What Democracy Mean?

Democracy. This concept of government that many throw around, but few can truly describe. There are many quotes to describe that to understand something, it first must happen to you; however, Democracy is an everchanging concept that we have been a part of for nearly 250 years and that’s just the American version… yet most still don’t understand it.

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There are multiple facets to democracy that have evolved over thousands of years. It has even split into multiple types. Some countries even use different pieces of those types. To understand democracy is to understand where it came from, what it has become now, and theories of where it could be going.

Historical Overview and Types of Democracy

Kurt Lewin said it best that “If you truly wish to understand something, try to change it.” To start to change something, you must know where it began. Through a brief historical overview, it is easy to watch the primary concepts of democracy develop through the ages; those being: popular sovereignty, limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, judicial review, federalism, and republicanism.

Origins of Democracy

Historically there were several early forms of democracy including Ancient Sumer and India; However, the most well-known and well-documented examples were the Athenians of Greece and the Romans. Both societies created their versions of democracy around the same time. Athens became a democracy around 508 BCE and Rome created its republic around 510 BCE.

Athens Athenian democracy selected officials by vote and made decisions based on majority rule. The assembly of voters was open to all citizens and citizens directly voted on all decisions; however, laws that affected citizenship severely limited who had the right to vote. Citizenship was limited to non-slave adult males of Athenian citizen descent. This is a clear case of the first of the principles of democracy; Popular sovereignty is where the power is held by the people.

Rome created the first republic after the expulsion of the final king. Afterwards, they created a constitution where power laid with the Roman Senate who delegated executive power to two consuls chosen from the Senate. This system was not without its and after years of struggles with the common people, changes were made, most notably being the Law of Twelve Tables. These were a set of 12 laws that were inscribed in bronze tablets that were precisely worded and made known to the public so that all could be equally treated before the law. Their process of codifying laws would become the basis of many societies all the way up to modern day. Another of the principal concepts is represented here in Republicanism: a system in which voters hold the sovereign power and elect representatives to exercise power for them.

Early Democratic milestones.

Many years passed before the revival of democracy after the fall of the Roman Republic in 27 BCE. The new ideas came as the Renaissance was in its infancy. Philosophers of the times began looking back over Greek and Roman texts with more modern interpretations.

England The first of many of these renaissance milestones was the Magna Carta of 1215. It created protections for the barons involved and imposed certain restrictions on the king. Interestingly enough, it was the mythic ideals surrounding this document protecting civil liberties of the common peoples that persisted long enough to even influence the Founding Fathers. This is an example of another primary concept of democracy: limiting government. Other major milestones would include the first elected English Parliament (Republicanism), the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, English Bill of Rights and Scottish Claim of Right of 1689 (Limited Government).

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century milestones

Many of the concepts and ideas we base our current forms of democracy on were created in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From philosophers to constitutions to social movements up to revolutions, these two centuries went through major political upheaval to provide us with the framework for our current governments.

Eighteenth Century Another of our principal concepts was introduced in 1748 by the Baron Montesquieu. In his Spirit of Laws, he discussed creating three branches of government to create a separation of powers so that no one branch would have more power than another. In 1776, the Virginia Bill of Rights, based on such writings as the English Bill of Rights and those of John Locke, created the first modern constitutional protections for civil rights of citizens in America. Later, in 1789, the U.S. Constitution would be ratified creating the first model of separation of powers and true checks and balances. It would eventually also have its own bill of rights to protect civil liberties and states’ rights that would be our first example of federalism.

Nineteenth Century This century would see many social justice issues pushed to reform many of the democracies around the world, many focused on equality of minorities and universal suffrage. Some of these would not reach fruition until the next century. The last of the principal concepts of democracy would be introduced as well. The landmark decision of Marbury v. Madison demonstrated the power of judicial review by the courts, making it the most powerful of the three branches of U.S. government.

Modern Democracy

Over the years and throughout many global events, including WWI and WWII, democracy has had a chance to spread and thrive. Through this process it has grown and changed, now split into eight main types that will be discussed here.

Direct Democracy This form of democracy requires that a voting populace directly votes on particular issues. If the government wants to pass a law, that law goes to the people, and they vote on it. This allows direct control of the fate of their country. The people can even bring up issues on their own if they have a big enough consensus This requires a relatively smaller population that is mostly consistent in its political views.

Representative Democracy Also known as indirect democracy, this is the most common form found around the world. It allows the citizens to vote for individuals to go represent them in government. The main advantage here is for larger countries to allow a wider group of people to be included and have a voice in how the country is run without having to be present on every issue. It also allows for minorities to not be excluded.

Presidential Democracy In some states and countries, a President is elected directly or indirectly to run the government. The President typically has a fair amount of power over the legislature, but not enough to remove them. Vice versa, the legislature does not have enough power to remove the President unless an extreme case arises. The President, being head of government, is also typically head of the state.

Parliamentary Democracy This type of democracy is characterized by the legislature having more power. The executive branch derives its power from what the legislature allows. In this case, the head of state and head of government are different and have different limits of power. Typically, the head of state is characterized by a weak president or figurehead.

Authoritarian Democracy This form is what happens when the ruling body consists of mainly the elite class. People are allowed to vote for those in power, but the “common” people are not allowed to vote.

Participatory Democracy The polar opposite of Authoritarian, this form seeks to empower all of its citizens to have a voice and be a part of the decision-making process. Typically, it employs a more decentralized program of small networks and community-based grassroots politics. The most valued part is deliberation and discussion.

Islamic Democracy Another approach to democracy, this form consists of three parts. Firstly, leaders are elected by the people. Secondly, all are subject to sharia law, including the leaders. Lastly, the leaders are expected to perform a consultation called shura, where they confer with those affected by a decision prior to coming to a solution.

Social Democracy This form aims to empower the state over the everchanging free market. The state can increase its expenditure by providing free substitutes to costly private projects, such as free healthcare or education, so that the people are not forced to rely on profit-making corporations.

Quality of Governance in Consociational Democracy

Quality of governance (QoG) is a theory set forth by Bo Rothstein and Jan Teorell (2008) discussing the definition of what makes up quality of governance in a society. Consociational democracy is a model and theory created by Arend Lijphart(2008) to discuss how there might be a stable democracy in a state with deep divisions. First will be an overview of each followed by a discussion of how they might fit together.

Quality of Governance This theory is built on discussing what makes up a definition of good quality of governance that can be used universally. Its main focus is the impartiality of government; that being “A state regulates relations to its citizens on two dimensions. One is the “input” side which relates to the access to public authority. The other is the “output” side and refers to the way in which that authority is exercised. When implementing laws and policies, government officials shall not take into consideration anything about the citizen/case that is not beforehand stipulated in the policy or the law.” (Rothstein & Teorell, 2008) As a very brief summary, what quality of governance breaks down to is two-fold. Political equality in the access of public authority, that being the “input” with impartiality and lack of corruption in the exercise of power by authorities being the “output.” Rothstein and Teorell agree with the definition of corruption put forth by Oskar Kurer “corruption involves a holder of public office violating the impartiality principle in order to achieve private gain.” (Kurer 2005, 230)

Consociational Democracy This model, as stated previously, is designed around a state or country with deep divisions, particularly along ethnic or religious lines. The goals are avoidance of violence, the survival of democracy and power-sharing, and governmental stability. Lijphart postulated that there were nine favorable conditions for Consociational democracy to thrive; those being: segmental isolation of ethnic communities, a multiple balance of power, the presence of external threats common to all communities, overarching loyalties to the state, a tradition of elite accommodation, socioeconomic equality, small population size, and a moderate multi-party system with segmental parties.(2008)

QoG in Consociationalism To understand QoG in consociationalism, we must look at the inputs by citizens to achieve the outputs. The main “input” that each citizen has is casting the vote for their representative party leader for their segment. Through that party leader, they expect to have representation of their concerns and interests. These party leaders are then expected to collaborate with the other party leaders in a coalition or cabinet and come together on a consensus. Most constitutions of such governments have a part in place for a minority veto that allows minorities to not be completely overruled. The efficient “output” of this style of democracy is that community leaders are thought to promote conciliation among their followers and to encourage acceptance of the settlement to hopefully maintain their own political position. If a party leader is poor at fighting for his party’s concerns, then he will be voted out and this once again represents the input of the citizen. By making all significant parties invested, it is hoped that they will not walk away from constitutional agreements. Under these arrangements, each religious, linguistic or nationalistic community will feel that their voices count and the rules are reasonable and legitimate.

Current Examples

There are many current examples of input and output of citizens through social action, but the most poignant one comes in the form of our most recent midterm elections here in the United States. Through a massive push of social action via protests, grassroots movements, political organization, and more, there was a huge political turnover during the midterms. A near even split of the country, it seems, is not pleased with how the Republican party is running the country without oversight and made that abundantly clear. The Democratic party retook multiple state legislatures, gubernatorial races, and had a net gain of thirty-two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The only area where Democrats took a real hit is in the U.S. Senate where the GOP had a net gain of two seats. This was a huge example of the social action of citizens unhappy with the current state of government getting involved at all levels and making a change.


Democracy is a constantly fluctuating idea. Everyone wishes to have the most proper form of government that will make sound decisions and include all the voices of its people. This is why democracy will always be changing because it will always be trying to meet the needs of those it serves. To do so, we need to continually understand where we have been, where we are, and where we can potentially be going. Who knows, maybe the future of the United States is in deliberative democracy via a new form of consociationalism?

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