What Is Democracy?

Democracy is a political system in which citizens are involved in the making of laws and policies through elections and debate, with their rights protected by constitutions and laws. Its fundamental characteristics include freedom of speech, association and movement; respect for people’s beliefs, opinions and property; the ability to participate in public policy discussions and campaigns; and laws that are clear, fair and democratically produced. Democracies also promote a higher quality of life and rarely make war on each other.

The different approaches to democracy vary in how they define the term, including whether it is only a system of electoral politics or broader concepts of deliberative and participatory governance. They also differ in their views about how a state should organize itself to promote democratic ideals and the role of non-governmental organisations in this effort. The most common approach defines democracy as an electoral and liberal political system in which people get to choose who governs them through free and fair elections, and in which they have a voice in the making of government policies and laws. It may require the formal equality of all voters in an election or a specific electoral system, for example first-past-the-post or proportional representation. It also requires that citizens have a voice in decision making through civic engagement, and it may include additional civil rights that protect them from unwarranted governmental deprivation of their life and liberty.

Some people also believe that democratic governance systems are better at advancing a range of human interests, because they are more responsive to citizens’ judgments and preferences than other forms of governing. For example, John Stuart Mill argued that democracy forces decision-makers to take into account the rights and interests of a wider range of subjects than would be the case under aristocracy or monarchy. Others argue that a democracy can foster economic growth by providing better access to services like education and healthcare, or by channeling social conflict into constructive compromise rather than violence.

In order for a society to be truly democratic, it must ensure that all members have the same rights and opportunities, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, wealth or age. This is difficult to achieve, especially in the real world where it is often a struggle to make decisions that are both good for all and effective at addressing particular problems. This includes ensuring that young people are engaged in the process from a early age and that the institutions of democracy, including civil society and media, are inclusive and accessible to everyone. It also means establishing a serious “price of admission” to democracy, where participants have to commit to making concrete and serious efforts to invest in the democratic process domestically and internationally. The Global State of Democracy Indices can provide helpful benchmarks to help people measure progress and identify challenges.