Absolutism and democracy are two distinct and frequently opposed political systems. However, both democracy and absolutism can take a variety of different forms. Depending on the type of absolutism and democracy in question, the two systems can be opposed to one another or can potentially parallel and even overlap.
Absolutism and Sovereignty
Absolutism refers to a political system in which there is a single, unified source of political power, and that political power is unlimited. As a theory of politics, absolutism emerged in the early modern period in Europe through the struggles between centralized monarchies and parliaments. Thomas Hobbes, one of the greatest theorists of absolutism, argued that all political communities must have undivided sovereignty, meaning a single source of political power and authority. Since the absolute sovereign makes the law, the sovereign cannot be bound by any law. Hobbes famously argued that people cannot have any rights against their sovereigns.
Democracy is a political system in which the people rule. In practice, this can mean a variety of things. Democracy originated in ancient Athens in the early 5th century B.C. Athenians did not elect politicians to govern them. Instead the Athenian democracy meant that every adult male citizen had the right to deliberate in the law making body or the "Ecclesia." They could participate directly in making law and was eligible to serve on executive councils called the "Boule." Athenian democracy, for this reason, is called direct democracy because the people govern directly. As Aristotle put it, in democracy citizens rule and are ruled in turn.
In contrast to ancient democracy, modern democracy is nearly always representative. In a representative democracy, citizens do not govern themselves. Rather, citizens have the right to elect politicians to govern them. In practice, the right to suffrage has not always been extended to all citizens. For example, in the United States, African Americans, women and many other groups were at times barred from participating in representative democracy, and today, felons and others are denied this opportunity. Theoretically, what makes representative democracy democratic is that the rights to vote for political leaders are extended to all citizens.
Absolutism v. Democracy
Although absolutism and democracy are viewed as opposing political systems, this is not necessarily the case. If there are no legal limits on the power of the people, democracy can become absolutist. Even Thomas Hobbes himself admitted that absolute sovereignty could be democratic as well as monarchical. On the other hand, liberal democracy, which includes the rule of law and the separation of powers, is always opposed to absolutism, since these two devices limit and divide the powers of political rules.
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