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Characteristics of Democracy

03 May 2008
town meeting (AP Images)

Some U.S. localities still practice direct democracy. Here, a Harwick, Vermont town meeting.

(The following article is taken from the U.S. Department of State publication, USA Democracy in Brief.)

Democracy is more than just a set of specific government institutions; it rests upon a well-understood group of values, attitudes, and practices – all of which may take different forms and expressions among cultures and societies around the world. Democracies rest upon fundamental principles, not uniform practices.

Core Democratic Characteristics

• Democracy is government in which power and civic responsibility are exercised by all adult citizens, directly, or through their freely elected representatives.

• Democracy rests upon the principles of majority rule and individual rights. Democracies guard against all-powerful central governments and decentralize government to regional and local levels, understanding that all levels of government must be as accessible and responsive to the people as possible.

• Democracies understand that one of their prime functions is to protect such basic human rights as freedom of speech and religion; the right to equal protection under law; and the opportunity to organize and participate fully in the political, economic, and cultural life of society.

• Democracies conduct regular free and fair elections open to citizens of voting age.

• Citizens in a democracy have not only rights, but also the responsibility to participate in the political system that, in turn, protects their rights and freedoms.

• Democratic societies are committed to the values of tolerance, cooperation, and compromise. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, "Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit."

Two Forms of Democracy

Democracies fall into two basic categories, direct and representative. In a direct democracy, citizens, without the intermediary of elected or appointed officials, can participate in making public decisions. Such a system is clearly most practical with relatively small numbers of people – in a community organization, tribal council, or the local unit of a labor union, for example – where members can meet in a single room to discuss issues and arrive at decisions by consensus or majority vote.

Some U.S. states, in addition, place "propositions" and "referenda" – mandated changes of law – or possible recall of elected officials on ballots during state elections. These practices are forms of direct democracy, expressing the will of a large population. Many practices may have elements of direct democracy. In Switzerland, many important political decisions on issues, including public health, energy, and employment, are subject to a vote by the country's citizens. And some might argue that the Internet is creating new forms of direct democracy, as it empowers political groups to raise money for their causes by appealing directly to like-minded citizens.

However, today, as in the past, the most common form of democracy, whether for a town of 50,000 or a nation of 50 million, is representative democracy, in which citizens elect officials to make political decisions, formulate laws, and administer programs for the public good.

Majority Rule and Minority Rights

All democracies are systems in which citizens freely make political decisions by majority rule. In the words of American essayist E.B. White: "Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time."

But majority rule, by itself, is not automatically democratic. No one, for example, would call a system fair or just that permitted 51 percent of the population to oppress the remaining 49 percent in the name of the majority. In a democratic society, majority rule must be coupled with guarantees of individual human rights that, in turn, serve to protect the rights of minorities and dissenters – whether ethnic, religious, or simply the losers in political debate. The rights of minorities do not depend upon the good will of the majority and cannot be eliminated by majority vote. The rights of minorities are protected because democratic laws and institutions protect the rights of all citizens.

Minorities need to trust the government to protect their rights and safety. Once this is accomplished, such groups can participate in, and contribute to their country's democratic institutions. The principle of majority rule and minority rights characterizes all modern democracies, no matter how varied in history, culture, population, and economy.

Pluralism and Democratic Society

In a democracy, government is only one thread in the social fabric of many and varied public and private institutions, legal forums, political parties, organizations, and associations. This diversity is called pluralism, and it assumes that the many organized groups and institutions in a democratic society do not depend upon government for their existence, legitimacy, or authority. Most democratic societies have thousands of private organizations, some local, some national. Many of them serve a mediating role between individuals and society's complex social and governmental institutions, filling roles not given to the government and offering individuals opportunities to become part of their society without being in government.

In an authoritarian society, virtually all such organizations would be controlled, licensed, watched, or otherwise accountable to the government. In a democracy, the powers of the government are, by law, clearly defined and sharply limited. As a result, private organizations are largely free of government control. In this busy private realm of democratic society, citizens can explore the possibilities of peaceful self-fulfillment and the responsibilities of belonging to a community – free of the potentially heavy hand of the state or the demand that they adhere to views held by those with influence or power, or by the majority.

Wole Soyinka (AP Images)

Public discussion is the lifeblood of democracy. Pictured: Nigerian Nobel-prize winner Wole Soyinka at a Swiss book fair.