The Best Definition of Democracy

The best way to define democracy is a political system in which all citizens are capable of voting for leaders to represent their interests or voting for interests directly.
While democracy in practice may very well be impossible according to Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl, it seems that a democracy should ultimately have the government be accountable to the people. Indeed, for Schmitter and Karl, “modern political democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens” (Journal of Democracy). I would argue that their claim “democracies depend upon the presence of rulers, persons who occupy specialized authority roles and can give legitimate commands to others” (Journal of Democracy) overlooks the possibility of direct democracy, in which people vote directly for policy. Without representatives, they claim that “(i)t is doubtful that any democracy could survive” and that the existence of a “political elite… or professional political class” cannot even be up for debate (Journal of Democracy). Their definition of democracy, while it is acceptable, it is ultimately not broad enough.
In Polyarchy, Robert Dahl argues that for a true democracy, a citizen must be able to: “formulate their preferences,” “signify their preferences” and “have their preferences weighed equally in the conduct of the government” (Polyarchy). This seems to be a better way to define democracy: it leaves the door more open to a different sort of democracy, such as without representatives. Yet Tunisia, despite the nation’s new status as a democracy, which does not seem to be disputed (Stephen) the fact that the new government seems heavily corrupt, likely against the wishes of its people, suggests that his definition may be flawed as well: perhaps it is possible to have a democracy that can change leaders, but the citizens’ wishes do not necessarily have priority, and the status quo can remain undisturbed. Regardless, it seems that the best way to define democracy is broadly: a political system in which citizens are capable of voting for leaders to represent them or to vote for their interests directly: even if this does not always work out in practice.


“Polyarchy Participation and Opposition” by Robert A. Dahl

“What Democracy Is… and is Not” by Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl

Tunisian article: by Chris Stephen

One thought on “The Best Definition of Democracy

  1. The Best Definition of Democracy, Markese L. Wright

    In his book entitled, Essentials of Comparative Politics, Patrick H. O’neil defines democracy as “political power exercised either directly or indirectly through participation, competition and liberty”(O’neil 140), whereas Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl, in their article “What Democracy Is … and Is Not”, describe democracy as “a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting directly or indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives”(Schmitter & Karl 76). Of these two definitions of democracy, O’neil’s sense of democracy, in my opinion, is the best because it emphasizes the role of citizens and underscores the people’s power, which, both, are key aspects of a democracy. Schmitter and Karl’s denotation of democracy, however, fails to highlight the crucial role that citizens play in a democracy and, to some extent, incorporates language that is inconsistent with democratic values, namely equality. For example, when we analyze the specific language that O’neil incorporates, such as the words ‘participation, competition, and liberty’, it becomes obvious that everyone plays a central role in a democracy and that everyone possesses power, whether it be as an individual or as a group. Specifically, the word ‘participation’ makes it clear that citizens must work together in order to determine their collective preferences; the word ‘competition’ implies that representatives must compete in order to satisfy the preferences of the citizens; and the word ‘liberty’ highlights the fact that everyone – citizens and representatives – are free to participate in politics through voting and/or elections. Clearly, O’neil’s diction emphasizes the role and power of everyone, especially the citizens, within a democracy. In contrast, Schmitter and Karl’s definition fails to acknowledge the role and power of the citizens. For example, they mention the ‘competition and cooperation’ of the elected representatives, but fail to discuss the competition and cooperation of the citizens. As a result, by their definition, citizens do not or, at least should not, indulge in competition and cooperation, which undermines the role that citizens play within a democracy. In addition, Schmitter and Karl use the word ‘rulers’ to describe the representatives, which suggests that the representatives have dominion over the citizens. In a democracy, everyone is equal. Therefore, Schmitter and Karl’s language is inconsistent with the democratic value of equality. That said, I strongly believe that O’neil’s definition of democracy is the best because it stresses the importance of all actors within a democracy, hints at each actor’s role, power, and liberty within a democracy, which, together, encapsulate the democratic values of equality and freedom.

    “What Democracy Is … And Is Not” By Philippe Schmitter, Terry Lynn Karl

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