Democracy is the belief that power should be shared amongst all members of a society and used to maximize their well-being. It requires a free, informed electorate and regular elections. It also includes checks and balances on government, civil liberties, and a legal system. Democracies have a ‘democratic spirit’ that values transparency, freedom of association and speech, and equal protection under the law.
The word ‘democracy’ comes from the Greek words ‘demos’ meaning people and ‘kratos’ meaning power or rule. It is a concept that runs counter to absolutist powers based on divine right and tradition, as well as liberal regimes that impose their own views of what is best for citizens by coercion.
How do we define a democracy? Traditionally, it is described as a political system in which control over policy is constitutionally vested in elected officials. This is usually achieved by having regular, fair, and open elections in which coercion is comparatively uncommon. Practically all adults have the right to vote in these elections. In addition, democracy is characterized by efforts to define and limit power through constitutions and other forms of checks and balances and by conventions and a legal system that complements this political system.
In recent times there have been concerns about the state of democracy in many countries around the world. Some of these concerns are grounded in the fact that democracy seems less able to adapt to technological, demographic and cultural change than in the past. Some are rooted in the perception that democracy has been corrupted or compromised by the election of demagogues who challenge basic human rights and liberal values.
It is not easy to defend a positive definition of democracy against these criticisms, and in particular to avoid making it appear as a kind of utopian ideal that is unrealistic or unattainable in the real world. The answer, then, must lie in finding ways to improve and strengthen democracy.
The most important step is to make sure that all citizens understand the issues and are able to vote in the elections. It is important to ensure that people are able to speak out when policies seem undemocratic, or against human rights, and make their opinions known to representatives in parliaments or through other channels.
Keeping in touch with your representatives, following the news, and getting involved in groups that are working on specific policy areas is also important. This gives a direct feedback to the government and helps prevent it from taking decisions that are against the interests or values of its constituents.
A third key element of democracy is that it involves citizens in the decision making process by providing them with a wide range of options for participation and engagement, from protest to lobbying to direct representation in committees or assemblies. While it is true that the level of formal participation is not as high as in the past, some studies suggest that other forms of participation are on the rise – such as pressure groups, civic initiatives and consultative organs.