) against Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and the Glorious Revolution (16881689) heralded the rise and growing importance of these new developments. The execution and deposition of kings exploded traditional beliefs in the passive acceptance of governmental authority, and revealed its basis in human will and action. Major political theorists such as Thomas Hobbes (15881679); Hugo Grotius (Huigh de Groot; 15831645); Samuel von Pufendorf (16321694); Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Monstesquieu (16891755); and John Locke (16321704) reflected these far-reaching changes by reevaluating and retranslating traditional ideas of natural law, human nature, and government. Dutch republicans such as Benedict de Spinoza (16321677) and the de la Court brothers, Jan (Johan; 16221670) and Pieter (c. 16181685), distilled ancient Roman writers, Florentine and Venetian republicans, and the work of Thomas Hobbes, and envisioned a democratic politics whereby the state is the expression of the people's will. Hobbes, with his absolute individualism and radical skepticism, expressed the breakdown of traditional forms of community and legitimate government and their reconstitution by human reason and will. Locke tried to wed natural law with emerging individualism and used them to domesticate and limit the power of the newly centralized state. His theory of government as a trust located authority with the representative of the people, who always retained their right to withhold consent to the government. Montesquieu, reacting to the growing absolutism of the French monarchy, translated the classical theory of mixed government into his concept of separation of powers. His theory of despotism and the balanced constitution was a major source for liberal constitutionalism and for the theory of limited government. Natural right, political obligation, social contract, and natural law were ideas used to explain and to justify radical and revolutionary change. Yet, at the time, their range and application was circumscribed, and the notion of the people to which they referred was interpreted narrowly.

Age of Enlightenment and Revolution

The Enlightenment, by underlining the human capacity for rational and critical thought, for scientific and intellectual inquiry, and generally for the future growth and "perfectibility" of humanity, slowly subverted the cultural, religious, and traditional foundations of state and society. Thinkers such as Voltaire (16941778) and Denis Diderot (17131784) in France, and David Hume (17111776) and Jeremy Bentham (17481832) in Britain, inquired into the natural and historical sources of political and social power. They produced a body of work that linked political and civil liberty and freedom of thought and speech with cultural, moral-intellectual, and scientific progress. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (17121778) critique of the Enlightenment paradoxically affirmed the movement's belief in the centrality of human will and liberty. For Rousseau, liberty and equality define the human, such that the people assembling together as sovereign generate the general will that looks to the public, as opposed to the private, good. The general will as the embodiment of popular sovereignty was a radical critique of the inequality and the competition within civil society.

The spirit of opposition to established forms of authority (whether secular or religious), the distrust of any government not derived from rational consent, culminated in the American Revolution and its penchant for constitution building. American revolutionaries proclaimed the sovereignty of the people while simultaneously constructing a political structure that would limit and channel the power of popular majorities. They preached a new secular order while buttressing it with arguments that reached back to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. The political literature of the Revolution adumbrated and summarized the arguments for and against democracy since Plato. From Thomas Paine (17371809), who explicitly defended democracy, to John Adams (17351826), who feared direct popular rule, Americans during the two decades of revolution and constitutional experimentation attempted to find a balance between the few and the many, the rich and the poor. The compromise presented by the federalists asserted the legitimating and authorizing role of the people while establishing a self-regulating system of checks and balances at both the state and national levels. Legitimate power would issue from popular majorities, but institutional mechanisms such as separation of powers, federalism, bicameral legislatures, and indirect election would channel, control, and check the power of the people.

The American Revolution began the slow process that changed the meaning of democracy as it was understood from the Greeks to Rousseau (direct rule of the people meeting together in their assembly). As James Madison (17511836) noted, direct democracy, which is feasible (according to Rousseau and Claude-Adrien Helvétius) only in small states, is prone to violence and class strife; what is needed is a republic where representation refines and filters the opinion of the people. Representation both controls popular passions and makes popular government possible over a large territory and a numerous population.

The French Revolution, in terms more radical and clear than the American, proclaimed the rights of man and the citizen. It contrasted these with the privileges and aristocratic inequalities of the old order. In Jacobin ideology, the people were increasingly identified with the nation. Jacobin terror and the supremacy of Maximilien de Robespierre (17581794) reinforced the traditional historical unease and distaste with popular rule. Republican and democratic ideaspopular sovereignty, government as guarantor and custodian of natural rights, the idea of citizenship, and the right to liberty and equality under lawspread throughout Europe. Lively and sometimes bitter polemics emerged, some like Edmund Burke (17291797) attacking the Revolution, others like Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft (17591797) defending it. The novelty was that for the first time democracy and popular government were defended by elements of the educated and wealthy classes.

Threat and Promise of Mass Democracy

Both the American and French Revolutions signaled the emergence of the popular masses as a force in history. Henceforth the people became a factor in the power equation. Whether for ill or good, whether democratic or antidemocratic, rulers must address the people to attain or to maintain power. This profound realignment of the relation between ruler and ruled produced three responses during the nineteenth century: liberal, conservative, and revolutionary.

The liberal response is embodied in the thought of John Stuart Mill (18061873) and Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859). Tocqueville believed that the European future could be foreseen in the American present. And Mill's thought was heavily influenced by Tocquevillian concerns with the safeguarding of ability, virtue, and liberty. Tocqueville analyzed the social and cultural conditions of American democracy and found in them the germs of a future tyranny. Democracy is founded on a belief in individual rights, equality, and self-government, yet the public opinion it spawns is more tyrannical than any monarch. The passion for equality generates a uniform mass of self-centered individuals whose opinions will dominate those of the minority. This passion is antithetical to ability and strives to level all forms of excellence and skill. Mill elaborates on Tocqueville's antithesis between equality and liberty and tries to find a solution that incorporates both the people's desire for equality and the need for competence and ability. Though democracy means the rule of the many, government and administration presuppose the rule of the few over the many. Mill sees representative government based on an educated and responsible electorate as best able to link the egalitarian aspirations of the many with the competence and ability of the few.

Political participation (voting and office holding) in the West was at first circumscribed within a narrow social, ethnicracial and economic base: property holders and white males. During the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, various political and social groups arose calling for the extension of full civil and legal rights to all. Elite competition for power combined with popular social movements gradually to expand the electorate. In the United States, the property qualification was eliminated with the rise of Andrew Jackson, in Britain with the various reform bills of the middle-to late-nineteenth century. The expansion of male suffrage in continental Europe was a complex and contradictory process. In France it was hostage to successive revolutions and changes in governmental systems, in imperial Germany it was achieved under the auspices of Bismarck as a means of bolstering the power of the ruling elites, and in Italy it facilitated elite manipulation of the parliamentary elections. Suffrage expansion in pre-World War II Italy and Germany ultimately led to the breakdown of liberal democratic institutions, while in Britain and the United States it promoted the integration of the lower classes into the pre-existing liberal structures.

In the United States, the Civil War (18611865) abolished slavery, and the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution gave the emancipated slaves full political rights. Yet through such devices as the poll tax, the white-only primary, literacy requirements, as well as the use of legal and extra-legal force, African Americans were effectively denied these rights until the advent of the Civil Rights movement and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The struggle over the vote was intimately linked with the struggle for the emancipation of women. Women's suffrage movements, whose prominent figures included Elizabeth Cady Stanton (18151902), Susan B. Anthony (18201906), and Emmeline Pankhurst (18581928), were particularly powerful in the United States and Britain. Women were granted the vote in 1920 and in 1928 respectively, though not until 1945 in Italy and France. Even today, in many countries women are excluded from public and political life. Ethnic-racial and gender equality and the integration of excluded groups into the prevailing system are considered crucial to the contemporary understanding of democracy. The right to vote is fundamental to democracy. Yet the struggle for universal suffrage underlines the importance of establishing a widely accepted culture of civil liberties and civil rights, without which the suffrage would become meaningless.

Industrialization and urbanization, as well as painful social and economic dislocations, intensified mass mobilization and mass participation in politics, which in turn created new demands partly addressed by the liberalization of social welfare measures and by the expansion of the franchise. The expansion of the electorate in turn made the system more democratic and thus more responsive to mass politics. Revolutionaries such as Karl Marx (18181883) and his followers argued that the equality and liberty guaranteed by liberals and democrats were merely political and formal. They did not address the material basis of rule, which is social and economic. The rights of the citizen are spurious given the underlying inequality of bourgeois capitalism, where the few wealthy dominate the many poor. What Marxism and socialism desired was a democracy both social and economic, where the unequal relations of power established by private property are eliminated. Such a concern underlay most critiques of liberal democracy, whether social democratic, syndicalist, or communist. They differed, however, in both their methods and their goals. The socialists accepted the rules of the game and worked within the system, while the latter two worked for a revolutionary overthrow. Lenin (Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov; 18701924) and the Bolsheviks represented a shift in the location of revolution, from the center of the bourgeois world to its periphery.

The conservative reaction to democratic politics ranged from the reactionary ideas of Joseph-Marie de Maistre (17531821) and Louis de Bonald (17541840) to the elitism of Vilfredo Pareto (18481923), Gaetano Mosca (18581941), and Roberto Michels (18761936). While the former wanted to return to prerevolutionary and aristocratic Europe, the latter accepted modernity and the political consequences of the American and French Revolutions. Pareto and Mosca argued that in all societies the rulers are always the few, that wealth and ability will always prevail over numbers. Michels formulated an iron law of oligarchy, which asserted that in modern society where bureaucracies and organizations are constantly proliferating only minorities can rule. Democracywith its representative systems, electoral mechanisms, referenda, initiatives, and recallis an illusion, a mere political formula devised to veil oligarchic power. What these writers attempted to show was the empirical and sociological impossibility of democracy. Whatever the claims of democratic ideals, government and administration must inevitably rely on organized minorities to function well and effectively.

Recent Concepts

In the first half of the twentieth century democratic theory was devoted to addressing the claims of elitists such as Mosca and Michels. First Joseph Schumpeter (18831950) and later Robert Dahl (b. 1915) tried to devise a theory that would account for the empirical reality of democracy (the necessity for elites) and simultaneously retain its ideals. Schumpeter saw democracy as an institutional arrangement of elite competition for the electorate's favor guaranteed by legal and procedural mechanisms. Twenty years later Dahl saw democracy as a polyarchy of social groups whose competition was also guaranteed by procedural arrangements, while Samuel Lipset and Barrington Moore Jr. distinguished between the empirical and normative criteria of democracy. They too discerned a contradiction between the claims of majority rule and the empirical reality of mass electoral politics. The attack on the classical democratic theory produced a fundamental reinterpretation of democracy itself. Democracy no longer means rule by the people, or rule by the many. The majority legitimate power and consent to it, but organized elites rule. Whether the many rule is not as important as whether the system provides free and open elections guaranteed by civil liberties and civil rights.

Democracy as a political form and as an ideal arose from the conflict in society between the few and the many, between the wealthy and the poor. The cycle of violence and instability produced by this conflict led to attempts to establish political structures that would address the egalitarian and just demands of the many while simultaneously maintaining the rule of law. It is from the struggle to resolve the opposing interests and values of these two antagonists that the social and political ideals associated with modern democracy emerged and developed.

Today democratic theory centers on critiques of liberal democracy and on devising alternatives to it. Critics such as Hannah Arendt (19061975), Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929), and John Rawls (19212002) identified an elitist, inegalitarian, and antiparticipatory core in liberal theories of democracy. They questioned the validity and desirability of liberal democracy's major principles: interest aggregation, economic utility, rational choice and game theory, methodological individualism. Most important, they objected to the reduction of political activity to economic categories and lamented the use of the market as the model for democratic politics. While retaining the procedural and constitutional guarantees so important to liberal theory, its critics aspire to a democracy where the people may come together as citizens and participate in public deliberations and discussions.

The criticism of liberal and elite democratic theory has produced two major schools of thought: civic republicanism and deliberative democracy. Both share a classical Aristotelian belief in the possibility of achieving a common good by means of an egalitarian politics of participation. They believe that political activity is crucial to developing a well-rounded and educated citizen. Civic values, civic engagement, and open discussion help create a public space in which the business common to all citizens may be conducted. Civic republicanism and deliberative democracy, by emphasizing such ideas as the common good, virtue, common action, and political education, delve into the ways that a public-political space may emerge and grow. They also recall the ideals of political virtue and political participation first enunciated by classical thinkers, and later reclaimed by Machiavelli and Rousseau.

See also Constitutionalism ; Equality ; Liberty ; Public Sphere ; Republicanism .


Ball, Terrence, and Richard Bellamy, eds. The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Bohman, James, and William Rehg, eds. Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.

Burns, James Henderson, ed. The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 14501700. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Cnuddle, Charles F. and Deane E. Neubauer, eds. Empirical Democratic Theory. Chicago: Markham, 1969.

Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Dunn, John, ed. Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 b.c. to a.d. 1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Finley, Moses I. Democracy Ancient and Modern. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

Fontana, Biancamaria, ed. The Invention of the Modern Republic. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Hazard, Paul. European Thought in the Eighteenth Century. Translated by J. Lewis May. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954. Translation of Pensée européenne au XVIIIème siècle.

Held, David. Models of Democracy. 2nd ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Lijphardt, Arend. Democracies. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.

Palmer, Robert R. The Age of the Democratic Revolution. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 19591964.

Pateman, Carole. Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Rahe, Paul A. Republics Ancient and Modern. 3 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Rowe, Christopher, and Malcolm Schofield, eds. The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Sartori, Giovanni. The Theory of Democracy Revisited. Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1987.

Skinner, Quentin. Foundations of Modern Political Thought. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Benedetto Fontana

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Democracy is a concept that means different things to different people. For some it is a political system that ensures political equality and self-rule. To others, it is a system that allows the presence of equal opportunities and rights. The two different conceptualizations of democracy are based on the experiences of the two major democratic experiments that the world has seen so far: democracies in classical Greece and modern nation-states. The classical model of democracy draws its inspiration from the democratic experiments of ancient Greek city-states. In such an arrangement, citizens were both the rulers and the ruled; political sovereignty and power rested with the people. Each individual citizen had a right and an obligation to serve in administrative duties. Citizens were politically active. Women, slaves, and immigrants were, however, excluded from political participation. The small size of the cities allowed citizens to meet face to face and make direct deliberations and decisions on various issues.

There are at least two problems with the classical democratic arrangement: first, it is applicable more to small city-states than to modern nation-states. Face-to-face political participation and deliberations are easier to conduct in small communities. Modern democracies are established in much larger nation-states, making a representative form of government a necessity. Second, the conditions under which political equality is possible are not spelled out; it is simply asserted as a self-evident truth. There is no strong consensus among citizens and scholars in such an assertion. Indeed, some argue that individual liberty, which is promoted in modern democracies, makes some form of inequality inevitable.

Although there is no consensus, many scholars would agree that democracy in modern nation-states means the presence of political rights and civil liberties. Political rights include the right to vote, the right to run for office, and the presence of fair and free electoral competition; civil liberties include the presence of due process, freedom of speech and assembly, and equality before the law. Democracy, however, even as a procedural concept, is much more than the mere occurrence of elections and liberties. For instance, the presence of a majoritarian decision-making or voting mechanism, often overlooked and taken for granted, is an essential procedure in the democratic process. Elected and, in some cases, appointed representatives and officials utilize the simple majority rule as a minimum requirement for the passage of laws, judicial decisions, and administrative policies; a majority voting system is commonly used to resolve major issues, including difficult and divisive ones, by legislation or judicial interpretation. Thus, democracy may be defined as the presence of fair and free elections, civil liberties, and a majoritarian decision-making procedure. Nevertheless, not all scholars would agree with such a procedural definition. For instance, it does not fully account for the variation in the distribution of political power or influence among citizens. In other words, why is it that some citizens can exert more influence on political leaders than do others? Why do some individuals have a better chance of becoming a president or a member of parliament than others do?


Compared to other older forms of political systems, such as autocracy, modern democracy is a relatively new phenomenon. James Bryce (1921) noted that in the early nineteenth century only Switzerland had a working democracy in Europe. Great Britain had greater freedom than any other nation on the European continent, but its government was still oligarchic. By 1921, however, Bryce observed that almost all the monarchies of Europe had become democracies. He counted twenty new democratic countries in the Western Hemisphere, and five more among the British colonies. The political evolution toward a free society heralded the universal acceptance of democracy as the normal and natural form of government (p. 4). Outside Europe, the United States, which is considered as the oldest democracy, had ratified its constitution in 1789. Thus, it is fair to assume that modern democracy is perhaps a consequence of the modern period, mainly of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment.

The initial quality of democracy in countries such as Great Britain, Sweden, and the United States was, however, low by todays standards. More often than not, those who had property voted. Mass democracy was possible only after the spread of mass literacy and the spread of wealth to a significant number of individuals. In other words, the conditions under which democracy has arisen would, among other things, seem to be an increased level of education and economic development. Seymour M. Lipset (1959), following Aristotle, argues that socioeconomic development leads to educated citizenry and a large middle class. An educated citizenry and a large middle class seem to be the social foundations of modern democracy. Despite the presence of counterfindings, empirical studies support Lipsets argument. Socioeconomic development, however, may not be the only factor that accounts for the presence of democracy. The political process, particularly political leadership, and external factors are two other possible variables.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century the United States was not, for instance, a developed country. In the absence of a developed economy the framers of the U.S. Constitution were able to establish a political system that would become one of the most stable democracies in the world. To be sure, the architects of the U.S. Constitution, such as James Madison, were themselves influenced by the evolution of European political thought and by the level of education they had received. Still, not all leaders in all countries attempted to establish a freer system of governance at the time. This was a choice made by the framers. Thus, it is fair to contend that the framers of the U.S. Constitution have contributed to the emergence and development of democracy in the United States.

Democracy, once emerged in countries such as the United States, has found its way to other parts of the world. For instance, one of the legacies of European colonialism was the spread of modern democratic institutions in some of the former colonies. Former British colonies like India, Botswana, Mauritius, and Trinidad and Tobago have maintained democratic rule since independence. Given that not all former British colonies have maintained democracy, however, it was perhaps a mixture of this legacy and a democratically predisposed indigenous leadership that have helped maintain democratic rule in these countries. Leaders like Seretse Khama (1921-1980) of Botswana and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) of India were predisposed to democracy.


Democracy is a complex political system. It requires give-and-take compromises when issues are debated and decisions are made. Political leaders and their constituents must consistently, and often painfully, compromise their political and economic interests with others. A decision by one branch of government is often checked and balanced by the others. Officials private and public lives are often scrutinized by the media. Despite the foregoing inconveniences, democracy is perhaps the only known political system that can provide individuals with the right to be treated equally before the law, the right to vote, and the right to own personal property. Other autocratic systems, such as monarchy, theocracy, and communism, have not adequately done so in the past and are not logically expected to do so in the future.

Democracy has, however, its variants, the most important ones being liberal democracy and social democracy. Although these variants adhere to the fundamental principles of democracy, including the presence of fair and free elections and civil liberties, they seem to have distinct socioeconomic principles. While liberal democracy stresses the importance of individuals as the deciding force of their own economic opportunities, social democracy seems to emphasize the role of the public in promoting social equity. More specifically, liberal democracy is grounded on the principle that individuals must, with little or no societal and government encroachments, be free to possess personal property and pursue their own economic interests. While such a system may bring affluence to most of the people, some individuals will probably become less successful or remain poor. By contrast, social democracy assumes that the market economic system cannot by itself evenly promote the economic interests of every individual; hence, society and government are expected to contribute to the socioeconomic well-being and advancement of the poor. The United States and Sweden may be considered as examples of the former and the latter, respectively. Such differences in economic policy cannot be exaggerated, however. In practice, even liberal democracies attempt to support the poorer segment of society and the variation in the level of such a support between the two variants seems to be only a matter of degree. Indeed, global economic competition and electoral politics seem to have tempered the different approach that the two variants of democracy have followed. Relatively higher taxation policies, as seen in social democracies, will quite likely hamper the competitiveness of corporations. Similarly, liberal democracies may have to increase their support to the poor because not doing so will probably not be favored by most people. A convergence of the two variants is apt to be inevitable.


Once countries transition to democratic rule, the next logical step is to stabilize such a system. Again, the stability of the new democracies seems to rest, among other things, on continuous socioeconomic development. The case of African countries right after independence suggests that poor or immature democracies are likely to be unstable and will probably revert to authoritarian systems. Nevertheless, the cases of India and Botswana suggest that poor democracies can become stable if they have good leadership and promote socioeconomic development. While continuous socioeconomic development may promote social mobility and affluence, good leadership tends to serve as an arbitrator for the presence of fair distribution of societal interests. By far, the most important role of democratic governments for promoting democracy has been public expenditures and investments in education, particularly in the education of impoverished children. Thus, the political process, including good political leadership and interest group politics, and continuous economic development continue to be two of the most important factors for the consolidation of democracy. But is the democratic process static or dynamic?

One can consider the cases of Sweden and Mali, for instance. While the former has been democratic since the early twentieth century, the latter has been so only since the 1990s. Can one logically assume that these two countries have an equal level of democracy? According to major democracy indices such as the Freedom House and Polity IV, the answer is, more or less, yes. Still, older democracies, particularly those in industrial countries, tend to have a higher quality of democracy than younger ones. While the basic attributes of democracy, such as fair and free electoral competition, civil liberties, and a majoritar-ian decision-making procedure, may be more or less present in both cases, the distribution of power among citizens in the two societies is quite different. Citizens in the older industrial democracies are more affluent and highly educated; as a result, they may have a greater chance of running for and winning elections for public offices and influencing public policies. Income and education resources would lead to political influence. If the income among citizens is unequal, how can they be politically equal? And because higher levels of affluence and educational achievement are a function of time, it follows that the diffusion of power or a higher level of democracy is likely to be dynamic.

Thus, the effect of socioeconomic development (and good leadership) after the transition to democracy may not merely be to maintain democracy but also to keep it evolving. Nevertheless, some scholars consider political systems as autonomous and static; that is, political systems are either autocracies or democracies. Others contend that political systems may be defined as trichotomous. These latter scholars can see at least a classification of political systems as autocracies, semi- or transitional democracies, and established democracies. A third group of scholars posit that democracy is a continuous concept. When scholars argue that democracy is continuous, they usually and mainly refer to the political process that occurs between autocratic rule and democratic transition. Dahl (1971) suggests that democratic development could go beyond the autocracy-democratic transition continuum and argues that current democracies or polyarchies are only an approximation of the ideal democracy. The main reason that no perfect democracy exists, according to Dahl, is the presence of income inequality. Thus, to speed up the establishment of a more equal democratic system, Dahl (1985) prescribes for the replacement of the current private enterprise economy by a system that allows employee-ownership of firms. He seems to imply that some form of political agreement and action would bring about political equality. Dahls position, however, seems to clash with individuals right to own private property. Indeed, the failures of ancient Greek democracies and twentieth-century communism can be partly explained by the absence of, or impediment to, economic liberty in these systems. The two forms of political systems maintained that true democracy could be achieved by forceful redistribution of property. What followed in these systems was political instability and economic inefficiency, leading to the demise of both political experiments. If democracy ensures economic and political freedoms and if such a process is also dynamic, it follows that the concept of democracy has to be defined accordingly.

Gizachew Tiruneh (2004) posits that the distribution of power among individuals must be considered when one rates or defines democracies. He contends that the procedural attributes of democracy, such as electoral competition, civil liberties, and a majoritarian decision-making procedure, are fundamental but once achieved they cannot be adequately used to differentiate the level of democracy among democracies. Power differences, according to Tiruneh, stem from differences in the level of income and rationality among individuals. And because individual achievement and competition are protected rights in democracies, some individuals are likely to become more successful than others. The more income an individual has, the more influence or political power he or she will possess. Assuming that the distribution of income itself is dynamic (being propelled by socioeconomic development), the diffusion of power or the level of democracy will quite likely increase over time. However, because not all individuals will have the same level of income and rationality, perfect political equality may not necessarily be achieved.

Thus, perfect political equality may, similar to the perfect competition argument in economics, be considered as a political ideal on which modern democracies may be judged. Rather than considering democracy as two separate phenomena, a political ideal and a political system, one may consider it as a single, open-ended (perhaps an infinite) process. A more achievable and optimal level of democracy, according to Tiruneh, occurs when the distribution of power, including income and rationality, among citizens takes the shape of a normal or bell curve. Modern industrial democracies have, in contrast, a skewed distribution of power (and income and rationality), where the mean or average citizen lies to right of center. In other words, the distribution of power, income, and rationality in modern democracies are skewed toward the upper classes. As the level of democracy increases over time, however, the mean citizen would gravitate to the center of the normal curve (where the preponderant majority or the middle class is located), and it would have the most decisive voice and power in democratic politics. Whereas those individuals to the right of the mean will in theory have more power than those to the left of the mean, and it is likely that most leaders may come out of the former group, the political agendas and policies of leaders will probably be dictated by the preferences of the mean citizen. The normal or bell-curve distribution of power would represent a democratic system the quality or degree of which is apt to be optimal. In sum, Tiruneh defines democracy as a political procedure that allows the presence of political rights, civil liberties, and a majoritarian decision-making or voting mechanism, and which permits the continuous achievement of a more equal distribution of political power (2004, p. 473). He terms such a state of political evolution as normal democracy.

However, some scholars disagree with some aspects of Tirunehs theory of democracy. For instance, they may contend that democracies, after transition, will remain stabilized; that is, democracies after transition will not continuously evolve. Others may, on philosophical or moral grounds, contend that, regardless of levels of income and rationality, citizens ought to possess an equal distribution of power. It is not clear, however, whether such possible contentions will successfully undermine Tirunehs thesis. What is clear is that until most or all scholars agree on a more acceptable definition of democracy, an understanding of the concept will remain incomplete.

SEE ALSO Authority; Citizenship; Democracy, Christian; Democracy, Consociational; Democracy, Indices of; Democracy, Racial; Democracy, Representative and Participatory; Elections; Parties, Political; Voting Patterns


Almond, Gabriel A., and Sydney Verba. 1963. The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bryce, James. 1921. Modern Democracies. New York: Macmillan.

Collier, David, and Robert Adcock. 1999. Democracy and Dichotomies: A Pragmatic Approach to Choices about Concepts. Annual Review of Political Science 2: 537565.

Dahl, Robert A. 1971. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 1985. A Preface to Economic Democracy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Friedman, Milton. 1962. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gastil, Raymond D. 1991. The Comparative Survey of Freedom: Experiences and Suggestions. In On Measuring Democracy: Its Consequences and Concomitants, ed. Alex Inkeles. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1959. Some Social Requisites of Democracy. American Political Science Review 53 (1): 69105.

Przeworski, Adam, and Fernando Limongi. 1997. Modernization: Theories and Facts. World Politics 49 (2): 155183.

Sartori, Giovanni. 1968. Democracy. In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. 4. Ed. David L. Sills. New York: Macmillan.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1976. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 5th ed. London: Allen and Unwin.

Tiruneh, Gizachew. 2004. Towards Normal Democracy: Theory and Prediction with Special Reference to the Developing Countries. Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies 29 (4): 469489.

Gizachew Tiruneh

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DEMOCRACY. A literal translation of the Greek dēmokratia, democracy means rule of the people, or government by the people. It was understood by the ancients as the direct participation of the citizen body in the government of the political community. The political and social institutions that originally gave rise to democracy both as a form of government and as a tool of political analysis soon died out, but democracy as an idea or an ideal persisted in various permutations through the survival or recovery of classical political thought.


In the classical and conventional typology of constitutions or forms of government, as in Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) and Thomas Aquinas (12251274), democracy is viewed as an unlawful or unjust form of rule. There are three legitimate forms of rule: monarchy, aristocracy, and politythe rule of one, the few, or the many in the public interest. The corresponding illegitimate forms are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracythe rule of one, the few, or the many in their own interest. Thus, democracy originally was understood as government conducted in the interest of the poor rather than in the public interest. Democracy did not shed these negative class incrustations until late in the nineteenth century, when it came increasingly to be equated with representative and liberal (constitutional) government.

The feudal and monarchical structures of the medieval West reinforced this tradition. Yet three major historical movements signaled the disintegration of the traditional order, and spawned new political ideas that, although not in themselves democratic, led to the rise of democracy. The first are the Renaissance, the Protestant (especially Puritan) Reformation, and the Enlightenment; the latter are republicanism and social contract theory.


The rise of the Italian city-states brought a radical change in political practice and political theory. Popular political institutions emerged, and government by the people was shown to be possible and desirable. These city-states, and the political thought they produced, contributed significantly to the history of modern democratic thought and practice. A renewal of interest in ancient history and culture, especially in historians such as Polybius (c. 200c. 118 b.c.e.), Sallust (c. 8635 or 34 b.c.e.), and Tacitus (c. 56c. 120 C.E.), combined with the political experience of the Italian city-republics, produced a political literature focused on the problems of popular government, and on its relation to liberty and equality. For the first time since the ancients, arguments in favor of popular rule were articulated. Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) is the culmination of this tradition. His thought links popular government, political liberty, and civic and political equality with the socioeconomic health and military strength of the body politic. Government by the people is deemed necessary to the pursuit of the public interest, and the other governmental forms are therefore seen as inferior. Machiavelli is thus a watershed in the history of democratic theory and practice. As such, his thought was mined by subsequent thinkers such as James Harrington (16111677), Charles-Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu (16891755), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778).

New attitudes. The waning of the Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformation, the dissolution of feudal ties, and the disintegration of a unified religious view, along with profound economic change and painful social dislocations, led to new attitudes, both in the way people perceived themselves and in the way they saw politics and society. The increase in knowledge and wealth, and the spread of literacy and printing, contributed to rapid political and social transformation. The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution signaled the rise and growing importance of these new attitudes. The execution and deposition of kings exploded the traditional belief in the passive acceptance of political power, showing that the basis for that power is human will and action. Major political theorists such as Thomas Hobbes (15881679), Hugo Grotius (15831645), Samuel von Pufendorf (16321694), and John Locke (16321704) responded to these economic, political, and intellectual changes by redefining and redirecting traditional ideas of natural law, human nature, and government. Hobbes in particular, with his absolute individualism and radical skepticism, expresses the breakdown of traditional forms of community and legitimate government, and their reconstitution by human reason and will.

Contemporary with Hobbes and with the Puritan revolution there developed in Britain a pamphlet literature in which some authors articulated definite arguments for democratic ideas. Chief among these were the Levellers, whose leader, John Lilburne (c. 16141657), located sovereignty in the common people as represented in Parliament. The Levellers developed the first truly modern conception of democratic government, proposing such ideas as universal manhood suffrage, equal representation of electoral districts, equality under law, freedom of expression, and biannual election of Parliaments. English republicanism, as enunciated by James Harrington, John Milton (16081674), and Algernon Sidney (16221683), also looked to the sovereignty of the people to ensure the public interest. Although not strictly democratic, it was concerned with electoral and political devices that later democrats addressed.

Dutch republicanism contributed significant strands to democratic thought and practice. Weaving together ancient Roman historians, Italian republicanism (especially Machiavelli), and the work of René Descartes (15961650) and Hobbes, thinkers such as Pieter de la Court (c. 16181685) and his brother Johan (also Jan) de la Court (16221660), Baruch Spinoza (16321677), and Pufendorf elaborated a theory of the state in which the individual interests and passions of both ruler and people would be subordinated to the common good. Spinoza and the de la Courts believed that a (more or less) democratic system would enable individuals to obey the will of the government and at the same time obey their own will, which in a democratic system is an element of the government's will. Spinoza, especially, thought that of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, the last was the most natural as well as the most rational.

English political thought, whether republican or contractualist, was much more concerned with individual rights than with the rights of the sovereign. Even Hobbes, who obligated the individual to obey an absolute sovereign, nevertheless recognized the absolute and sovereign rights of the individual in the natural state. It was John Locke, though, who integrated the rights of the individual in civil society with the power of the sovereign. His notion of government as a popular trust placed supreme power with a legislature representative of the people, who never alienated their right to change the constitution. Natural right, contract, and political obligation were important ideas; yet they were not necessarily democratic. Most early modern thinkers defined the notion of the people quite narrowly. But they did offer a defense of legislative supremacy, mixed government, and constitutionalism against the traditional and paternalistic claims of absolute monarchy.

In France, Montesquieu combined English ideas of mixed government and parliamentary rights with republican and Machiavellian ideas of the balanced constitution to criticize the despotic tendencies of the French monarchy. The classical sixfold classification of governments he reduced to three: despotism, monarchy, and republic. The latter, in a manner reminiscent of Florentine republican ideas, he further subdivided into aristocratic and democratic. Montesquieu's theory of despotism and his doctrine of the separation of powers were important influences on liberal constitutionalism and on the theory of limited government, but his preferences for limited monarchy and aristocratic government made his ideas undemocratic.


The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on human rationality and the efficacy of scientific inquiry, and with its belief in the human capacity for growth (or what Condorcet and Rousseau call "perfectibility"), undermined the religious, cultural, and customary underpinnings of the social and political order. Voltaire (16941778) and Denis Diderot (17131784) in France, like David Hume (17111776) and Jeremy Bentham (17481832) in Britain, explored the human and temporal bases of governmental power. The freedom of thought and expression so necessary for cultural, scientific, and moral development was intimately interwoven with political and civil liberties. In France especially these ideas constituted a thoroughgoing critique of church and state. These thinkers prepared the ground for democracy's future emergence as an actual system of government.

It was Rousseau, product and critic of the Enlightenment, who took the disparate ideas of both the ancients and the moderns (Plato and Aristotle, Roman writers, Machiavelli, Locke, Montesquieu) and made a truly original contribution to democratic theory. Rousseau's thought weds the ancients' concern with the primacy of political activity to the moderns' emphasis on political sociology. Humanity is defined by its capacity for liberty, and liberty means to be the author of one's actions. Thus, in Rousseau, liberty and equality presuppose each other, such that the people, when they come together as the sovereign body, look to the general and common interest of the community. The people acting together as equals in the pursuit of the public good generate the general will. Liberty, equality, and popular sovereignty are embodied in the citizen body as it makes laws for itself through the general will. By returning to the ancient polis, in which the public sphere is the realm of liberty, and in which equal citizens form an indivisible community, Rousseau formulated a novel theory of democracy.

Early modern Europe, from the Renaissance through the Reformation to the Enlightenment, was a transitional stage characterized by political, social, and intellectual/cultural transformation. It established the conditions that would, with the American and the French Revolutions, make possible the birth of the modern. It germinated and brought together ways of thinking and acting that would later form modern democracy. Ideas such as legislative supremacy, representation, constitutionalism, majority rule, and liberty and equality as indefeasible political rights were elaborated during this critical stage of European history. As a result, the basis of political legitimacy was radically transformed: all political power must issue, or appear to issue, from the people.

See also Condorcet, Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de ; Descartes, René ; Diderot, Denis ; English Civil War Radicalism ; Enlightenment ; Grotius, Hugo ; Harrington, James ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Hume, David ; Liberty ; Locke, John ; Machiavelli, Niccolò ; Milton, John ; Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de ; Natural Law ; Reformation, Protestant ; Renaissance ; Representative Institutions ; Republicanism ; Revolutions, Age of ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Spinoza, Baruch ; Voltaire .


Bock, Gisela, Quentin Skinner, and Maurizio Viroli, eds. Machiavelli and Republicanism. Cambridge, U.K., 1990. Provides interesting and informative essays on Machiavelli, his forerunners and contemporaries, and on his influence on English and Dutch republicanism.

Burns, James Henderson, ed. The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 14501700. Cambridge, U.K., 1991. A comprehensive history on all aspects of political thought.

Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven, 1989. An analysis of democratic thought and practice.

Dunn, John, ed. Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 B . C .to A . D . 1993. Oxford, 1992. A number of theorists such as Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and David Wootton offer interesting analyses of democracy from the ancient Athenians to the present.

Graubard, Stephen R. "Democracy." In Dictionary of the History of Ideas. New York, 1973. A good survey and discussion of democratic thought and practice since classical antiquity.

Hazard, Paul. European Thought in the Eighteenth Century: From Montesquieu to Lessing. Translated by J. Lewis May. London, 1954. Translation of Pensée européenne au XVIIIème siècle. A good discussion of Enlightenment thought.

Pagden, Anthony, ed. The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., 1987. A series of essays on the political and intellectual changes in early modern Europe.

Riley, Patrick, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau. Cambridge, U.K., 2001. Number of essays on various aspects of Rousseau's thought.

Sartori, Giovanni. The Theory of Democracy Revisited. Chatham, N.J., 1987. Provides both an analytical and historical discussion of various theories of democracy.

Skinner, Quentin. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Vol. 1, The Renaissance, and Vol. 2, The Age of Reformation. Cambridge, U.K., 1978.

Benedetto Fontana

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Electoral Systems

Electoral Systems





An electoral system is a set of institutional formulas producing a collective choice through voting. The main elements of an electoral system are: assembly size or total number of seats; district magnitude or number of seats to be elected in a district; the electoral rule to allocate seats from votes; and the ballot permitting the voter different choices. Different rules and procedures have combined these elements in many ways to produce a variety of electoral systems in the real world.

In late medieval and early modern assembly elections in local communities with homogeneous electorates, relatively simple electoral systems prevailed. A typical system until the nineteenth century was composed of: (1) multi-member districts; (2) plurality or majority rule; and (3) an open ballot. Essentially, voters could vote for their preferred individual candidates, and those with the higher numbers of votes were elected. This type of electoral system can produce a consensual individual representation of the community, especially in contexts of high economic and ethnic homogeneity in which it is relatively easy to identify common interests and select collective goods. Such systems have survived at the local level in some countries, and they are still typically used in meetings and assemblies of modern housing condominiums, neighborhood associations, school and university boards, professional organizations, corporation boards, and students and workers unions.

However, in contexts of relatively complex and heterogeneous electorates, simple electoral rules create incentives for the coordination of candidacies and voting. Forming a list of candidates, a faction, or, in more modern terms, a party, may move voters to vote en bloc rather than for individuals weighed separately. In multimember districts using plurality rule, voting en bloc (or the general ticket ) may produce a party sweep or overrepresentation by a single party. Once partisan candidacies and partisan voting emerged in a number of countries by the mid-nineteenth century, some political leaders, activists, and politically motivated scholars began to search for new electoral rules and procedures that could reduce single-party sweeps and exclusionary victories. The two main options were either retaining plurality or majority rule but in smaller single-member districts, or retaining multi-member districts but using new proportional representation rules.


In a small single-member district, a candidate that would have been defeated by a party sweep in a larger multimember district may be elected. Thus, this type of system tends to produce more varied representation than the old system with voting en bloc. Several majoritarian rules can be applied. With simple plurality, the winner is the candidate supported by only a relative majority, that is, by a higher number of voters than any other candidate but not requiring any particular number, proportion, or threshold of votes. In practice, this makes it possible for generally binding decisions presumably decided by majority to actually be won by only a minority of voters. Plurality rule has traditionally been used in England and the United Kingdom and in modern times in former British colonies, including the United States, Canada, and India. Plurality-based electoral systems are also called first-past-the-post and winner-takes-all systems.

With other rules based on the majority principle, if no alternative receives an absolute majority (more than half) of the votes, further rounds of voting are implemented, these rounds either requiring a simple plurality or reducing the choice to the two candidates with the highest numbers of votes in the first round. Such majority-runoff systems have traditionally been used in France, among other countries. A variant requires voters to rank all candidates, and includes several counts of votes (instead of several rounds of voting), until a candidate obtains the most preferences, as in the majority-preferential electoral system used in Australia (also called alternative vote or instant runoff ).

Proportional representation in multimember districts allocates seats to multiple parties competing in an election on the basis of the votes received. The basic mathematical formulas that make this principle operable were invented in late eighteenth century for apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives among differently populated states. These formulas were reinvented in Europe in late nineteenth century for the allocation of parliamentary seats to political parties with different numbers of votes. A proportional representation formula defines a quota of inhabitants or votes worth a seat. The simple quota (as devised by both Alexander Hamilton [1755/571804] and Thomas Hare [18061891]) is the divisor between the total number of inhabitants or votes and the total number of seats. But it usually requires an additional criterion to allocate some of the seats, most commonly to the largest remainders after the quota is used. In contrast, the smaller highest average or distributive number (as devised by both Thomas Jefferson [17431826] and Victor dHondt [18411901]) is sufficient to allocate all seats. This quota can be calculated after the election by several procedures, including trial and error, a series of divisors, or by lowering the simple quota until it fits.

Different forms of ballots may either force a categorical vote or permit some choice of individual candidates. Categorical ballots are used in single-member districts where voters can vote for only one candidate, as well as in multimember districts where voters can vote for only a closed list of candidates or en bloc. In contrast, open lists permit voters to select one or several candidates from a party list. With the double vote, voters choose both a closed party list and one individual candidate. The open ballot permits voters to vote for individual candidates from different parties. The majority-preferential vote and the single-transferable vote require voters to rank individual candidates.


Elections in single-member districts by plurality or majority rule always produce a single absolute winner, who may have the support of only a minority of voters as a first preference. A winner by plurality or by second-round majority might be defeated by a losing candidate by absolute majority if a choice between the two were available. Majoritarian rules may thus induce nonsincere or strategic voting that favors the voters second-best or less-rejected candidate, so as to prevent the victory of a least-preferred one. In contrast, proportional representation electoral systems are more inclusive of several groups. Since most votes count to elect seats, they promote a more sincere revelation of preferences by voters.

In parliamentary elections with multiple single-member districts, plurality rule typically gives overrepresentation to one or two parties at the expense of others and fabricates a single partys absolute majority of seats, thus permitting the formation of a single-party cabinet. In contrast, multiparty parliaments based on proportional representation tend to produce multiparty coalition governments based on a majority of seats and popular votes. In practice, there is a paradox: majoritarian electoral systems often create governments with minority electoral support, while proportional representation rules, which were initially devised to include minorities, tend to produce governments with majority electoral support. In plurality-rule electoral systems, a small change in the total number of popular votes can provoke a complete alternation of the party in government. Proportional representation systems, where parties may have opportunities to share power with different partners, produce more policy stability in the long term.


In general, the Micro-mega rule applies: the large prefer the small and the small prefer the large. Specifically, dominant and large parties prefer small assemblies and single-member districts that are able to exclude others from competition. In contrast, multiple small parties prefer large assemblies and large districts with proportional representation that can include them. Existing parties tend, thus, to choose electoral systems that are able to crystallize or consolidate the previously existing party configurations and systems.

However, the size of the assembly is a structural variable positively correlated to the countrys population and difficult to change dramatically. In large countries, such as Australia, Canada, France, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States, a large assembly can be sufficiently inclusive, even if it is elected in small, single-member districts, due to the territorial variety of the representatives. In small countries, by contrast, the size of the assembly is small and, as a consequence, the development of multiple parties favors more strongly the adoption of inclusive, large multimember districts with proportional representation rules. Proportional representation was first adopted for parliamentary elections in relatively small countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and other western European democracies in early twentieth century. In the long term, both the number of countries and the number of democracies in the world increase, while large countries decentralize, leading to an overall decrease in the size of democratic assemblies. This induces the adoption of more inclusive, proportional representation electoral rules.

In addition, the number of parties tends to increase under any electoral system as a consequence of the broadening of suffrage rights, as well as initiatives to politicize new issues and change the public agenda by groups seeking power or new policy decisions. Indeed, plurality rule provides incentives to form only a few viable large candidacies or parties. But coordination fails with relative frequency, due to the costs of information transmission, bargaining, and the implementation of agreements among previously separate organizations. Lack of coordination may produce defeats and no representation for candidates, groups, and parties that have significant support among voters. Parties unable to coordinate themselves into a small number of candidacies to compete successfully under plurality rule tend to choose electoral systems that can reduce the risks of competing, giving all participants greater opportunities to obtain or share power.

There is, thus, a general trend toward proportional representation over time. Nowadays, most democratic countries in the world use electoral systems with proportional representation rules. Likewise, for presidential elections, plurality rule tends to be replaced with second-round majority rules permitting multiparty competition in the first round. Many countries have also introduced a greater element of individual candidate voting. In fact, none of the new democracies established in countries with more than one million inhabitants in the third wave of democratization (since 1974) has adopted the old British model of a parliamentary regime with elections in single-member districts by plurality rule.

SEE ALSO Cleavages; Democracy; Franchise


Balinski, Michel L., and H. Peyton Young. 2001. Fair Representation: Meeting the Ideal of One Man, One Vote. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Blais, André, and Louis Massicotte. 1997. Electoral Formulas: A Macroscopic Perspective. European Journal of Political Research 32: 107129.

Colomer, Josep M., ed. 2004. Handbook of Electoral System Choice. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Colomer, Josep M. 2005. Its the Parties that Choose Electoral Systems (or Duvergers Laws Upside Down). Political Studies 53 (1): 121.

Colomer, Josep M. 2006. On the Origins of Electoral Systems and Political Parties. Electoral Studies 25 (3).

Cox, Gary W. 1997. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the Worlds Electoral Systems. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Grofman, Bernard, and Arend Lijphart, eds. 1986. Electoral Laws and their Political Consequences. New York: Agathon.

Negretto, Gabriel L. 2006. Choosing How to Choose Presidents. Journal of Politics 68 (2): 421433.

Taagepera, Rein, and Matthew Soberg Shugart. 1989. Seats and Votes: The Effects and Determinants of Electoral Systems. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Josep M. Colomer

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DEMOCRACY. In the simplest sense, democracy is rule by the ruled. In a democratic political system, government power is legitimized by the consent of the governed. Consent is expressed in a variety of forms, including annual election of government leaders and citizen participation in governing processes. The roots of American democratic culture can be traced to the direct election of many colonial legislatures, as well as the practice of democratic governance in many localities. The American Revolution was animated by the idea that the colonists were defending the principle of democratic self-rule and that the American struggle was analogous to the English Parliament's struggle against the monarchy.

The formal mechanisms of democracy can vary, however, with direct democracy at one pole and representative democracy at the other. Direct democracy allows for unmediated citizen deliberation and decision making on public matters; representative democracy permits citizens to elect representatives who act on their behalf. American democracy is representative in design and function, yet it is clearly influenced by the ideology of direct democracy.

In The Federalist Papers, James Madison argued for representative democracy, because of its power to "refine and enlarge" public opinion and to control the intemperate passions of the people, who—if permitted to make government policy directly—would threaten individual rights. A balance between majority rule and individual liberty could be struck if the people's representatives, at a physical and psychological remove from citizens, ruled on their behalf. Representative democracy was best suited for an "extended Republic"—a large nation with a multiplicity of crosscutting interests. If sufficiently removed from the fray of constituent pressure, legislators would be able to discern a good for the nation that transcended the sum total of voter demands.

While Madison's vision of democracy was ultimately enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, Madison's opponents—the anti-federalists—charged that representative democracy was at too far a remove from citizens. On matters of importance power needed to reside closer to the people, if not exercised by their direct consent. While arguments for representative democracy carried the day, the tension between the two models of democracy is a theme that resonates throughout American political history.

Democracy and the American Party System

The development of democracy is closely related to changes in the American party system. The competition between political parties to win offices often generates interest among the electorate in politics and government policies. Political parties can also pursue demobilization strategies, designed to keep people away from the polls. In the early republic factional differences between rivals were rather quietly resolved in congressional caucus. When intense rivalry between Whigs and Democrats emerged in the 1840s, parties turned their efforts to getting out the vote with speeches, events, and policies tailored to win the long-term loyalty of voters.

The Civil War shifted the party system. Party politics became extremely sectionalized, with Democrats dominating offices in the South and many urban areas elsewhere, and the Republicans consistently winning elections in the East and West. After the election of 1896 Republicans dominated national politics until 1932. Sectionalism and weak competition had the effect of lowering voter turnout as well as general interest in politics. The Great Depression sparked a Democratic Party revival that pulled union members and Roman Catholics, among other groups, into a greater habit of voting and democratic participation than they had practiced previously. In the later decades of the twentieth century party loyalty among the electorate began to wane. Many analysts associated the decline in voter turnout with the loosening of ties between citizens and political parties.


While the theoretical debate over the nature and design of democracy was clearly elucidated during the founding of the United States, the extension of full democratic citizenship came much more slowly. The electorate in the years after the constitutional founding numbered only one out of every thirty Americans. Those without property, African Americans, and women were denied the franchise. Many states dropped the property-holding requirement during the great period of political mobilization and political party growth, the age of Jackson (1820s–1830s). But it was not until 1856 that the last state, North Carolina, eliminated the property-holding requirement. In 1966 the Supreme Court held that the poll tax—a charge levied for voting—was unconstitutional. The poll tax had been commonly used in southern states to deter African Americans from voting.

The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1870) prohibits the denial of the right to vote based on race or color. While many African Americans exercised the new right during the reconstruction period, southern states eventually instituted a regime of legally enforced segregation known as "jim crow," which included laws designed to discourage African Americans from voting. As late as 1960, less than 10 percent of African Americans were registered to vote in Mississippi. A series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its extensions, declared most of the jim crow practices to be unconstitutional.

The right of a woman to vote was most readily accepted in the American West. The Wyoming state government made federal acceptance of women's suffrage in the state a condition of its entrance into the Union in 1890. In 1920 the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment extended voting rights to women nationally. In 1971 the Twenty-sixth Amendment lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen.

Voter Turnout and Political Participation

The simplest form of democratic participation is voting. Since 1828 voter turnout among eligible voters in presidential elections has ranged from a high of 81.8 percent in 1876 (Republican Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Democrat Samuel J. Tilden) to a low of 48.9 percent in 1924 (Republican Calvin Coolidge defeated Democrat John W. Davis and Progressive Robert La Follette). During the period 1960–2000 voter turnout in presidential elections averaged 55 percent. Voter turnout rates are lower in off-year elections between presidential contests, when many congressional contests are held; during the second half of the twentieth century typically only about one-third of the eligible electorate voted in off-year elections. The degree of competition between candidates and parties, the salience of issues being discussed in a campaign, legal barriers that increase the difficulty of voting, and the demographic composition of the electorate all affect voter turnout. Americans also face a blinding blizzard of choices, electing hundreds of thousands of officials from posts ranging in importance from the U.S. president to local city and county representatives and school board members.

In the early 2000s the U.S. rate of voter participation trailed that of the major western European democracies, a cause of concern for those who fear that the legitimacy of the governance system is threatened if too few people vote. Nonvoting is sometimes interpreted as a symptom of widespread disgust with the American two-party system. By 2002 calls had been made for the emergence of alternative political parties and ideologies to capture the interest and passion of the disenchanted, as well as changes in electoral law to make the birth of alternative parties easier. The surprisingly robust third-party candidacy of the businessman Ross Perot in the presidential elections of 1992 and 1996 was to many an example of the power of outsiders to attract politically alienated citizens. (Perot won 19 percent of the vote in 1992.) Perot, like other third-party or independent candidates for president, flourished during a time of economic and social unrest. Among the few independent presidential candidates who captured voter attention were Congressman John Anderson in 1980, Senator Robert La Follette in 1924, and former President Theodore Roosevelt running with Progressive Party support in 1912. Low voter participation has also been interpreted as a sign of contentment with the status quo, a signal that Americans are fundamentally happy with the political order.

Voting is the most formal act of political participation, but not the exclusive form of citizen involvement in the political system. A 1995 study found that 10 percent of Americans were political activists, defined as those who voted, worked in and contributed to political campaigns, and lobbied elected officials; 15 percent limited their activity to voting and helping out in political campaigns; 20 percent voted but limited more extensive involvement in community affairs to nonpolitical matters; 20 percent did no more than vote; and 20 percent did not vote at all. This survey suggests that a few people do most of the work seemingly required for the maintenance of democratic institutions.

In the early 2000s attention was devoted to the loss in the United States of "social capital"—the pool of trust and reciprocity among citizens that can be drawn on to solve collective problems. With Americans working longer hours, watching more television, and more attached to their professional and workplace institutions than to their geographical community, participation in local political and civic organizations dropped off. Many worried that the vitality of democracy was threatened as a result.

Democracy and Trust

Despite America's long democratic tradition and the slow but steady enfranchisement of excluded groups of citizens, public opinion surveys showed that trust in the democratic process declined in the United States in the aftermath of President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal and the fallout from the Vietnam War. Many called for reforms to renew the trust of citizens in democracy.

Campaign finance reform, aimed at capping the amount that candidates and parties can spend on elections, cycled off and on the public agenda from the 1970s to the early 2000s. In the 1990s many states and localities adopted term limits for elected representatives to en-courage the participation of amateurs in politics. Other suggested reforms proposed using new communications technology to involve more citizens in politics, as well as make voting easier.

Calls for reform that seek to augment representative democracies with more direct forms have a long history. During the Progressive Era (c. 1890–c. 1920), many states adopted initiative and referendum procedures to bring policy proposals directly before citizens by placing proposals on the ballot. Citizens could thereby bypass representative institutions that were often under the control of urban political machines or state legislatures dominated by rural interests. In the 1990s direct democracy procedures were adopted at a fevered pace. By 2002 California's most important policy decisions were usually resolved by referendum vote rather than in the state legislature.

Political movements have also argued for more expansive notions of democracy. During the New Deal era many liberals argued for forms of economic democracy that would recognize the workplace as an important site of power, where citizens in their role as workers traditionally had little control. In the 1960s the New Left linked democratic participation with individual development, asserting that the communal activities of direct democracy fulfill human potential and cultivate virtue.

Within the framework of consensus about democratic ideals, Americans will continue to debate the merits of direct and representative forms of democracy, and contest the inclusiveness of democratic citizenship, as well as its duties and obligations.


Gant, Michael M., and Norman R. Luttbeg. American Electoral Behavior: 1952–1988. Itasca, Ill.: F. E. Peacock Publishers, 1991.

Kammen, Michael, ed. The Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Morgan, Edmund S. The Birth of the Republic, 1763–1789. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Verba, Sidney, Henry E. Brady, and Kay Lehman Schlozman. Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Richard M.Flanagan

See alsoSuffrage, Woman's ; Two-Party System ; Voting .

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democracy So many political systems and ideologies claim the virtue of democracy that the word has become virtually meaningless in its everyday use; the label is used to legitimize almost every kind of political power arrangement.

The origins of democracy as an idea and a practice go back to the city-states of Greece in the fifth century BCE. At that time, it meant simply ‘rule of the citizens’ (the demos), and was designed to allow all citizens to have a voice in decisions that would affect all. This right was exercised at mass meetings, and approximated to what we would today call direct democracy. It is important to remember three things about this ancient Greek democracy: first, that it excluded women and a large class of slaves; second, that the demos acted as a collective or social body, rather than as isolated individuals; and, third, that this kind of collective decision-making could work only as long as the citizen body remained relatively small and homogeneous. Kirkpatrick Sale in Human Scale (1980), building on the empirical work of Robert Dahl, has suggested that true democracy is difficult in groups larger than 10,000, and impossible in populations above 50,000: most West Europeans and Americans live in towns and cities larger than this. In fact the classic age of Greek democracy lasted only for about 200 years, in city-states of a few thousand privileged citizens, and was destroyed by invasion and war. Its long-term durability in the face of population growth was never tested.

Contemporary democracies are all very different from the ancient Greek model. The pattern that emerged in England in the seventeenth century and slowly became the model for the world was one of representative democracy. Here, citizens elect politicians who promise to represent the interests of those citizens in debates and decisions, which typically take place in some central national forum such as a parliament or congress. Thus, ideally, the parliament becomes a miniature demos.

In practice, politicians in a democracy usually belong to parties which propose general policies or programmes, rather than responding to citizens on an issue-by-issue basis. Parties thus become independent centres of power. The experience of the twentieth century seems to show that citizens' views are best represented by the proliferation of many small parties—as in Italy or Israel; but government can be carried on more efficiently where there are only two, or at most three parties—as in Britain or the United States. This is one of the many paradoxes of democracy which have engaged the attention of sociologists and political scientists.

Although there are many one-party systems in the world which claim to be democratic on the basis that they represent the collective will of the people, it is widely agreed that real inter-party competition and real representation of different interests is a necessary condition of democracy. Other necessary conditions include: free and fair elections, a genuine choice between candidates and polities, real parliamentary power, the separation of powers, civil rights for all citizens, and the rule of law. There is room for unlimited disagreement about the exact meaning of any and all of these conditions, which is why democracy continues to be the focus of intense public and academic debate. Researchers have explored the nature of the state as a sociological entity, political socialization, voting behaviour and political participation, the relationships between democracy and economic systems, and the manipulation of public opinion.

But the main thrust of research has been to investigate the reality of democracy itself—how widely power is distributed, and what role ordinary citizens play. In 1956 Robert A. Dahl published A Preface to Democratic Theory in which he argued that the modern industrial states were not democracies so much as polyarchies—shifting coalitions of powerful interest groups. This sparked off two decades of intense research and analysis. In the same year, C. Wright Mills produced The Power Elite which took the critique of democracy much further by claiming that, in the United States, democratic political practices had been obliterated by a power élite consisting of the institutional leaders of big business, the military, and what Mills called ‘the political directorate’ (the executive branch of government). Citizens had become docile and powerless in this mass society.

The counterpart of élite and class-rule theories of democracy has been the conservative tradition which, from Plato to Burke, has been suspicious of democracy as a dangerous and inefficient system which could easily lead to mob rule. The origins of popular democracy in the French Revolution of 1789 gave force to this view.

In the modern democracies there is little consensus about just how strong the voice of the people can or should be in a constitutional democracy. Politicians routinely ignore massive public opinion majorities—for example the majority for capital punishment or a balanced budget in the United States, or the majority against full integration into Europe, or against health privatization in Britain. Democracy mixes uneasily with traditional paternalism, international corporate capitalism, and welfare statism. Indeed, the complexity of political and economic decision-making today presents a formidable barrier to real public participation. In the future, new electronic techniques for supplying information and testing public opinion may bring democracy a little closer to its participatory origins.

Useful introductions to the voluminous literature surrounding these issues are Jack Lively's Democracy (1975) and the collection edited by Graeme Duncan , Democratic Theory and Practice (1983)

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democracy [Gr.,=rule of the people], term originating in ancient Greece to designate a government where the people share in directing the activities of the state, as distinct from governments controlled by a single class, select group, or autocrat. The definition of democracy has been expanded, however, to describe a philosophy that insists on the right and the capacity of a people, acting either directly or through representatives, to control their institutions for their own purposes. Such a philosophy places a high value on the equality of individuals and would free people as far as possible from restraints not self-imposed. It insists that necessary restraints be imposed only by the consent of the majority and that they conform to the principle of equality.


Democracy first flourished in the Greek city-state, reaching its fullest expression in ancient Athens. There the citizens, as members of the assembly, participated directly in the making of their laws. A democracy of this sort was possible only in a small state where the people were politically educated, and it was limited since the majority of inhabitants were slaves or noncitizens. Athenian democracy fell before imperial rule, as did other ancient democracies in the early Italian cities and the early church. In this period and in the Middle Ages, ideas such as representation crucial to modern Western democracy were developed.

Doctrines of natural law evolved into the idea of natural rights, i.e., that all people have certain rights, such as self-preservation, that cannot be taken from them. The idea of contract followed, that rulers and people were bound to each other by reciprocal obligations. If the sovereign failed in his duties or transgressed on natural rights, the people could take back their sovereignty. This idea, as postulated by John Locke, strongly influenced the development of British parliamentary democracy and, as defined in the social contract theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau, helped form the philosophical justification for the American and French Revolutions. The idea that equality of opportunity can be maintained through political democracy alone has long been challenged by socialists and others, who insist that economic democracy through economic equality and public ownership of the major means of production is the only foundation upon which a true political democracy can be erected.

English settlers in America faced frontier conditions that emphasized the importance of the individual and helped in breaking down class distinctions and prejudices. These led to a democratic political structure marked by a high degree of individualism, civil liberty, and a government limited by law. In the 19th cent. emphasis was placed on broadening the franchise and improving the machinery for enabling the will of the people to be more fully and directly expressed.

Since the mid-20th cent. most political systems have described themselves as democracies, but many of them have not encouraged competing political parties and have not stressed individual rights and other elements typical of classic Western democracy. With the collapse of one-party Communist rule in Eastern Europe, the fall of authoritarian dictatorships in Latin America, and the end of some one-party states in sub-Saharan Africa, however, the number of true multiparty democracies has increased. Despite the increase in the number of countries holding multiparty elections, however, the United Nations issued a study in 2002 that stated that in more than half the world's nations the rights and freedoms of citizens are limited.


See H. Laski, Democracy in Crisis (1933, repr. 1969); R. A. Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956, repr. 1963) and Democracy and its Critics (1989); M. I. Finley, Democracy Ancient and Modern (1973); C. B. MacPherson, Democratic Theory (1973); J. Mansbridge, Beyond Adversary Democracy (1982); B. R. Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Democracy for a New Age (1984); P. Green, Retrieving Democracy: In Search of Civic Equality (1985); F. Bealey, Democracy in the Contemporary State (1988); T. E. Cronin, Direct Democracy (1989); M. H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (tr. 1999).

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democracy. In Britain, the transition from oligarchy to democracy was piecemeal. The civil wars and Glorious Revolution of the 17th cent. confirmed the supremacy of Parliament, but an unreformed electoral system restricted effective participation to a small minority. What public opinion existed could be expressed only spasmodically, by riots or petitioning. The proliferation of newspapers in the 18th cent. and the publication of parliamentary debates after 1770 widened the scope of opinion, but not until the Great Reform Act of 1832 was the system itself substantially modified, with the introduction of a standard franchise, and the grant of representation to great towns like Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Leeds, and Wolverhampton. Further extensions of the franchise in 1867 and 1884 gave most adult males the vote (though excluding many lodgers), secret ballot in 1872 reduced the influence of the gentry, and the Corrupt Practices Act of 1883 curtailed bribery. Two further reforms of 1918 and 1928 gave the vote to women, and the voting age was reduced to 18 by an Act of 1969.

Democracy affords voters the opportunity to change their government, but the extent to which the opinions of ordinary people are effective in other matters remains a subject of debate, and it is arguable that specific interest groups, or lobbies, carry more weight than the casting of a vote (often for a losing candidate) once every four or five years. There was concern that the proportion of people voting at the general election of 2001 was low, suggesting somewhat desultory interest, and the proposal for proportional representation was once more urged as a means of making every vote of significance. In local government, where the influence of the individual might be expected to be greatest, the effect has been reduced by powerful strides towards centralized decision-making, and the domination of many councils by one party. For many people the main experience of democracy in action is being overruled while taking part in some local protest. Participatory democracy, accepted in principle by almost everybody, is not easy to practise in a a large country, where issues are many and complex. On a larger scale, there is a tension between the move towards devolution, to make government seem less remote, and the desire of some to see more decisions taken by the European Community, which has the reverse effect.

J. A. Cannon

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JOHN CANNON. "democracy." The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. (May 25, 2016).

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democracy (Gk. demos kratia, ‘people authority’) Rule of the people, as opposed to rule by one (autocracy) or a few (oligarchy). Ancient Greece is regarded as the birthplace of democracy, in particular Athens (5th century bc). Small Greek city-states enabled direct political participation, but only among its citizens (a small political elite). As societies grew, more refined systems of representative democracy were needed. In a feudal system, the king selected tenants-in-chief to provide counsel. In late 13th-century England, a parliament evolved, but remained answerable to the monarchy. Changes in land ownership and the growth of a mercantile class widened the representative base of parliament. The Roundheads' victory in the English Civil War was, in general terms, a victory for parliamentary sovereignty. A fundamental shift in emphasis was the transition from natural law to natural rights, as expounded by John Locke: in addition to responsibility (to crown or church), people possessed inalienable rights. Rousseau developed these notions into the social contract, which influenced the French and American Revolutions: government was limited by law from impinging on individual freedoms. During the 19th century, the franchise was extended. In the 20th century, democratic representation has been a matter of debate and sometimes bloody dispute. Common to modern liberal democracy is the principle of free multiparty elections with universal adult suffrage.

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"democracy." World Encyclopedia. 2005. 25 May. 2016 <>.

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de·moc·ra·cy / diˈmäkrəsē/ • n. (pl. -cies) a system of government by the whole population or all eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives. ∎  a state governed in such a way. ∎  control of an organization or group by the majority of its members: industrial democracy. ∎  the practice or principles of social equality.

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"democracy." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. 25 May. 2016 <>.

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democracy XVI. — (O)F. démocratie — late L. dēmocratia — Gr. dēmokratíā, f. dēmos people; see -CRACY.
So democrat XVIII. — F. démocrate, f. démocratie, after aristocrate. democratic XVII.

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T. F. HOAD. "democracy." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. 1996. 25 May. 2016 <>.

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the population of a democratic state; the common people; the members of the U. S. Democratic Party collectively, 1868.

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"Democracy." Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms. 1985. 25 May. 2016 <>.

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democracy •radiancy •immediacy, intermediacy •expediency • idiocy • saliency •resiliency • leniency •incipiency, recipiency •recreancy • pruriency • deviancy •subserviency • transiency • pliancy •buoyancy, flamboyancy •fluency, truancy •constituency • abbacy • embassy •celibacy • absorbency •incumbency, recumbency •ascendancy, intendancy, interdependency, pendency, resplendency, superintendency, tendency, transcendency •candidacy •presidency, residency •despondency • redundancy • infancy •sycophancy • argosy • legacy •profligacy • surrogacy •extravagancy • plangency • agency •regency •astringency, contingency, stringency •intransigency • exigency • cogency •pungency •convergency, emergency, insurgency, urgency •vacancy • piquancy • fricassee •mendicancy • efficacy • prolificacy •insignificancy • delicacy • intricacy •advocacy • fallacy • galaxy •jealousy, prelacy •repellency • valency • Wallasey •articulacy • corpulency • inviolacy •excellency • equivalency • pharmacy •supremacy • clemency • Christmassy •illegitimacy, legitimacy •intimacy • ultimacy • primacy •dormancy • diplomacy • contumacy •stagnancy •lieutenancy, subtenancy, tenancy •pregnancy •benignancy, malignancy •effeminacy • prominency •obstinacy • pertinency • lunacy •immanency •impermanency, permanency •rampancy • papacy • flippancy •occupancy •archiepiscopacy, episcopacy •transparency • leprosy • inerrancy •flagrancy, fragrancy, vagrancy •conspiracy • idiosyncrasy •minstrelsy • magistracy • piracy •vibrancy •adhocracy, aristocracy, autocracy, bureaucracy, democracy, gerontocracy, gynaecocracy (US gynecocracy), hierocracy, hypocrisy, meritocracy, mobocracy, monocracy, plutocracy, technocracy, theocracy •accuracy • obduracy • currency •curacy, pleurisy •confederacy • numeracy •degeneracy • itinerancy • inveteracy •illiteracy, literacy •innocency • trenchancy • deficiency •fantasy, phantasy •intestacy • ecstasy • expectancy •latency • chieftaincy • intermittency •consistency, insistency, persistency •instancy • militancy • impenitency •precipitancy • competency •hesitancy • apostasy • constancy •accountancy • adjutancy •consultancy, exultancy •impotency • discourtesy •inadvertency • privacy •irrelevancy, relevancy •solvency • frequency • delinquency •adequacy • poignancy

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"democracy." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. 25 May. 2016 <>.

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