Definition, Types, Meaning, History, Advantages and Features of Democracy

Definition, Types, Meaning, History, Advantages  and Features of Democracy

Meaning of Democracy

The term democracy comes from the Greek word for “rule of the people.” The Greek’s idea of democracy was based on the full participation of all people in every aspect of government. The Greek system of democratic government is the model of “pure” or consensus” democracy, though in the case of Greek pure democracy did not last long. However, the idea of government by the people survived the decline of the Greek city-state to become one of the basic ideals of political thought.

There are two broad categories of scholars on the concept of democracy: the process and principle democrats. Process scholars see democracy as a way of making decisions, but principle democrats’ argue that democracy has a very important theoretical base (Baradat, 2000).

The principle democrats’ states that, although the procedure of democracy is important, according to them it is secondary to the basic intents and objectives of democracy as expressed in democratic theory. For this reason, we will focus in this unit on the principle or theory of democracy.

The principle democrats contend that the basic principle of modern liberal democracy include that the individual is of major importance in the society, that each individual is basically equal to all other individuals, and that each has certain inalienable rights. Central to democracy is also the assumption of the freedom of choice that the individual has from form fear or coercion and any other disabilities. Central to democracy is liberty to make choice and equality of choice. Democracy, according to John Dewey is much more than a form of government or a set of legal arrangement, but should be seen as a way of life that requires faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action, if proper conditions are provided. He argues further that democracy requires faith in the possibility of resolving disputes through un- coerced deliberations. Democracy, according to Dewey, should not be viewed as “something institutional and external” but should been seen as “a way of personal life.”

Democracy not only requires institutional guarantees of rights but also faith in the possibility of resolving disputes through un-coerced deliberation.

In other words, un-hindered communication should be put in place in a democratic setting in which there is a “cooperative undertaking”, instead of having one group suppress the other through either subtle or overt violence or through intimidation. Democracy does not impose authority from above but instead relies on the dialogue as the source of authority and the means of choosing among competing alternatives. A democratic system flourishes in a setting where there is unlimited participation of all citizens in a free and rational public debate.

For Emile Durkheim, the basic hallmark of democracy is the citizens’ capacity to participate in the state’s judgment. To him, the state’s legitimacy springs from its collective conscience. In other words, the citizens should be able to contribute to the natural reasoning and deliberations of the society.

In Durkheim’s view, if we want to have a viable democracy then we must have a vibrant public sphere where issues of common concern could be debated in a rational manner. Similarly, intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics including differences of race, colour or wealth are treason to the democratic way of life.

Despite this seeming agreement by most scholars on its principle, democracy, especially its process, which we shall discuss in the next unit, is, essentially, a largely contested concept.

Robert Dahl (1984) sees it as a concept that defies definition in the sense that the way one defines it would betray one’s beliefs, personal outlook, political experience and ideological preference. There are differences for example between the United States’ and the Soviet Union’s conception of democracy.

A major difference between USA and the former Soviet Union is that US emphasizes political freedom as basic to democracy while USSR focuses on economic rights and its leaders are even prepared to suppress or deny individual rights for the sake of the survival of the system.

On the other hand, democracy in the U.S.A. does not place high premium on economic needs, in spite of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program. In retrospect, one can argue that that one of the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed is that the system could no longer fulfill the basic economic needs of its people despite the lid the system placed on human (political) rights. This is why Baradat (2000) argued that the Soviet Union and the United States differed as to which procedures best defines democracy”.


The Process of Democracy

The popular definition of democracy offered by Abraham Lincoln gives the impression that all the citizens have the opportunities of participating in government. However, this is no longer possible in the modern world because of the size of sovereign states today. Since the world has advanced beyond the Greek city-states participatory democracy is no longer practicable, hence the necessity for indirect or representative democracy. Through this process, given that all necessary conditions are in place, it is quite possible to achieve the ideals of democracy. Political power comes from the people and that a government is only legally constituted and run when the people gives their consent. The democratic process is therefore the institutional arrangements for arriving at political decisions in which individual acquires and retain the power to rule by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.

The success of any democratic political system is largely, determined by the willingness on the part of the political actors to comply with the rules of the game. A democratic political system will therefore be stable if the process of leadership recruitment is legitimate and majority of the citizens accept the electoral system as fair and just. Presently, the United States and most European countries have succeeded in meeting most conditions for the sustenance of democracy, while most third world countries are still struggling to lay the foundation or rudiments, in order to begin the democratic journey. Democracy goes beyond mere putting in place political structures and institutions, but also involves meaningful participation of the peoples in the affairs of the state. The key words therefore are participation, transparency and accountability.

As aptly argued by Samuel P. Huntington (Huntington, 1991), democracy has advanced in waves since the early nineteenth Century, with each wave giving way to partial reversals followed by new gains. The current wave, which is the third one, according to him, commenced in the mid-seventies.

Thus, contemporary views on democracy see it as the exercise of state power with the consent of the people either directly or indirectly through their elected representatives. Within democratic governance there is provision for state institutions to express the will of the state and ultimately for the supremacy of that expression on all basic questions of socioeconomic direction and policy. Under democratic governance, factors such as economic equality, fraternal feeling and political liberty within a defined territory are indispensable prerequisites.

The institutional expression within democratic governance in contemporary times are equal rights for all normal adults to vote and to stand as candidates for election; periodic elections; equal eligibility for executive and judicial offices (provided the essential qualifications for the performance of the assigned duties are satisfied) and freedom of speech, publication and association Appadoria (2004). These rights in themselves provide opportunities for the entire citizenry to participate in choosing their rulers and in deciding the general lines of their policy via their political manifestos presented before elections.

However, a number of factors, most significant of which are the social environment, economic resource of the citizens and their natural endowment decide the extent to which these essential democratic sine qua non rights can be met.

Nonetheless, in most democratic states in spite of their imperfections, even the poor are given minimal equality of voting during elections since votes are counted, not weighed, regardless of the social or economic status of the voters. Among such rights that can promote the cause of democracy are freedoms of speech, press and association. 

These rights are integral to democratic governance because they make possible free discussion and the continuous participation of the citizenry in government, overtime and not only during the time of general elections. Free discussion is necessary because democratic governance is based on the belief in the value of individual personality. This implies the obligation to respect the other man, to listen to his views and to take into account his point of argument. In addition, the process of law making should allow full scope for the consideration of different and opposing viewpoints. 

Those who are inevitably affected by a law must be content that their case has been properly heard in a properly constituted court of law in the land (Egbewole, 2008). This makes the ‘Rule of Law’ a cardinal element of democracy (Dicey 1963). Equality before the law, impartiality in the dispensation of justice and periodic elections are also important in promoting hitch-free democratic process. There is also the possibility of an alternative government in democratic governance. This is in sharp contrast to a situation where power is conferred permanently, or where people do not feel free or safe to discuss or vote according to the dictates of their conscience. Where this is the case then democracy cannot be said to exist even if the people continue to enjoy the other political rights enumerated above. Finally, democratic governance requires proper organization and dynamic leadership. Political parties carry out organization within democratic governance. Despite their limitations or weaknesses, political parties are indispensable to the successful operation of a democratic society (Bello-imam, 2002). Little wonder political parties are regarded as the fulcrum of democracy.

Lastly, we must point out that it is not possible to isolate the principle of democracy from its process because one needs to reconcile the two in such a way that a state should use the right method or process to achieve the objectives of democracy.


Types of Democracy

Below listed are types of Democracy:

1.       Direct Democracy

2.       Indirect or Representative Democracy

3.       Participatory Democracy

4.       Liberal Democracy

5.       parliamentary Democracy

6.       pluralist Democracy

1. Direct Democracy

In a direct democracy, such as ancient Athens, all citizens (only adult males who had completed their military training; women, slaves and plebs were not citizens) are invited to participate in all political decisions. This form of democracy is no longer practiced. In this form of democracy citizens are continuously involved in the exercise of power and decision is by majority rule.  Direct democracy, sometimes called "pure democracy," is a form of democracy in which all laws and policies imposed by governments are determined by the people themselves, rather than by representatives who are elected by the people. In a true direct democracy, all laws, bills, and even court decisions are voted on by all citizens.

2. Indirect or Representatives Democracy

It a representative democracy, representatives are elected by the people and entrusted to carry out the business of governance.  Australia is a representative democracy. If your country holds elections, it’s almost certainly a representative democracy. That means it’s a system of government in which citizens elect representatives who propose and vote on legislation or policy initiatives on their behalf. It’s a form of indirect democracy, as opposed to a direct democracy, in which people vote directly on policy initiatives. Representative democracy gives power to representatives who are elected by citizens. As you may know, political parties have become an important element of representative democracy. They give us a broad-stroke sense of what a candidate stands for based on which party he or she belongs to. Although we still vote on people when we head to the polls, in reality we are really voting for which political party – and which platform of policy ideas – we want to represent us.

 3. Participatory Democracy

In a participatory democracy, the people vote directly on policy while their elected representatives are responsible for implementing those policies. Participatory democracies rely on the citizens in setting the direction of the state and the operation of its political systems. While the two forms of government share similar ideals, participatory democracies tend to encourage a higher, more direct form of citizen participation than traditional representative democracies.

While there are no countries specifically classified as participatory democracies, most representative democracies employ citizen participation as a tool for social and political reform. In the United States, for example, so-called “grassroots” citizen participation causes such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s have led elected officials to enact laws implementing sweeping social, legal, and political policy changes.

4. Liberal Democracy

Liberal democracy is loosely defined as a form of representative democracy that emphasizes the principles of classical liberalism—an ideology advocating the protection of individual civil liberties and e economic freedom by limiting the power of the government. Liberal democracies employ a constitution, either statutorily codified, as in the United States or unmodified, as in the United Kingdom, to define the powers of the government, provide for a separation of those powers, and enshrine the social contracts.  Liberal democracies may take the form of a constitutional republic, like the United States, or a constitutional monarchy, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

5. Parliamentary Democracy

In a parliamentary democracy, the people directly elect representatives to a legislative parliament. Similar to the U.S. congress, the parliament directly represents the people in making necessary laws and policy decisions for the country.In parliamentary democracies such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Japan, the head of government is a prime minister, who is first elected to parliament by the people, then elected prime minister by a vote of the parliament. However, the prime minister remains a member of the parliament and thus plays an active role in the legislative process of creating and passing laws. Parliamentary democracies are typically a feature of a constitutional monarch, a system of government in which the head of state is a queen or king whose power is limited by a constitution.

6. Pluralist Democracy

In a pluralist democracy, no single group dominates politics. Instead, organized groups within the people compete to influence public policy. In political science, the term pluralism expresses the ideology that influence should be spread among different interest groups, rather than held by a single elite group as in an aristocracy. Compared to participatory democracies, in which individuals take part in influencing political decisions, in a pluralist democracy, individuals work through groups formed around common causes hoping to win the support of elected leaders. In this context, the pluralist democracy assumes that the government and the society as a whole benefit from a diversity of viewpoints. Examples of pluralist democracy can be seen in the impact special interest groups, such as the national organization for women, have had on American politics.


 Brief History of Democracy 

Archeological evidence suggests that disorganized practices at least resembling democracy existed in some parts of the world during prehistoric times, However, the concept of democracy as a form of populist civic engagement emerged  during the 5th century BCE in the form of the political system used in some of the city- state  of ancient Greece, most notably Athens. At that time, and for the next several centuries, tribes or city-states remained small enough that if democracy was practiced at all, it took the form of direct democracy. As city-states grew into larger, more heavily populated sovereign nation-states or countries, direct democracy became unwieldy and slowly gave way to representative democracy. This massive change necessitated an entirely new set of political institution such as legislatures, parliaments, and political parties all designed according to the size and cultural character of the city or country to be governed.

Until the 17th century, most legislatures consisted only of the entire body of citizens, as in Greece, or representatives selected from among a tiny oligarchy or an elite hereditary aristocracy. This began to change during the  English civil wars from 1642 to 1651 when members of the radical puritan reformation movement demanded expanded representation in Parliament and the universal right to vote for all male citizens. By the middle 1700s, as the power of the British Parliament grew, the first political parties the Whigs and Tories emerged. It soon became obvious that laws could not be passed or taxes levied without the support of the Whig or Tory party representatives in Parliament.

While the developments in the British Parliament showed the feasibility of a representative form of government, the first truly representative democracies emerged during the 1780s in the British colonies of North America and took its modern form with the formal adoption of the Constitution of the United States of America on March 4, 1789.

Features of Democracy

1.   Existence of the Constitution

2.   Popular participation in politics

3.   Legitimacy

4.   Periodic election

5.   Separation of power

6.   Checks and balances

7.   Existence of political parties

8.   Equality before the law

9.   Fundamental human rights

In short, those are the features of a democratic state. Nonetheless, as we continue, each of these features above will be comprehensively discussed.

1. Existence of the Constitution: In every democratic nation, there is usually the existence of a constitution which is either written or written. A constitution can simply be defined as the fundamental laws or rules which guides a state or society. It establishes the institutions of the government such as the legislature, the executive and the judiciary and defines their powers. The constitution also contains the rights and duties of the citizens and the government. It is imperative to note that there are two types of institutions namely: Formal and informal institutions. Formal instructions are those which discharge formal functions such as the three arms of the government. On the other hand, informal institutions are those which discharge informal responsibilities such as the political parties and the press. In a democratic society, the constitution usually states how these institutions functions.

2. Popular participation in politics: One the most important features of democracy is popular participation in politics. From the definition of democracy explained above, it is clear that any system which does not encourage people to participate in the political decision making of the government is not democratic. Consequently, popular participation is not just a feature of democracy; it is an essential part of the system. People have to participate in politics either directly or through a representative which is legitimately recognized by them. Take for instance, in Nigeria (a federal system), people at the local level, who cannot actively participate in politics at the central level, are allowed to elect senators who represent their opinions at the central level. No doubt, popular participation in politics is one of the features of democracy that cannot be jettisoned.

3. Legitimacy:  Legitimacy is the recognition of the people of a state, the right of their leaders to govern. This definition of Legitimacy is actually very short and understandable. Oxford dictionary defines democracy as when there is conformity to the law or to rules. The definition of Legitimacy in political science which Wikipedia says is the right and acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a regime. In a democratic state, the people are allowed to select who to govern them. This is what is known as Legitimacy. Here, the people will unanimously agree on who will administer their political affairs. This is usually done by voting and it is recognized by the law which the people have consented to. Apparently, this is why Abraham Lincoln said that democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. This postulates that in a democratic state the people are very key.

4. Periodic election: Since the people are the supreme in a democratic state, there is usually a fixed tenure for conducting elections. This is to make sure that the political powers of the state are not concentrated in a single hand. In the United States of America for example, the president of the United States is elected indirectly to a four-year term, with a term limit of two terms. In Nigeria, the president is to stay for four years in office after which another election will be conducted. It is pertinent to note that periodic elections is a very essential feature of democracy because, where there is one particular leader administering the affairs of a state for eternity, that state cannot be said to be a democratic state. The people must be allowed to choose and change their leaders because they are supreme.

5. Separation of power: Separation of power is a political concept by Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, an 18th century French social and political philosopher. It means that the political powers of a state should not be concentrated in one single hand. It should rather be separated and sheared to avoid dictatorship. Here, the political powers of the state are shared between the arms of government (Executive, Legislature and Judiciary). The Legislature makes the law of the state. The executive implements the law and the judiciary interprets the law. These powers are separated such that, there will be no interference in their activities. Their arms of government are only allowed to check the activities of each other to ensure that they all conform to the law of the state which the people agree with.

6. Checks and balances: The theory check and balances is an extension of the theory of separation of powers. It was propounded by Montesquieu in his book titled “the spirit of law”. According to research, Montesquieu’s theory of checks and balances is a principle of government under which separate branches are empowered to prevent actions by other branches and are induced to share power. In that same light, checks and balances in a democratic state, ensures that the different arms of Government checks the actives of each other. Take for instance, if the legislature makes a law that it is not supposed, or prohibited from making, the judiciary can declare such law to be null and void. It should be noted that for the principle of Checks and balances to be effective, there is need to give each arm autonomy to act on their own but not outside what is provided in the law. Financial autonomy is also very important to ensure the effectiveness of checks and balances in a democratic government. No doubt, it is a very important feature of democracy.

7. Existence of political parties: A political party is a union of likeminded people who come together to take over power. In a democratic state, there should be political parties. Not just one political party but two or more. This is to ensure that the masses have different choices to choose from. A one party state cannot be said to be a democratic state because there is just one political party in the state. So the person does not really have any option. Democracy postulates that the people are Supreme and as such, they have the power to decide who will administer their political affairs. Conversely, a state where there is no political party or just one political party or where the people are not allowed to select anybody they want as leader, is not a democratic state.

8. Equality before the law: In a true democratic state, there is equity before the law. This form of government does no encourage the idea that some class of citizens should or should not be punished for their actions. Even the legitimate leaders in a democratic state are forced to face the law during or after their service of the nation. Equality is a key feature of democracy because it postulates that citizens have the same rights to vote and to be voted for. This means that all votes castes in a democratic state during election is valid, notwithstanding wealth or position of the person who castes the vote. This is exactly what is called equality.

9. Fundamental human rights: Fundamental human rights are also very important features of a democratic state. They are those inalienable and immutable rights that are given to a member of a state as soon as he/she is born.These rights help to protect the citizens of that state from molestation by dictators. This is why it is important that the Fundamental human rights of people in a democratic state be entrenched in the constitution of every state. There are other fundamental human rights that also help to ensure effective practice of democracy. The freedom of the press is one of them. Evidently, press freedom is one of the essential pillars of a democratic state. It is also one of the main features of democracy.


 Advantage of Democracy

1. Democracy helps to avoid dictatorship in government: This is apparently why the principle of separation of powers is one of the features of democracy. Thus, the political powers of a democratic state cannot lie in the hands of one man.

2. Democracy requires the consent of the people: It is the government of the people, by the people and for the people. This means that the people in every democratic state are the Supreme. They decide the policy to implement and the policy not to implement.

3. Democracy encourages justice since there is equality before the law: Thus, in a true democracy, citizens must face the consequences of their actions in law regardless of their wealth or political office.

4. In a democratic state everyone is carried along in the activities of the state: The majorities have their way and the minorities have their say. This means that no group in a true democracy is neglected. It is a government for everyone including the minorities.

5. Democracy encourages faster economic growth: From the structure of a democratic government, it is evident that this form of government largely encourages growth and development in the economics of the state.


Disadvantage of Democracy

1. Corruption: it is argued that there is always a high rate of corruption in most democratic state. This is apparently as a result of the hunger by greedy leaders to satisfy their personal or selfish interests in government.

2. Cost of the system: It is also very expensive to run a democratic government. Check the amount of money that will be spent on conducting elections in the state periodically. Also, democracy incorporates other political principles which are also very expensive to run. This is considered as one of the disadvantages of running a democratic state.

3. Democracy is probably impossible where the masses are not enlightened enough to know that they have the right to vote and to be voted for. In other words, democracy may not be feasible in a state with many people who are not politically enlightened.

4. Lastly, it is argued by many scholars that there cannot be a true democracy in a state. These scholar postulates that democracy is a combination of many theories which even though they are compatible, cannot be truly practiced in any state. There must be definitely be a lacuna in the government and this is true to some extent.

Criticisms and Limitations of Democracy

Democracy as a philosophical and political process has been subjected to a number criticisms. Joseph Schumpeter for example argued that liberty and equality are not part of democracy and that in all democratic systems; there are necessarily limitations with respect to the qualifications and circumstances of voters.

The franchise is often qualified and the qualifications exclude significant section of the population from the voting process. As for equality, the scholar argued that the relationship between the voter and the candidate is that people who are slightly affluent in the society are more able to make claims or enjoy democratic dividends. Besides, disparities in educational, economic or other social conditions limit the real opportunities for the voters to exercise their franchise in spite of apparent equality.

Another criticism of democracy derives from elite theories best associated with Mosca and Pareto. According to these theorists, in most societies, past and present, there is the distinction between the ruler and the ruled. Indeed, the Platonic idea of philosopher king is considered a tacit legitimization of elitist rule. The processes and conditions of governance also have their own internal dynamics and logic, which gradually create a distinction in outlook and opportunities between those who govern and those who are governed. Both Michel Aaron J. J. Rousseau had argued that democracy necessarily involves representation in which some interest may not receive adequate attention of the elected representatives.

Harold Laski (1982) shares this sentiment when he advised that an elected representative is “not entitled to get elected as a free trader and to vote (in Parliament) for a protective tariff”.

By virtue of their positions, the representatives possess greater political power than the average citizens do. This is because they meet and operate on a regular basis and are better informed about the technicalities of the law and of socio-political relations than the larger society they represent. Although the majority has the power of ejection and rejection, the power is exercised irregularly, i.e. at long intervals during elections.

Consequently, Michel Aaron argued that government by the people is an illusion since the great majority of people are uneducated or uninformed and therefore cannot participate effectively, or at all, in the process of government.

Democracy is also attacked as slow and inefficient. The mechanism for decision-making is long and tortuous, unable to make speedy decision in an emergency. While democracy might have been possible in the past, technology has complicated society to such an extent that popular government is no longer possible.

In developing societies, according to Lucien Pye, democracy has also been criticized for being inefficient: “To a disturbing degree the strange idea has been spread within many transitional societies that democracy is linked with inefficiency, muddled actions and corrupt practices while authoritarian ways are identified with clear thinking, purposeful action and firm dedication.” This essentially constituted the rationale put forward by African leaders in the first decade of independence for their preference, for one party democracy, which in reality was a euphemism for dictatorship.

Finally, democracy is also fraught with the problem of illogicality because it tends to promote mediocrity at the expense of merit. In political contests, winners are not always the best candidate in terms of intellect, education or competency. Rather, the criteria for determining electoral victory are popularity, financial wherewithal and other factors.

Nevertheless, democracy is still the most popular and rational form of government. According to Obafemi Awolowo (1981), “There is indeed no substitute to democracy as a form of government. It is most certainly the best form of government, which mankind in its long, painful and heroic search, has evolved.” Democracy is so popular that most countries, even those that are clearly undemocratic like the People’s Democratic Republic in Korea, or China, or the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) prefer to preface their names or pretend to practice democracy.

However, in reality, these are states which operate authoritarian form of government, and are/or one party based, a factor which explains the potential for authoritarianism in such states.

In the Western liberal tradition of Europe and North America, and those areas of the world that emulate them, the tendency is towards multi-party democracy. The preference for the multi-party system is because it allows for competition between parties, sometimes of different ideological persuasions, with an inherent likelihood of transfer of power from one party to another, in accordance with the wishes of the electoral majority, if the ruling party is defeated.

For the less developed countries, a lot still need to be done to institute the practice of democracy. As the Jacobins of France once said, “The transition of an oppressed people to democracy is like the effort by which nature arose from nothingness to existence”


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