What is Democracy? - Definition, Types & Principles

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  • 0:02 A Democracy
  • 0:41 Direct Democracy
  • 2:07 Representative Democracy
  • 4:27 Principles to Live By
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the nature of democracy. We will define the term, take a look at the types of democracy, and examine its basic principles.

A Democracy

You and a few of your friends have decided to start a fan club for your favorite band. You want to develop some kind of government to keep the club organized and running smoothly. You all agree that everyone should have a share in managing the club, making decisions, and regulating finances so you decide to form your club as a democracy.

What is a democracy? At the most basic level, it is a type of government or political system ruled by citizens, people who are members of a society. In a democracy, citizens hold some level of power and authority, and they participate actively in the political, or decision-making, process of their government.

Direct Democracy

At first, your club is quite small, only about a dozen people. You can easily meet together to discuss club issues, create rules, or by-laws, for your organization, and vote on various proposals about how to spend money or which activities to enjoy together. Everyone has an equal chance to propose topics for discussion, and everyone can voice an opinion.

Everyone also can vote yes or no on each proposal. The majority of votes wins, and those in the minority ought to accept the decision of the majority in good grace, even if they don't particularly like it. This is direct democracy in action - every member of the society participates directly in the political process.

Let's see what direct democracy looks like on a daily basis. At a club meeting with all the members present, one member of your club suggests the possibility of hiring a van to travel as a group to a concert in a city about 60 miles away. A lively discussion follows, and nearly everyone speaks up to voice an opinion. Some are positive about the idea, remarking that the club members would enjoy being together and would not have to worry about transportation.

Others are less enthusiastic and argue that hiring a van is just too great an expense for your little club. You decide to take a vote, and the majority decides to hire the van and require each member who wants to use it to pay an extra $10 toward the cost. Those who voted no shrug, smile, and put up their money just like everyone else. They want to enjoy the concert, too.

Representative Democracy

What happens if your club grows? You've advertised, promoted your club through social media, and sent messages to all your friends to get them to join, and it worked! Pretty soon your club has over 100 members, too many to meet together at one time or to give everyone a chance to contribute to a discussion.

You decide that it's time to create a core group of people who can manage the club on behalf of all the members, who will still have a say in club business and activities, but now more indirectly by voting for club officers (president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer) and a five-member board of directors. This is a representative democracy - the members of a society vote for leaders to represent them in the decisions and actions of the political process.

You hold a club-wide election for the officer and director positions, and several active members put their names on the ballot. Each club member receives a ballot in the mail and has a chance to vote for his or her favorite candidates. When the election returns are in, the winners, who are determined by the majority vote, promise to follow the club rules and serve the club to the best of their ability. When they discuss club activities and issues, they will always try to listen to the opinions of the larger membership and sometimes even request them through personal interaction or by email or social media.

The officers and directors have the final decision-making power for the club, and the members abide by their choices. They are, however, quick to express their displeasure if they don't like what their leaders are doing, and if they get really upset with an officer or director, they have the option of voting him or her out in the next annual election.

Let's see what representative democracy looks like on a daily basis. Once again, your club is considering traveling to a concert in a city about 60 miles away. This time, though, you would have to hire a whole bunch of vans to transport the club members.

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