What Is Democracy? Definition, Types & History

Compared to dictatorships, oligarchies, monarchies and aristocracies, in which the people have little or no say in who is elected and how the government is run, a democracy is often said to be the most challenging form of government, as input from those representing citizens determines the direction of the country. The basic definition of democracy in its purest form comes from the Greek language: The term means “rule by the people.” But democracy is defined in many ways — a fact that has caused much disagreement among those leading various democracies as to how best to run one.

The Greeks and Romans established the precursors to today’s modern democracy. The three main branches of Athenian democracy were the Assembly of the Demos, the Council of 500 and the People’s Court. Assembly and the Council were responsible for legislation, along with ad hoc boards of “lawmakers.”

Democracy also has roots in the Magna Carta, England's "Great Charter" of 1215 that was the first document to challenge the authority of the king, subjecting him to the rule of the law and protecting his people from feudal abuse.

Democracy as we know it today was not truly defined until the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, during which time the U.S. Declaration of Independence was penned, followed by the U.S. Constitution (which borrowed heavily from the Magna Carta). The term evolved to mean a government structured with a separation of powers, provided basic civil rights, religious freedom and separation of church and state.

Types of democracies

Parliamentary democracy, a democratic form of government in which the party, or coalition of parties, with the largest representation in the legislature (parliament), was originated in Britain. There are two styles of parliamentary government. The bicameral system consists of a “lower” house, which is elected, and an “upper” house can be elected or appointed.

In a parliamentary democracy, the leader of the leading party becomes the prime minister or chancellor and leads the country. Once the leading party falls out of favor, the party that takes control installs its leader as prime minister or chancellor.

In the 1790s to 1820s, Jeffersonian democracy was one of two philosophies of governing to dominate the U.S. political scene. The term typically refers to the ideology of the Democratic-Republican party, which Thomas Jefferson formed to oppose Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist party, which was the first American political party. The Jeffersonian outlook believed in equality of political opportunity for all male citizens, while Federalists political platform emphasized fiscal responsibility in government.

Jacksonian democracy, lead by Andrew Jackson, was a political movement that emphasized the needs of the common man rather than the elite and educated favored by the Jeffersonian style of government.

This period from the mid 1830s to 1854, is also referred to the Second Party System. The Democratic-Republican Party of the Jeffersonians became factionalized in the 1820s. Jackson’s supporters formed the modern Democratic Party. Adams and Anti-Jacksonian factions soon emerged as the Whigs. This era gave rise to partisan newspapers, political rallies and fervent party loyalty.

Democracies can be classified as liberal and social. Liberal democracies, also known as constitutional democracies, are built on the principles of free and fair elections, a competitive political process and universal suffrage. Liberal democracies can take on the form of constitution republics, such as France, India, Germany, Italy and the United States, or a constitutional monarchy such as Japan, Spain or the U.K.

Social democracy, which emerged in the late 19th century, advocates universal access to education, health care, workers’ compensation, and other services such as child care and care for the elderly. Unlike others on the left, such as Marxists, who sought to challenge the capitalist system more fundamentally, social democrats aimed to reform capitalism with state regulation.

The U.S. political system today is primarily a two-party system, dominated by Democrats and Republicans. The country has been a two-party system for more than a century, although independents such as Ralph Nader and Ross Perot have sought to challenge the two-party system in recent years.

There are three branches of government: the executive branch (president); legislative branch (Congress); and judicial branch (Supreme Court). These branches provide checks and balances to, in theory, prevent abuses of power. Control of Congress can be in the hands of one party or split, depending on which party is in the majority in the Senate and, separately, the House of Representatives.

Live Science Contributor

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a contributor to Live Science and sister site Space.com, writing mainly evergreen reference articles that provide background on myriad scientific topics, from astronauts to climate, and from culture to medicine. Her work can also be found in Business News Daily and KM World. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Glassboro State College (now known as Rowan University) in New Jersey.