is often defined as a system of government
where the people
are in control
of how the government operates, what laws
it passes, and how things
get done. In modern
times, however, we must look at how the definition
of democracy has changed, and in which ways things are done differently in today’s era than in historic
The concept of Democracy first began in ancient Greece. At that time, the ruling body of most countries consisted of rich nobles and a royal family made up of a king, queen, and their children. The city-states of Greece were set up in a different fashion, however. Each citizen of the city (excluding slaves) was a member of the general assembly. When it was time for something to be decided, the assembly was called together, and the issue was presented to the entire present population. There would then be discussion about the issue, and a vote would be called. This type of government was a true democracy, as the day to day affairs of the city-state were controlled directly by the citizens. This system works well, as long as the number of citizens is relatively low. As population grew, the system became impractical (there were too many people for the government to hold effective meetings), and eventually the Greek democratic system collapsed and was replace with an imperial system, placing it on par with the other European countries.
Direct democracy was also tried in New England before the United States was formed. The New England town meetings were a form of direct democracy. Each year, the entire town would come together and vote on issues such as the tax rate and who the government officials for the year would be. In order for business to be conducted during a town meeting, it had to be on the “warrant” for the meeting. In order for a citizen to get their idea onto the warrant for discussion and a vote at the next meeting, they were required to form a petition and have it signed by at least one hundred registered voters in the community. Once the discussion topics for the meeting were decided, a date would be set and the meeting would be advertised. In order for there to be any votes, there had to be a quorum of voters present. These meetings are still held each year in some parts of New England; however it is not a common form of government today.
Over time, democracy gradually changed to become similar in definition to a republic. In a republic, the people do not vote directly on the issues, they instead vote for representatives to make those choices for them. This is a representative form of government, where there is a small group of people who wield the power of the government, but they are chosen by the people, not by a royal blood-line. This form of government encourages the representatives to do as their constituents wish, or they will likely not be reelected. For example, if a congressman decides to vote ‘No’ on a particular legal bill, but many of the people that originally voted for him disagree with that position, when it comes time for re-election, they may think twice before re-electing him. Perhaps they will vote for a different candidate who agrees with their viewpoints.
The term democracy can also be used to describe a societal state where all people are treated equally. By this definition, even the original Greek democracies were not true democracies, as all people were not treated equally (the slaves could not vote). This form of the definition is often used today by countries that are by no means democratic, but want to appear as such. One example of this is the People’s Republic of China. While they may claim to be a democratic state (hence their name, The People’s Republic), they are actually a Communist dictatorship. Communism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A theory which advocates a state of society in which there should be no private ownership, all property being vested in the community and labour organized for the common benefit of all members; the professed principle being that each should work according to his capacity, and receive according to his wants.” Communism is a system of government that is designed in such a way that everybody has what they need to live, and are expected to work at a set task within their capabilities. In its pure form, it seems like a good idea; however it never works out as such. Because of the way communism works, all people are treated more or less equally (the state gives you what you need, and you work where they tell you to). However, people are not treated equally completely, and there is a strong ruling class above the citizens that they often have little or no control over. Those people that are wealthy end up with their voice heard more in the government, and the less fortunate have no say whatsoever in the operation of the government. In any dictatorship that claims to be a democracy, yearly elections may be held, but often times there will be only one political party running (usually Communist or Socialist). A voter’s only choice may be to either vote or not vote, they don’t actually get to chose what they are voting for. This is a far cry from a democracy, as the people have no real choice as to how the government is run. If other political parties were allowed to run, giving the people a chance to change how the government was managed, maybe then these countries could be called true democracies, at least in some respects.
In conclusion, while democracy does define a system in which the people can run the government, it is infeasible to implement that definition fully. Unless the body being governed is very small, it is necessary to find other ways to get things done, such as having a republic system. So, while the definition of what people believe that democracy is has changed over the years, the definition itself is still the same. Different systems of government have varying amounts of similarity to a true democratic system, and thus call themselves democracies; however it is very rare for a government to be a “true” democracy.