Democracy literally means ‘rule by the people.’ It is the notion that the people affected by decisions are the ones who make those decisions. Basic principles of democracy include the right to a free and fair vote, all votes carrying the same weight (being equal), and majority rule (in the event of a disagreement, the most popular vote wins).
This is democracy in a literal sense, whereby the people directly make decisions. This is what happened in one of the earliest conceptions of democracy in Ancient Athens, whereby citizens were entitled to vote on every matter affecting them in mass meetings. These were made more manageable by the fact that women and slaves were excluded from citizenship. This form of democracy is likely to be unachievable in large, modern societies. It is hard to see how people would have the time, inclination or knowledge to be able to vote on potentially several issues/potential laws per day. One form of direct democracy that is occasionally used is referendums - a vote on a single issue.
Given that direct democracy is practically almost impossible to achieve in today’s societies, a different form of democracy operates. Representative democracy is sometimes known as indirect democracy and means that the people choose representatives to make decisions on their behalf- these being politicians. Representatives are chosen through regular, competitive, free and fair elections. Representatives should be responsive to voters’ needs, as if they are not, they can be voted out at the next election. This ensures that people’s views are really being represented accurately.
Strengths / Weaknesses of Types of Democracy
- Direct democracy is ‘real’ democracy- the people choose the policies/laws they want. Decisions are therefore more legitimate
- Direct democracy means that politicians, who may be more motivated by self-interest, have less influence
- Direct democracy could have educational benefits- if people are voting directly on issues, this may motivate them to find out more about them, so become more politically aware
- However, direct democracy is practically unachievable in large modern societies
- There is no guarantee people would vote in large numbers in direct democracy, and, even if they did, they may not be well-informed enough to make the best decisions
- Representative democracy is good, because decisions are left in the hands of people who have much more knowledge/expertise
- Representative democracy also helps to encourage people to accept compromise, as they have not actually made the decision themselves (so may be less emotionally attached)