Selected Definitions of Democracy
William M. Reisinger

The basic sense of democracy as a form of governance rests on its etymology as rule by the entire people rather than, as Shapiro puts it, by any "aristocrat, monarch, philosopher, bureaucrat, expert, or religious leader." Beyond that, actual definitions of democracy come in all shapes and sizes. On the next page are a variety of others’ definitions for your perusal, presented in chronological order. Each emphasizes one or more things thought to be true about democracy: 1) it is a dangerous form of government; 2) it includes genuine competition for power; 3) it permits mass participation on a legally equal footing; 4) it provides civil and other liberties that restrict the sphere of state power within the society; or 5) it promotes widespread deliberation about how to make and enforce policy so as to promote the common good.

This table shows which of the authors’ definitions below fall into each category:


Author


Danger


Competition

Mass & Equal
Participation

Liberty
Rights


Deliberation

Aristotle

ü

 

 

 

 

Calhoun

 

 

 

ü

ü

Mencken

ü

 

 

 

 

Shaw

ü

 

 

 

 

OED

 

 

ü

 

 

Bauer

 

ü

 

 

 

Schattschneider

 

ü

ü

 

 

Murakami

 

 

ü

 

 

Aron

 

ü

 

 

 

Pennock (the ideal)




ü


ü


ü

Pennock (the practice)




ü



Powell

 

ü

ü

 

 

Przeworski

 

ü

 

 

 

Bobbio

 

 

ü

 

 

Przeworski

 

ü

 

 

 

Schmitter & Karl

 

ü

 

 

 

Seidenfeld

 

 

 

 

ü

Vanhannen

 

ü

ü

 

 

Finer

 

 

ü

ü

 

Huber, Rueschemeyer & Stephens





ü



ü



ü



Dahl

 

ü

ü

ü

 

Danziger

 

ü

ü

 

 

Cohen

 

 

ü

ü

ü

Shapiro

 

 

 

 

 

Weale

 

 

ü

 

 

 

 

  1. "A constitution [or politeia] may be defined as ‘the organization of a city [or polis] in respect of its offices generally, but especially in respect of that particular office which is sovereign in all issues. . . . In democratic cities, for example, the people [demos] is sovereign. . . . [W]hen the masses govern the city with a view to the common interest, the form of government is called by the generic name . . . of ‘constitutional government’. . . . Democracy is directed to the interest of the poor [only, not to the interests of everyone--WR]." (Aristotle 1995, 97-101)
  2. "Democracy [is] not majority rule: democracy [is] diffusion of power, representation of interests, recognition of minorities." (John Calhoun, as paraphrased by Roper 1989, 63)
  3. "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard." (H.L. Mencken, quoted in Danziger 1998, 155)
  4. Democracy is "the substitution of election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few." (G.B. Shaw, quoted in Danziger 1998, 155)
  5. Democracy is "government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them . . . or by officers elected by them." (Oxford English Dictionary, 1933)
  6. "Democracy is the form of state within which the distribution of power in the state is determined exclusively by the social factors of power, but is not shifted in favor of any one class through the application of material means of coercion." (Otto Bauer, quoted in Meyer 1957 [1986], 65)
  7. "Democracy is a competitive political system in which competing leaders and organizations define the alternatives of public policy in such a way that the public can participate in the decision-making process." (Schattschneider 1960, 141)
  8. "[A] social decision function F(D1, D2, . . . , Dn) is called a democracy, if the function can be expressed only by voting operators--without any resort to negations and constants--and the function is nondictatorial, where nondictatorial is defined as follows: . . . ‘A social decision function F(D1, D2, . . . , Dn) is called nondictatorial, if there is no individual whose preference is always adopted by the society." (Murakami 1968, 28-29)
  9. A democratic regime is one ". . . in which the peaceful rivalry for the exercise of power exists constitutionally." (italics in original) The phrase "exercise of power" implies temporary control. (Aron 1969, 41)
  10. A definition of the ideal: "Government by the people, where liberty, equality and fraternity are secured to the greatest possible degree and in which human capacities are developed to the utmost, by means including free and full discussion of common problems and interests." (Pennock, 1979, 7)
  11. And of the practice: "Rule by the people where ‘the people’ includes all adult citizens not excluded by some generally agreed upon and reasonable disqualifying factor . . . . ‘Rule’ means that public policies are determined either directly by vote of the electorate or indirectly by officials freely elected at reasonably frequent intervals and by a process in which each voter who chooses to vote counts equally . . . and in which a plurality is determinative." (Pennock, 1979, 9)
  12. "The competitive electoral context, with several political parties organizing the alternatives that face the voters, is the identifying property of the contemporary democratic process . . . . [D]emocratic systems [are] . . . characterized by competitive elections in which most citizens are eligible to participate." (Powell 1982, 3)
  13. "[D]emocracy is a form of institutionalization of continual conflicts . . . [and] of uncertainty, of subjecting all interests to uncertainty . . . ." (Przeworski 1986, 58)
  14. A ‘democratic regime’ is "first and foremost a set of procedural rules for arriving at collective decisions in a way which accommodates and facilitates the fullest possible participation of interested parties." (Bobbio 1987, 19)
  15. "Democracy is a system in which parties lose elections. There are parties: divisions of interest, values and opinions. There is competition, organized by rules. And there are periodic winners and losers." (Przeworski 1991, 10)
  16. "Modern political democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives." (Schmitter and Karl 1991, 76)
  17. "According to civic republicanism, the state acts legitimately only if it furthers the ‘common good’ of the political community. . . . [C]ivic republicanism embraces an ongoing deliberative process, inclusive of all cultures, values, needs, and interests, to arrive at the public good. Civic republicans see the development of a conception of the common good as a fundamental purpose of democracy--a purpose necessary for individual self-identity and self-fulfillment. Civic republicanism also posits that no individual acting in her political capacity should be subservient to other political actors. Hence, the theory does not equate the public good that legitimates government action with majority rule. Social consensus about what is best for the community as a community, not as the aggregation of individuals’ private interests, is the defining feature of the common good." (Seidenfeld 1992, 1528-29; italics in original)
  18. "Democracy is a political system in which different groups are legally entitled to compete for power and in which institutional power holders are elected by the people and are responsible to the people." (Vanhannen 1997, 31)
  19. Democracy is "a state where political decisions are taken by and with the consent, or the active participation even, of the majority of the People. . . . [L]iberalism, though recognizing that in the last resort the ‘legal majority’ must prevail, tries to protect the minorities as it does the civil rights of the individual, and by much the same methods. . . . Liberal democracy is qualified democracy. The ultimate right of the majority to have its way is conceded, but that way is made as rough as possible." (Finer 1997, 1568-1570)
  20. "We begin by defining formal, participatory and social democracy. By formal democracy we mean a political system that combines four features: regular free and fair elections, universal suffrage, accountability of the state’s administrative organs to the elected representatives, and effective guarantees for freedom of expression. . . . [F]ormal democratic countries will differ considerably in social policies that reduce social and economic inequality. We therefore introduce two additional dimensions: high levels of participation without systematic differences across social categories (for example, class, ethnicity, gender) and increasing equality in social and economic outcomes. (Huber, Rueschemeyer & Stephens 1997, 323-324)
  21. "Democracy provides opportunities for 1) effective participation, 2) equality in voting, 3) gaining enlightened understanding, 4) exercising final control [by the people--WR] over the agenda, and 5) inclusion of adults." The political institutions that are necessary to pursue these goals are "1) elected officials, 2) free, fair and frequent elections, 3) freedom of expression, 4) alternative sources of information, 5) associational autonomy, and 6) inclusive citizenship." (Dahl 1998, 38 & 85)
  22. Democracy is "governance by leaders whose authority is based on a limited mandate from a universal electorate that selects among genuine alternatives and has some rights to political participation and opposition." (Danziger 1998, 159)
  23. The fundamental idea of democratic, political legitimacy is that the authorization to exercise state power must arise from the collective decisions of the equal members of a society who are governed by that power." Collective decisions can be either aggregative (based on counting preferences) or deliberative. "[A] decision is collective just in case it emerges from arrangements of binding collective choice that establish conditions of free public reasoning among equals who are governed by the decisions. In the deliberative conception, then, citizens treat one another as equals not by giving equal consideration to interests--perhaps some interests ought to be discounted . . .--but by offering them justifications for the exercise of collective power . . . ." (Cohen 1998, 185-6; italics in original)
  24. "Democrats are committed to rule by the people. They insist that no aristocrat, monarch, philosopher, bureaucrat, expert, or religious leader has the right, in virtue of such status, to force people to accept a particular conception of their proper common life. People should decide for themselves, via appropriate procedures of collective decision, what their collective business should be." "Communitarian democrats make wrongheaded assumptions both about the nature of democracy and about its appropriate place in everyday life. . . . [P]articipation plays a necessary but circumscribed role in ordering social relations justly. Valuable as democratic participation is in managing the power dimensions of collective activities, it is not the point of the exercise." (Shapiro 1999, 29-30 & 23)
  25. "[I]n a democracy important public decisions on questions of law and policy depend, directly or indirectly, upon public opinion formally expressed by citizens of the community, the vast bulk of whom have equal political rights." (Weale 1999, 14)
  26. References

    Aristotle. 1995. Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Aron, Raymond. 1969. Democracy and Totalitarianism. New York: Praeger.

    Bobbio, Norberto. 1987. The Future of Democracy: A Defence of the Rules of the Game. New York: Polity.

    Cohen, Joshua. 1998. "Democracy and Liberty," in Jon Elster, ed., Deliberative Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 185-231.

    Dahl, Robert A. 1998. On Democracy. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

    Danziger, James N. 1998. Understanding the Political World: A Comparative Introduction to Political Science, 4th ed. New York: Longman.

    Finer, S. E. 1997. The History of Government from the Earliest Times Vol. III: Empires, Monarchies and the Modern State. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Huber, Evelyne, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and John D. Stephens. 1997. "The Paradoxes of Contemporary Democracy: Formal, Participatory and Social Democracy," Comparative Politics 29 #3 (April), pp. 323-42.

    Meyer, Alfred G. 1957. Leninism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Murakami, Y. 1968. Logic and Social Choice. New York: Dover Publications.

    Pennock, J. Roland. 1979. Democratic Political Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Powell, G. Bingham. 1982. Contemporary Democracies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Przeworski, Adam. 1986. "Some Problems in the Study of the Transition to Democracy," in Guillermo O’Donnell, Phillipe C. Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead, eds. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Prospects for Democracy, Part III. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 47-63.

    Przeworski, Adam. 1991. Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Roper, Jon. 1989. Democracy and Its Critics: Anglo-American Democratic Thought in the Nineteenth Century. Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman.

    Shapiro, Ian. 1999. Democratic Justice. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

    Schattschneider, E.E. 1960. The Semisovereign People. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

    Schmitter, Philippe C., and Terry Lynn Karl. 1991. "What Democracy Is . . . And Is Not," Journal of Democracy 2 #3 (Summer), pp. 75-88.

    Seidenfeld, Mark. 1992. "A Civic Republican Justification for the Bureaucratic State," Harvard Law Review 105:1511-1557.

    Vanhannen, Tatu. 1997. Prospects of Democracy: A Study of 172 Countries. New York: Routledge.

    Weale, Albert. 1999. Democracy. New York: St. Martin's Press.