Democracy is a complex concept that centers on ensuring freedom for all citizens within a country. To provide context for democracy, political theorists created democratic models that captured societal ideals. There are four main theories of democracy considered central to democratic governments. These theories focus on individual engagement in the political process, the rationale for governmental involvement and how it connects with societal needs.


Rooted in liberalism, the protective theory believes government exists to protect the rights of individual citizens. Governmental involvement in the lives of citizens should be focused on protecting material wealth and maintaining a free market. A protective democracy acknowledges there will be an imbalance in wealth and assumes the elite will be in power. Broad-based civic engagement is discouraged unless it is related to protecting civil liberties.


The pluralist theory connects democracy to power held by special interests. Pluralists believe that citizens are disinterested in becoming involved. Those who are engaged do so through smaller political groups. Governmental leadership rests in the hands of those who are elected, and they are generally considered elite. Special interest groups play an important role and jockey for power in areas related to specific issues and values.


Developmental democracy assumes the best about society. Under this theory, citizens are engaged in civic issues and focused on what is best for society as a whole. Democracy is connected to morality. As citizens become involved in government, they acquire an understanding and appreciation of what is needed to improve services and communities. Engaged citizens are responsible community members. The developmental theory acknowledges the need for elected officials but believes the people are responsible for selection and oversight of their work.


Participatory democracy emerged in the 1960s and focuses on retooling government to encourage more citizen involvement. During this time, student activism was common and issues such as the Vietnam War and civil rights provided an avenue for engagement. Advocates for participatory government believe that non-governmental agencies such as corporations have too much control over the welfare of their employees. The main idea of this theory is to provide more involvement and control over all governmental laws and non-governmental rules pertaining to American citizens.