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What Is Democracy? - Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:00 Definition of Democracy
  • 0:30 Democracy in Ancient Greece
  • 2:02 Democracy in the Modern World
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

In this lesson, you will learn about democracy and explore the differences between the democracy of the Ancient Greeks and the democracy of modern America and the United Kingdom.

Definition of Democracy

Democracy is a system of government where citizens are allowed to participate in the proposal and creation of laws. Throughout history, different places have had different forms of democracy. Two of the most common forms of democratic government are direct democracy and representative democracy. In a direct democracy, citizens are directly involved with creating laws, and in a representative democracy, citizens elect representatives who create laws on their behalf.

Democracy in Ancient Greece

Democracy first appeared as a form of government in Ancient Greece around 800 B.C.E. In Ancient Greece, all native born males, regardless of how much money they had or what family they were born into, could vote regarding the government of the polis, or Greek city-state. The polis was a tight-knit, small community of citizens who agreed on certain rules and customs. Usually, a polis was centered on a small town and the countryside that surrounded it. The low number of citizens allowed Greek voters to vote in person on any issue involving the government of their town. This type of democracy is called a direct democracy because citizens have the ability to vote on an issue in person rather than having an elected representative who votes on their behalf, as many modern democracies do.

In some places, several poleis would gather together and create leagues of city-states. Each city-state remained independent in its internal affairs, but they would band together to fight off invaders. One of the major problems of the Greek democracy was the extreme individuality of the each city-state. Since each polis was unique, it was difficult for a league of city states to remain united for long. In addition, it was common for several city-states to battle with one another over land or other resources. Because each city-state was unique and independent in its internal affairs, Greek city-states had difficulty with maintaining a cohesive league of city-states. Without a clear leader, many leagues were ultimately unsuccessful.

Democracy in the Modern World

United States

Despite the problems of the Greek polis, their form of government, democracy, continues to live on. Many Western nations practice representative democracy through an elected representative rather than direct democracy as practiced by the Greek city-states. Every four years, thousands of Americans enter a public location (a city hall or courthouse) and cast a vote for the leadership of the nation. The candidates with the highest number of votes go on to represent their particular districts, states, or the nation as a whole. After winning the election, representatives make laws and enforce regulations for the good of the people who elected them. If the people disapprove of their representatives, they can choose to elect a different representative in the next election cycle. In the American representative democracy, the voters select legislative representatives and a representative to act as the head of the executive branch. In addition, in many states and local elections, Americans can choose to vote on referendums, or proposals from their local legislators, regarding the passage of new laws or amendments to the state constitution. A referendum is a modern example of direct democracy, since the citizens of a state vote directly on legislation.

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