Democracy is the idea that citizens have a right and responsibility to govern themselves through elected representatives. It also implies that citizens are free to form associations, speak their minds and trade ideas, and hold each other accountable. This is a fine balance, and it requires compromise and understanding. It demands that government deliver services and be trustworthy, that it respect all citizens, and that citizens contribute, whether through taxes or voting or in other ways.
As a result, democracy can be difficult to achieve and sustain. It is not surprising that, as America celebrates its 247th anniversary of independence this July 4, political scientists have debated how well democracy really works. The debate has been raging since the 1930s, when advisers to President Franklin Roosevelt suggested he might have to temporarily assume dictatorial powers to get through a severe economic crisis.
In the 21st century, a similar argument has been raised, with some scholars arguing that the US is no longer a democracy because it does not do everything that would be necessary to maintain freedom and equality for all citizens. The debate has grown even more contentious, as recent events have brought attention to the challenges of democracy worldwide.
This article outlines some key issues and developments in the theory and practice of democracy, and introduces readers to several ways that citizens can participate in democracy and help keep it healthy. It is intended to help students and others interested in democracy understand its complexity and to promote discussions about how we might improve democratic governance.
Despite its popularity, there is no one definition of democracy. In fact, a great deal of variation exists among approaches to measuring democracy (and a variety of other closely related concepts). Most of these measures use evaluations by experts in each country and year to assess whether or not, and to what extent, a particular country has the characteristics that define a democracy. These experts are usually academics who specialize in the countries and years they evaluate, or they may be nationals of those countries who know them very well. In addition, many of these measurement approaches rely on the analysis of news reports and academic literature as sources of information.
Using these different types of data, we can construct rankings of countries for various indicators of democracy. This ranking helps to identify important trends and developments in democracy. In particular, it can highlight which countries are improving and which ones are deteriorating. It can also help to compare different measures of democracy, and to distinguish between those that focus on the main aspects of democratic governance and those that take into account additional elements that are often important for understanding the quality and nature of a democracy. This is particularly useful when assessing the performance of and support for democracy in different regions of the world. For example, our V-Dem data show that political support for democracy responds thermostatically to changes in the rule of law: increases in the degree to which citizens believe they are treated equally under the law should depress citizen demand for more democracy, while decreases should boost it.