During the French Revolution (1789 to 1799), aristocrats were dragged onto the streets and beheaded. The French people were attempting to move from an aristocracy – “the rule of the best” – to a democracy – “the rule of the people.” There are many different forms of modern-day democratic states, but relatively few aristocracies remain in today's world.

Origins of Aristocracy

The Greek word "aristos" means “best.” In an aristocracy, power is not given to one person but to the group of citizens who are considered to be the elite. Thomas R. Martin in his book “An Overview of Classical Greek History” writes that in Ancient Greece, aristocrats were greatly respected members of society with vast political influence and were considered to uphold the virtue of nobility. Later, aristocrats were generally privileged individuals whose power was inherited by birth; Henry Brougham writes in his book “Of Aristocracy” that “where the supreme power in any state is in the hands of a portion of the community, and that portion is so constituted that the rest of the people cannot gain admittance,” that state is an aristocracy.

Characteristics of Democracy

According to Neil McNaughton's book “Politics and Government for AS,” a democracy can be loosely defined as “organised on the basis that government should serve the interests of the people.” In contrast to an aristocracy, where a group of elite rulers make decisions without referring to the desires of the rest of the population, a democracy must take into account the wishes of the people.

Professor Sandra Gustafson of the University of Notre Dame has identified several types of democracies: Two major variations are direct democracy where the people vote on policies themselves and representative democracy where the people choose others to represent them in policy decisions. Characteristics that Alan R. Ball and B. Guy Peters in “Modern Politics and Government” consider to be common essentials to any democracy regardless of how it operates are a choice of more than one political party to vote for, having regular elections, allowing civil liberties such as freedom of speech and religion, and allowing associations like trade unions and individual citizens to operate free from close government control.

Modern-day Aristocracies

While Aristotle favored aristocracy as a way to ensure that society is ruled by those who are best suited to the role, historian John Cannon notes that, today, democracy is considered by Western nations to be the best form of government. Though some countries still have a class of people called “the aristocracy,” who are below royalty but above “common” people in the social hierarchy, relatively few modern states are true aristocracies. A modern-day example of an aristocratic state, according to Michigan State University, is Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by a monarch and all of the important political roles are occupied by the royal family or people the monarch selects himself.

Considerations

Societies are complex and often not easily categorized.A society could be democratic because citizens can vote and have freedom of speech, but in the same society, the wealthy people who are born into powerful families may have the most power. Some nations may wish to be seen as democracies but may contain elements that a critical citizen may identify as aristocratic.

Democratic states may have elements of both representative and direct democracy. Elected officials may generally make decisions on policy, but major contentious decisions might be decided by referendum where the people vote directly. Other variations are republics, like the U.S., in which the people are represented by elected officials, and there is no monarch, and the U.K., a parliamentary system made up of elected officials and accompanied by a constitutional monarchy. Finally, just because two countries operate under the same system of government, doesn't mean they share the same political outlook or approach.