What is a democracy?
At its most fundamental, a democracy is a form of government in which a nation's citizens have the power to decide the laws under which they will live. These decisions are made via either a vote of the people in a "direct democracy" (also called a "true" or "pure" democracy), or through elected officials who vote on behalf of their constituents in a "representative democracy".
The word "democracy" comes from the Greek words "demos", meaning "citizen", and "kratos", meaning "power" or "rule".
Not all democracies are the same. A myriad of democratic sub-types exist, including constitutional democracy, green democracy, demarchy, illiberal democracy, industrial democracy, and more. In fact, one scholar identified more than 2000 different variations of democracy. What's more, the majority of these classifications overlap with one another.
As a result, any given democracy will fit into many different subtypes.
For example, the United States is a representative democracy because most decisions are made not by the people themselves, but by representatives who act on the people's behalf. It is also an electoral democracy because those representatives are selected in elections, a presidential democracy because the head of government is also the head of state and leader of the executive branch, and a constitutional democracy because its fundamental principles and laws are guided by a constitution (which some argue makes the U.S. a republic rather than a democracy—more on that below).
What are the "must-have" ingredients of a democracy?
There are multiple theories about what specific elements are required for a government to qualify as a democracy. For example, in preparing its annual Democracy Index, the Economist Intelligence Unit scores each of the world's countries in five distinct categories—which we can examine to determine several of the Economist's democratic wish list:
- A pluralistic system in which at least two legitimate-but-different political parties coexist
- A free and fair electoral process that enables the people to choose between candidates from those parties
- A government that operates openly and transparently, works for the good of all the people, respects its own rules, has proper checks and balances, and gives its citizens free choice and control over their lives
- Politically engaged citizens who support democratic principles, "fight fair", vote regularly, accept the will of the voters, and commit to a peaceful transfer of power after each election
- An emphasis on preserving civil liberties and personal freedoms of both the majority and minorities
- A free and independent media unhindered by government interference, influence, or intimidation
Stanford University political scientist Larry Diamond has a similar list, maintaining that any democracy must include four key elements:
- A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections
- The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life
- Protection of the human rights of all citizens
- A rule of law in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens
Finally, the Museum of Australian Democracy also teaches that all liberal democracies are based upon four main principles:
- A belief in the individual: since the individual is believed to be both moral and rational
- A belief in reason and progress: based on the belief that growth and development is the natural condition of mankind and politics the art of compromise
- A belief in a society that is consensual: based on a desire for order and co-operation not disorder and conflict
- A belief in shared power: based on a suspicion of concentrated power (whether by individuals, groups or governments)
The Democracy Index
The Democracy Index is an annual report compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The index measures the state of democracy in 167 of the world's countries by tracking 60 indicators in five different categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. The indicators are combined to give each category a rating on a 0 to 10 scale, and the five category scores are averaged to determine the overall index score.
Countries with a total Democracy Index score between 8.01 and 10 (out of 10) are considered full democracies. Those whose score lands between 6.01 and 8.00 are classified as flawed democracies. While these countries have free and fair elections and basic civil liberties, there are faults in other aspects, such as low levels of participation in politics or an underdeveloped (or heavily partisan) political culture.
The lower two categories of the index are reserved for countries that did not score well enough to be considered democracies. Nations that score between 4.01 and 6.0 earn the title of hybrid regime, and anything lower than 4 is labeled an authoritative regime.
The 2020 Democracy Index categorized 23 countries as full democracies, 52 as flawed democracies, 35 as hybrid regimes, and 57 as authoritarian regimes.
The 10 most democratic nations in the world (2020):
- Norway (9.87)
- Iceland (9.58)
- Sweden (9.39)
- New Zealand (9.26)
- Finland (9.25)
- Ireland (9.24)
- Canada (9.22)
- Denmark (9.22)
- Australia (9.09)
- Switzerland (9.03)
The United States scored 7.92 in 2020 and again landed in the "flawed democracy" category, where it has resided since falling from "full democracy" in 2016. Intolerance of COVID-19 restrictions, distrust in the government, bipartisan gridlock, and especially the increasing ideological polarization between democrats and republicans are all cited as contributors to the lower score.
For the full list of all 167 countries and their 2020 scores, see the table further down this page.
Is the United States a democracy, a republic, or both?
Political terminology can be difficult to parse. A frequent topic of debate in modern circles is whether the United States is actually a republic rather than a democracy.
In truth, the most accurate answer may be that the United States is both a republic and a democracy—but a specific type of each.
The lynchpin of this debate is the fact that republics are very similar to direct democracies, but are different in one very important way.
A direct democracy has no elected officials and no constitution. The people have absolute power and make all decisions themselves via direct votes.
While this may seem like an ideal system at first glance, direct democracy has one significant shortcoming: The lack of a constitution laying out basic guiding principles means that whatever at least 50.1% of the people want is what happens. There are no checks, no balances, and no limits. As such, a direct democracy offers little to no protection for up to 49.9% of the people, and leaves minorities particularly vulnerable.
By comparison, a republic is a government in which power is held by both the people and their elected representatives. Moreover, that power is limited by the laws established in a formal constitution, which preserves the rights of minorities and limits abuses of power. For example, the United States constitution and its amendments include such safeguards as the distribution of power among three branches of government (executive, judicial, legislative), the Bill of Rights, and the abolition of slavery. Elected officials must adhere to the constitution's rules.
Given these differences, it's easy to see why many people consider the U.S. a republic instead of a democracy.
However, it's important to note that this is the difference between a republic and a direct democracy. Most other variations of democracy utilize elected officials just as republics do, and many variations also have a constitution (or Magna Carta or other founding document).
Plus, as previously discussed, many political labels overlap with one another. Most governments can be described by not just one term, but several.
As a result, those who say the U.S. is a republic and those who call it a democracy are both correct. The United States is a constitutional democracy, a democratic republic, and many other types of government as well.