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A democracy is a form of government in which the people, either directly or indirectly, take part in governing. The word democracy originates from Greek, and means rule of the people.

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Democratic governments can be divided into different types, based on a number of different distinctions. The most important distinction is between direct democracy and indirect democracy. The latter type is the most common one.

A direct democracy is a political system in which all citizens are allowed to influence policy by means of a direct vote, or referendum, on any particular issue.

Indirect democracy is a term describing a means of governance by the people through elected representatives.

A representative democracy is a system in which the people elect government officials who then make decisions on their behalf. This is often referred to as Republic, particularly in historical usages and in constitutional theory. Modern definitions of that term, however, refer to any State with an elective Head of State and most monarchies are representative democracies.

Essentially, a representative democracy is a form of indirect democracy in which leaders and representatives are democratically selected. A doctrine ofter known as Edmund Burke's Principle states that representatives should act upon their own conscience in the affairs of a representative democracy. There is also an expectation that such representatives should consider the views of their electors - particularly in the case of States with strong constituiency links. Some critics of representative democracy argue that party politics mean that representatives will be forced to follow the party line on issues, rather than either the will of their conscience or constituents.

Another form of indirect democracy is delegative democracy. In delegative democracy, delegates are selected and expected to act on the wishes of the constituency. In this form of democracy the constituency may recall the delegate at any time. One critique of delegative democracy is that it can be used to filter out the will of the base element if too many layers are added to the structure of decision making.

One important issue in a democracy is the suffrage, or the franchise - that is the decision as to who ought to be entitled to vote. Recent example of how the "right to vote" changed over history is New Zealand, which was the first country to give women the right to vote (19 September 1893). In the Athenian democracy, slaves and women were prohibited from voting.

Another important concern in a democracy is the so-called "tyranny of the majority". In a pure democracy, a majority would be empowered to do anything it wanted to any unfavored minority. For example, in a pure democracy it is theoretically possible for a majority to vote that a certain religion should be illegalized, and its members punished with death. In some countries, their Constitution intentionally designs a representative rather than a direct democracy in part to avoid the danger of the tyranny of the majority. Some proponents of direct democracy argue that not all direct democracies need to be pure democracies. They argue that just as there is a special constitutional process for amending articles in the constitutions of traditional Republics, there could be a distinction between legislation which would be handled through direct democracy and the modification of constitutional rights which would have a more deliberative procedure there attached.

Direct and Representative Democracy

Direct democracy becomes more and more difficult, and necessarily more closely approximates representative democracy, as the number of citizens grows. Historically, the most direct democracies would include the New England town meeting, and the political system of the ancient Greek city states.

There are concerns about how such systems would scale to larger populations, in this subject there are a number of experiences being conducted all over the world to increase the direct participation of citizens in what is now a representative system:

  • Porto Alegre (http://mondediplo.com/1998/10/08brazil), Brazil
  • Bologna (http://www.comune.bologna.it/comune/istituti/democrazia_elettronica.htm), Italy

We can view direct and indirect democracies as ideal types, with actual democracies approximating more closely to the one or the other. Some modern political entities are closest to direct democracies, such as Switzerland or some U.S. States, where frequent use is made of referenda, and means are provided for referenda to be initiated by petition instead of by members of the legislature or the government.

However, elections are not a sufficient condition for the existence of democracy, in fact elections can be used by totalitarian regimes or dictatorships to give a false sense of democracy. Some examples are 1960s right-wing military dicatorships in South America, left-wing totalitarian states like the USSR until 1991 or the more prominent III Reich, in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.

Representative democracy is the most commonly used system of government in countries generally considered "democratic". However, it should be noted that the definition used to classify countries as "democratic" was crafted by Europeans and is directly influenced by the dominating cultures in those countries; care should be taken when applying it to other cultures that are tribal in nature and do no have the same historical background as the current "democratic" countries.

Discussion on Direct Democracy

The traditional, and to many still compelling, objection to direct democracy as a form of government is that it is open to demagoguery. It is for this reason that the United States was established as, in the terminology used at the time , a "republic" rather than a "democracy". Thus Benjamin Franklin's famous answer, to the question as to what sort of government the "Founding Fathers" had established, was: "A Republic, if you can keep it."

Alternative Definition of 'Democracy'

There is another definition of democracy from that given above, though it is less commonly used. According to this definition, the word "democracy" refers solely to direct democracy, whilst a representative democracy is referred to as a "republic". Using this definition, most western coutries' system of government is referred to as a "democratic-republic," rather than a democracy.

The words "democracy" and "republic" were wrongly used by some of the Founding Fathers of the United States. They argued that only a representative democracy (what they called a 'republic') could properly protect the rights of the individual; they used the word 'democracy' to refer to direct democracy, which they considered tyrannical.

From the time of old Greece up to now the definition of the word "democracy" has changed, according to most political scientists today (and most common English speakers) the term "democracy" refers to a government chosen by the people, whether it be direct or representative. The term "republic" today commonly means, a politicial system with a head of state elected for a limited term, as opposed to a constitutional monarchy.

Note however that the older terms are still sometimes used in discussions of politicial theory, especially when considering the works of Aristotle or the American "Founding Fathers". This older terminology also has some popularity in conservative and Libertarian politics in the United States.

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