Democracy

democracy [Gr.,=rule of the people], term originating in ancient Greece to designate a government where the people share in directing the activities of the state, as distinct from governments controlled by a single class, select group, or autocrat. The definition of democracy has been expanded, however, to describe a philosophy that insists on the right and the capacity of a people, acting either directly or through representatives, to control their institutions for their own purposes. Such a philosophy places a high value on the equality of individuals and would free people as far as possible from restraints not self-imposed. It insists that necessary restraints be imposed only by the consent of the majority and that they conform to the principle of equality.

Development

Democracy first flourished in the Greek city-state, reaching its fullest expression in ancient Athens. There the citizens, as members of the assembly, participated directly in the making of their laws. A democracy of this sort was possible only in a small state where the people were politically educated, and it was limited since the majority of inhabitants were slaves or noncitizens. Athenian democracy fell before imperial rule, as did other ancient democracies in the early Italian cities and the early church. In this period and in the Middle Ages, ideas such as representation crucial to modern Western democracy were developed.

Doctrines of natural law evolved into the idea of natural rights, i.e., that all people have certain rights, such as self-preservation, that cannot be taken from them. The idea of contract followed, that rulers and people were bound to each other by reciprocal obligations. If the sovereign failed in his duties or transgressed on natural rights, the people could take back their sovereignty. This idea, as postulated by John Locke, strongly influenced the development of British parliamentary democracy and, as defined in the social contract theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau, helped form the philosophical justification for the American and French Revolutions. The idea that equality of opportunity can be maintained through political democracy alone has long been challenged by socialists and others, who insist that economic democracy through economic equality and public ownership of the major means of production is the only foundation upon which a true political democracy can be erected.

English settlers in America faced frontier conditions that emphasized the importance of the individual and helped in breaking down class distinctions and prejudices. These led to a democratic political structure marked by a high degree of individualism, civil liberty, and a government limited by law. In the 19th cent. emphasis was placed on broadening the franchise and improving the machinery for enabling the will of the people to be more fully and directly expressed.

Since the mid-20th cent. most political systems have described themselves as democracies, but many of them have not encouraged competing political parties and have not stressed individual rights and other elements typical of classic Western democracy. With the collapse of one-party Communist rule in Eastern Europe, the fall of authoritarian dictatorships in Latin America, and the end of some one-party states in sub-Saharan Africa, however, the number of true multiparty democracies has increased. Despite the increase in the number of countries holding multiparty elections, however, the United Nations issued a study in 2002 that stated that in more than half the world's nations the rights and freedoms of citizens are limited.

Bibliography

See H. Laski, Democracy in Crisis (1933, repr. 1969); R. A. Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956, repr. 1963) and Democracy and its Critics (1989); M. I. Finley, Democracy Ancient and Modern (1973); C. B. MacPherson, Democratic Theory (1973); J. Mansbridge, Beyond Adversary Democracy (1982); B. R. Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Democracy for a New Age (1984); P. Green, Retrieving Democracy: In Search of Civic Equality (1985); F. Bealey, Democracy in the Contemporary State (1988); T. E. Cronin, Direct Democracy (1989); M. H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (tr. 1999).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Democracy: A Short, Analytical History
Roland N. Stromberg.
M. E. Sharpe, 1996
What Is Democracy?
Alain Touraine; David Macey.
Westview Press, 1997
Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy
Nadia Urbinati.
University of Chicago Press, 2008
The Edinburgh Companion to the History of Democracy
Benjamin Isakhan; Stephen Stockwell.
Edinburgh University Press, 2012
The Theory of Democracy Revisited
Giovanni Sartori.
Chatham House, 1987
Designing Democracy: What Constitutions Do
Cass R. Sunstein.
Oxford University Press, 2001
Constitutional Democracy
Dennis C. Mueller.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 BC to AD 1993
John Dunn.
Oxford University Press, 1992
Democracy and Democratization: Processes and Prospects in a Changing World
Georg Sørensen.
Westview Press, 1998 (2nd edition)
Democracy, Bureaucracy, and the Study of Administration
Camilla Stivers.
Westview Press, 2000
After Authoritarianism: Democracy or Disorder?
Daniel N. Nelson.
Praeger, 1995
Political Cleavages: Issues, Parties, and the Consolidation of Democracy
Alejandro Moreno.
Westview Press, 1999
Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement
Stephen Macedo.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Philosophy and Democracy: An Anthology
Thomas Christiano.
Oxford University Press, 2003
Negotiating Democracy: Transitions from Authoritarian Rule
Gretchen Casper; Michelle M. Taylor.
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996
Democracy in Translation: Understanding Politics in An Unfamiliar Culture
Frederic C. Schaffer.
Cornell University Press, 1998
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