The word "democracy" is Greek in origin and literally translated means "power to the people." Under a democratic form of government, which is based on the principle of "rule by law," people have the power to enact laws and decide how they will be enforced. Not every democracy is alike, as culture and society influence people's democratic ideals; however, the fundamental principles remain consistent in every form of democracy, and true democracies share essential characteristics.
In a democracy, citizens share the power and civic responsibility to make decisions on how they are governed. United States citizens make these decisions through the voting process, which they become eligible to participate in at the age of 18. The American form of federal government is an indirect democracy, which means voters elect representatives to speak for them on decisions involving government. Indirect democracy also is practiced in most states and municipalities. However, many Western states, such as California, Arizona and Oregon, and several municipalities in the New England states practice direct democracy. In contrast, a direct democracy is simply when people decide on policies or laws by voting not them directly or forming a consensus. Most Western democracies are considered indirect with elected officials representing the views of the people. Switzerland is an example of a direct democracy where citizens have more of the power at many levels of government.
Majorities and Minorities
Within a democracy, the majority rules, but not to the exclusion of the minorities' rights. In enacting laws, a democratic government strikes the balance between majority and minority interests. If a legitimate decision is made by a majority of the people, but that decision negatively affects the fundamental rights of a minority of the people, then the decision must be adjusted to reflect what is fair and equitable to all citizens. The several tiers of government -- federal, state and local -- ensure that every American is represented.
The Principle of Protection
A true democracy upholds the basic human rights of its citizens as outlined in its laws, agreements or constitution. These rights include freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equal protection under the law, the right to a fair trial and a right to privacy without unwarranted intrusion by the government. In America, citizens also have other rights, such as the right to an education, the right to assemble and the right to publish their opinions in print. American citizens are also protected from discrimination in various levels based on a long list including age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, political ideology, national origin, race, religion, pregnancy, veteran status and disabilities.
Limiting the Lawmakers
In order to ensure that a democracy's central government does not have a concentration of power in one area, powers are separated and shared among different branches and agencies. These different sectors of government have a process by which they can check and balance one another. Government officials holding posts in the different branches of government are subject to term limits. Elections are held on a regular basis and citizens have the opportunity to elect new people to government posts. Citizens are guaranteed that these elections will be fair and everyone who is eligible to vote will have that opportunity.