Democracy - Definition

Definition

While there is no universally accepted definition of "democracy," equality and freedom have both been identified as important characteristics of democracy since ancient times. These principles are reflected in all eligible citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to legislative processes. For example, in a representative democracy, every vote has equal weight, no unreasonable restrictions can apply to anyone seeking to become a representative, and the freedom of its eligible citizens is secured by legitimized rights and liberties which are generally protected by a constitution.

One theory holds that democracy requires three fundamental principles: 1) upward control, i.e. sovereignty residing at the lowest levels of authority, 2) political equality, and 3) social norms by which individuals and institutions only consider acceptable acts that reflect the first two principles of upward control and political equality.

The term "democracy" is sometimes used as shorthand for liberal democracy, which is a variant of representative democracy that may include elements such as political pluralism; equality before the law; the right to petition elected officials for redress of grievances; due process; civil liberties; human rights; and elements of civil society outside the government.

In the United States, separation of powers is often cited as a central attribute, but in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, the dominant principle is that of parliamentary sovereignty (while maintaining judicial independence). In other cases, "democracy" is used to mean direct democracy. Though the term "democracy" is typically used in the context of a political state, the principles also are applicable to private organizations.

Majority rule is often listed as a characteristic of democracy. Hence, democracy allows for political minorities to be oppressed by the "tyranny of the majority" in the absence of legal protections of individual or group rights. An essential part of an "ideal" representative democracy is competitive elections that are fair both substantively and procedurally. Furthermore, freedom of political expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are considered to be essential rights that allow citizens to be adequately informed and able to vote according to their own interests.

It has also been suggested that a basic feature of democracy is the capacity of eligible voters to participate freely and fully in the life of their society. With its emphasis on notions of social contract and the collective will of the eligible voters, democracy can also be characterized as a form of political collectivism because it is defined as a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives.

While democracy is often equated with the republican form of government, the term "republic" classically has encompassed both democracies and aristocracies.

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