Democracy, derived from the Greek term "demos" or "people," is a system of government that gives power to the people. Democracy can be exercised in by citizens or through elected agents. First established by the Greeks, democracy didn't reappear on a global scale until after the 17th century. According to the U.S. Department of State, the democratic style of government -- adopted by the United States in 1776 -- has six basic characteristics: established popular sovereignty, majority rule, individual rights, free and open elections, citizen involvement and open compromise.
A democratic government grants adult citizens the right to elect their representatives. It also establishes clear guidelines for election cycles and term limits so that key positions are contested at regular intervals. Through this process of voting, citizens are regularly given the ability to hire or fire their representatives.
Majority Rule and Minority Rights
The principle of majority rule is an important part of the democratic system. The majority rules in the election process, but individual rights are protected by the maintenance of decentralized, local government bodies. In a democracy, all levels of government should be accessible to, and representative of, the people.
Democracies value the protection of individual rights. The word freedom is used synonymously with democracy to describe individual liberties afforded in this type of government. In the U.S., the Bill of Rights serves as a summary of individual liberties. Freedom of speech and religion, protection from unlawful search and seizure and the right to bear arms are examples of individual liberties, afforded in a democracy. Equal treatment, under the law, is assured for everyone in a democratic society.
Free and Fair Elections
The key to the exercise of democracy is the election process. Free and fair elections are held at regular intervals for the election of representatives at all levels of government. In a free, democratic election, all adult citizens are given the right to cast votes which, in theory, ensures that the will of the people will be expressed.
Citizens of a democracy not only have the right to vote, but also the responsibility to participate. Informed participation is key in a democracy. When the people elect their representatives, they are ensuring the preservation of the democratic process Engaged citizenship is essential in a healthy democracy.
Cooperation and Compromise
Democracies also value cooperation and compromise to protect individual rights. To adequately safeguard diversity, and accurately represent all communities, a democracy must protect the right to be different. Anti-discrimination is at the heart of a true democracy. The freedom to assemble and voice opinion drives government accountability to ensure that underrepresented people have the same rights as the majority.
- U.S. Department of State: Characteristics of Democracy
- U.S. Department of State: What is Democracy?
- Center for Civic Education: Constitutional Democracy
- Inter-Parliamentary Union: Democracy: Its Principles and Achievements
- International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: Democracy
- Scholastic Teachers: Democracy