Democracy is a form of government in which control over policy decisions is constitutionally vested in elected officials. These officials are chosen in frequent and fairly conducted elections, in which coercion is comparatively uncommon. Practically all adults have the right to vote in these elections, and citizens have a wide range of freedoms to express their views about political matters generally defined.
While democracy is celebrated as an advance over other systems of government, it does have some problems. Most importantly, it requires citizens to participate in democratic processes and engage in civic responsibility such as voting, activism, and public discourse. This participation is necessary if democracy is to succeed in making policies that reflect the interests and priorities of all people, rather than just a small group of the most powerful or wealthy people.
In order to do so, they need information about the issues facing their country and the policies that are proposed. They also need to understand how different policies might affect the lives of citizens, both now and in the future. Without sufficient knowledge and understanding, voters may make mistakes during election time that could have serious consequences for society as a whole.
Another problem is that in some countries, the process of democracy is not respected. For example, some countries have not had free elections in a long time, and the people’s voices are not heard by their leaders. This lack of respect is damaging to the legitimacy and effectiveness of democracy as a system of governance.
The fact that democracy is based on the consent of the governed makes it the most ethical and humane way to govern. As such, it should be promoted in all countries that have not already done so. The recent phenomenon of popular movements like the Arab Spring demonstrate that a higher level of citizen participation can take place even in countries that have not traditionally been considered democracies.
A final point to keep in mind is that democracy works best when it is accompanied by other democratic institutions, such as a free press and a wide variety of social and economic rights. When these other institutions are in place, democracy can function effectively as a mechanism for preventing dictatorship and promoting peace and prosperity throughout the world.
A good starting point for a discussion on democracy is the Student backgrounder – Democracy (Appendix B). Once students have a definition of democracy in place, they can then work in small groups to evaluate the ways their classroom and school model democratic principles by using the Teacher resource – Democracy report card sample in Appendix G. Students can then write their evaluations and rationales for their thinking. This is a great way to help students to become active citizens and take responsibility for the health of their own community. This activity can be used in any grade level. It is particularly useful for students who are preparing to enter high school or university.