What is Democracy?


Democracy is the idea that decisions about the public good should be based on the freely expressed will of people. This means that all citizens are able to participate in politics and can hold decision-makers to account. It also implies that women and men are equally entitled to human rights and are free from discrimination. Democracy requires a high degree of civil liberties, which is reflected in the freedoms of speech and assembly, privacy and the right to protest.

There are many different forms of democracy in the world. Some are presidential, some parliamentary, some use proportional voting and others don’t. These differences are a reflection of the fact that no system is perfect and that the idea behind a democracy is more important than the particular form it takes in practice.

It is important to remember that no one is born a democratic citizen or a democracy. Both are processes that develop over a lifetime. People need to learn about democracy and develop the habits of a democratic citizen, and nations must make the necessary investments in democracy for it to flourish.

Teachers can begin by distributing the Student Backgrounder – What is democracy? (Appendix B) and the Frayer model of democracy (Appendix C). Divide the class into small groups and assign each group a question. Give the students time to discuss their answers. It might be useful to select a note taker for each group, so that the big ideas that emerge can be recorded and posted in a visible place.

After the small groups have finished discussing their questions, encourage them to combine their work into a single definition of what they consider to be democracy. They can then present their definitions to the rest of the class. This could be done by using an online voting tool or simply a show of hands. The class can then vote on which definition they think is the best and arrive at a consensus.

Defining what is meant by democracy is not easy because it involves finding a way to arbitrate between conflicting social forces. In some instances, the demand for economic modernization collides with the desire to preserve traditions and culture. In other cases, the demands for progress clash with the need to respect and value the uniqueness of people as individuals.

A democracy that fails to make room for these facets of society will be an ineffective and dangerous regime, whether it is socialist or capitalist. It will fail because it will be unable to fulfil its primary function, which is to provide a platform for arbitration between modernity and identity. Until this happens, the struggle between grass-roots movements that fight to defend their communities and political parties that seek to win elections will only escalate.