Democratic theory begins with the justification of government by the people, usually in terms either of the rights of individual citizens, or the need to protect their interests effectively.
It then proceeds to the two questions of what government by the people means, and how, if at all, it can be implemented.
David Held, Models of Democracy (Oxford, 1987)
Democracy (Greek: δημοκρατία, dēmokratiā, from dēmos ‘people’ and kratos ‘rule’) is a form of government in which the people have the authority to choose their governing legislators. The decisions on who is considered part of the people and how authority is shared among or delegated by the people have changed over time and at different speeds in different countries, but they have included more and more of the inhabitants of all countries. Cornerstones include freedom of assembly and speech, inclusiveness and equality, membership, consent, voting, right to life and minority rights.
The notion of democracy has evolved over time considerably, and, generally, the two current types of democracy are direct and representative. In a direct democracy, the people directly deliberate and decide on legislation. In a representative democracy, the people elect representatives to deliberate and decide on legislation, such as in parliamentary or presidential democracy. Liquid democracy combines elements of these two basic types.
Prevalent day-to-day decision making of democracies is the majority rule, though other decision making approaches like supermajority and consensus have been equally integral to democracies. They serve the crucial purpose of inclusiveness and broader legitimacy on sensitive issues, counterbalancing majoritarianism, and therefore mostly take precedence on a constitutional level.
In the common variant of liberal democracy, the powers of the majority are exercised within the framework of a representative democracy, but the constitution limits the majority and protects the minority, usually through the enjoyment by all of certain individual rights, e.g. freedom of speech, or freedom of association. Besides these general types of democracy, there have been a wealth of further types (see below).
Democracy makes all forces struggle repeatedly to realize their interests and devolves power from groups of people to sets of rules. Western democracy, as distinct from that which existed in pre-modern societies, is generally considered to have originated in city-states such as Classical Athens and the Roman Republic, where various schemes and degrees of enfranchisement of the free male population were observed before the form disappeared in the West at the beginning of late antiquity. The English word dates back to the 16th century, from the older Middle French and Middle Latin equivalents.
According to American political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens; and a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens. Todd Landman, nevertheless, draws our attention to the fact that democracy and human rights are two different concepts and that “there must be greater specificity in the conceptualisation and operationalisation of democracy and human rights”.
The term appeared in the 5th century BC to denote the political systems then existing in Greek city-states, notably Athens, to mean “rule of the people”, in contrast to aristocracy (ἀριστοκρατία, aristokratía), meaning “rule of an elite”. While theoretically, these definitions are in opposition, in practice the distinction has been blurred historically. The political system of Classical Athens, for example, granted democratic citizenship to free men and excluded slaves and women from political participation. In virtually all democratic governments throughout ancient and modern history, democratic citizenship consisted of an elite class, until full enfranchisement was won for all adult citizens in most modern democracies through the suffrage movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Democracy contrasts with forms of government where power is either held by an individual, as in an absolute monarchy, or where power is held by a small number of individuals, as in an oligarchy. Nevertheless, these oppositions, inherited from Greek philosophy, are now ambiguous because contemporary governments have mixed democratic, oligarchic and monarchic elements. Karl Popper defined democracy in contrast to dictatorship or tyranny, thus focusing on opportunities for the people to control their leaders and to oust them without the need for a revolution