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What Does Democracy Mean?

Democracy is a system of government where everyone gets a say. That may be done directly or through elected representatives. Unlike other systems such as monarchies or theocracies, democracy is based on principles like equality, participation, and fundamental rights. To form a basic understanding of what democracy means, we’ll cover the history of democracy, its features, the two main types, and its challenges.

A brief history of democracy

There’s some evidence suggesting prehistoric hunter-gatherers. followed certain elements of democratic processes. In 1943, Thorkild Jacobsen examined Sumerian myths and scraps of records, suggesting that pre-Babylonian Meosoptomia may have practiced something like a democracy where male citizens held most of the power. Many other historians won’t call this system “democracy,” however, because of a lack of clear evidence and how different it most likely was from modern democracy. In the 6th-4th centuries BCE, India may have established somewhat democratic systems, though again, hard evidence is lacking. Most experts agree that Greece is the birthplace of democracy.

Athenian democracy

In 507 BCE, Athenian leader Cleisthenes introduced the “demokratia,” which means “rule by the people.” Democracy in Athens, a city-state, had three parts: the ekklesia, the boule, and the diskasteria. The ekklesia was a sovereign governing body in charge of writing laws and foreign policy. The boule was a council of representatives from the 10 Athenian tribes. The dikasteria was a system of courts where citizens could bring cases and present them to a group of lottery-selected jurors. Democracy in Greece peaked under Pericles, a famous orator and politician.

While Cleisthenes wanted to remove distinctions between the aristocrats, the middle class, and the working class (mostly the army and navy), the “people” in Greece’s democracy still excluded the majority of Athenian society. Women, foreigners, and slaves couldn’t participate. According to History.com, that meant that of the 100,000 citizens, 10,000 resident foreigners, and 150,000 slaves in the mid-4th century, only 40,000 people (male citizens older than 18) could actually participate in democracy.

The Iroquois Confederacy

The Iroquois Confederacy is considered the oldest living participatory democracy in the world. Sometime between 1450 and 1660, it was created after years of conflict between five northeast woodlands tribes – the Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga nations. Hiawatha, chief of the Onondaga tribe, and Deganawida, The Great Peacemaker, are credited with establishing the democratic system. Each tribe agreed to maintain its own leadership and come together in the Grand Council of Chiefs to decide on common causes. The Tuscarora joined in the 1700s, which is why the Iroquois Confederacy is also known as the Six Nations. The group called themselves the Haudenosaunee, or “peoples of the longhouse.”

The Great Law of Peace, an oral constitution, guided the Iroquois Confederacy. It was also recorded through wampum symbols and later translated into various accounts. It established separation of powers, participatory democracy, restrictions on holding dual offices, and processes on how to remove leaders. The Iroquois Confederacy inspired the Founding Fathers and the democratic system they established, though there were some major differences, such as the status of women. The women of the Haudenosaunee had significant social and political power, which the Founding Fathers did not replicate. According to WeForum, the United States is the only country with a continuous democracy older than 200 years.

Principles of democracy

What features need to be present in a functioning democracy? Britannica lists six principles of an “ideal” democracy while Liberties lists 14 principles. We won’t list every single one, but here’s a summary:

Fundamental rights

Democracy is based on the idea that people possess certain rights that can’t be taken away. They have a right to vote, to have that vote counted equally, to participate equally, and to get the information they need to participate in an informed manner. The principle of fundamental rights is essential because without rights, democracy isn’t really democracy.

Equal voting

Voting is one of the most fundamental rights of democracy. Without this right, people don’t have the opportunity to participate in political processes or have a say in what happens in their country. Equal voting means people don’t only have the right to vote, but they have the right for their vote to be counted equally. A person’s vote does not get more or less power based on anything, whether it’s their class, ethnicity, gender, or other traits.

Equal participation

Voting is closely linked to equal participation, but it doesn’t end there. Equal participation also means people either have a direct say in policies and laws or they have the right to choose who represents them. People also have the right to participate equally in town halls, protests, public debates, and so on.

Informed electorate

Before making any decision – whether it’s choosing a political leader or a specific policy – the voting population has the right to any information relevant to their decision. That can include where a politician is getting their money, their voting records, how a policy might affect the future, where money for the policy will come from, what the alternative options are, and so on. Accurate, clear information empowers voters and is key to a functioning democracy.


What happens when those in power abuse that power or fail to keep their promises? A functioning democracy needs mechanisms that hold leaders accountable. That can include punishments for corruption, recall elections, fines, and more. Free and fair elections are also part of accountability; if voters no longer like a politician for any reason, they can vote them out. For serious violations, there should ideally be more immediate consequences.

Types of democracies

As a “rule by the people,” democracy is a fairly broad term. There are several forms of democracy which are described in an article on ThoughtCo by Robert Longley, though for our purposes, we’ll highlight the two main types:

Direct democracy

Direct democracy (also called ‘pure” democracy) is when the people directly decide on all policies and laws. Ancient Athens used this type of democracy, though their definition of people was, as we described before, limited. Of those considered people (men over a certain age), they were required to vote on every major government issue. Direct democracy has some advantages. It is a true “rule by the people” and ensures government transparency and accountability. When everyone has to vote on everything, it’s much harder to hide anything. On the other hand, it would be extremely difficult to decide on anything. It could also encourage tension and lead to what the Founding Fathers called “tyranny of the majority.” Those in the minority – which could include the most marginalized groups – would lose their power.

Representative democracy

Representative democracy is the opposite of direct democracy. Instead of directly voting on laws, people elect others to represent them. Almost 60% of the world uses some kind of representative democracy. Within representative democracy, there are different types such as democratic republics and constitutional monarchies. There are some common features, including a constitution that defines the powers of elected representatives. Representatives may also get the right to select other leaders, not just laws. The big advantage of this type of democracy is how efficient it can be. Rather than have thousands of people voting on everything, people select others to represent their interests. If representatives don’t represent voters well, voters can choose someone else. On the other hand, politicians frequently mislead voters or become corrupted. With enough money and powerful backers, even representatives who fail their constituents can keep getting elected over and over again. Representative democracies can also fail to live up to their promises of efficiency and become bogged down with complicated processes.

Challenges facing democracy today

According to Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2022” report, democracy is eroding everywhere around the globe. In the report’s words, “The global order is nearing a tipping point…” The authors point to many reasons, including the promotion of autocratic norms, coups, and power grabs. Within established democracies, which are also losing their freedoms, there’s been election perversions, discrimination against migrants, attacks on media freedom, and a weakening rule of law. DemocracyCo, an organization focusing on government reform, names issues like disillusionment, rising inequality, and distrust as challenges to democracy.

In the report, Freedom House names specific countries that saw important developments in 2021. In Russia, President Putin eliminated competition in the parliamentary elections by cracking down on civil organizations and political opponents. In Slovenia, the prime minister grew more hostile toward civil society groups and the media while in Sudan, a military coup blocked a transition to democratic elections. There were positive developments in some areas, like Zambia. Voters elected Hichilema, an opposition leader, in a victory that resisted political violence and other restrictions.

How to protect democracy

What can be done to save democracy? Freedom House lists a handful of policy recommendations, including protecting democracy at the local level, increasing civic education, protecting free and fair elections, and fighting international corruption. Established democracies must commit to democratic norms like supporting and protecting free media and grassroots democratic organizations internationally. Education about democracy through school, online courses, masters and other means is crucial. The private sector must be involved as well by sticking to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and dialoguing with civil society organizations. Democracy means freedom and equality for all. It’s only as strong as society’s willingness to participate and protect it. It takes all hands on deck – individuals, civil society organizations, businesses, governments, and intergovernmental organizations – to keep democracy healthy.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.