Types of Democracy

In the U.S., citizens are accustomed to holding political power in their right to vote.  But are all democracies the same?  Would the people who developed the earliest forms of democracy recognize today's systems?  Democracies can be traced back to Ancient Greece and have evolved in many forms.  Let's explore these now.

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Table of contents

    The Definition of Democracy

    The word democracy comes from the Greek language. It is a compound of the words demos which means a citizen of a specified city-state, and Kratos, which means power or authority. Democracy refers to a political system in which citizens are granted power to rule the society they live in.

    United States Flag Democracy StudySmarterU.S. Flag, Pixabay

    Democratic Systems

    Democracies come in many forms but share some key characteristics. These include:

    • Respect for individuals as good and logical beings capable of making decisions

    • A belief in human advancement and societal progress

    • Society should be cooperative and orderly

    • Power must be shared. It should not rest in an individual's or group's hands but should be distributed among all citizens.

    Types of Democracy

    Democracies can exhibit themselves in different ways. This section will explore elite, pluralist, and participatory democracies along with direct, indirect, consensus, and majoritarian forms of democracy.

    Elite Democracy

    Elite democracy is a model in which a select, powerful subgroup holds political power. The rationale for limiting political participation to the wealthy or land-holding classes is that they typically have a higher degree of education from which to make more informed political decisions. Proponents of elite democracy hold the view that poorer, uneducated citizens may lack the political know-how needed to participate.

    Founding fathers John Adams and Alexander Hamilton advocated for an elite democracy, fearing that opening the democratic process to the masses could lead to poor political decision-making, societal instability, and mob rule.

    We can find an example of elite democracy very early in the history of the United States. In 1776, state legislatures regulated voting practices. The only people allowed to vote were landholding white men.

    Pluralist Democracy

    In a pluralist democracy, the government makes decisions and enacts laws influenced by social groups with various ideas and perspectives. Interest groups, or groups that come together because of their shared affinity for a particular cause can impact the government by bringing voters together into larger, more powerful units.

    Interest groups advocate for their causes through fundraising and other means of influencing government officials. Individual voters are empowered through collaboration with like-minded citizens. Together they attempt to advance their cause. Advocates of pluralist democracy believe that when divergent views enter into negotiations, it serves a protective function where one group cannot completely overpower another.

    Well-known interest groups include The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the National Urban League. States function similarly to interest groups, contributing the political perspectives of the citizens that live there. Political parties are another interest group that brings people together with similar political perspectives to influence the government.

    Participatory Democracy

    A participatory democracy focuses on wide-scale involvement in the political process. The goal is for as many citizens to engage politically as possible. Laws and other issues are voted on directly as opposed to being decided by elected representatives.

    The founding fathers did not prefer participatory democracy. They didn’t trust the masses to make informed political decisions. In addition, having everyone contribute their opinion to every issue would be too cumbersome in a large, complex society.

    The participatory democracy model wasn’t part of the U.S. Constitution. However, it is used in local elections, referendums, and initiatives where citizens have a direct role in decision-making.

    It is important to note that participatory democracy is not a direct democracy. There are similarities, but in a direct democracy, citizens vote directly on important government decisions, while in a participatory democracy, political leaders still have an ultimate say.

    Examples of participatory democracy include ballot initiatives and referendums. In ballot initiatives, citizens enter a measure onto the ballot for consideration by voters. Ballot initiatives are prospective laws that everyday citizens introduce. A referendum is when the electorate votes on a single issue (usually a yes or no question). However, in the United States, according to the Constitution, referendums cannot be held on the federal level but can be held on the state level.

    Other Types of Democracy and Government: Direct, Indirect, Consensus, and Majoritarian Democracies

    Direct Democracy

    A direct democracy, also known as a pure democracy, is a system in which citizens make decisions about laws and policies via a direct vote. No elected representatives are present to make decisions on behalf of the greater population. Direct democracy is not commonly used as a complete political system. However, elements of direct democracy exist in many nations. Brexit, for example, was directly decided upon by citizens of the United Kingdom via a referendum.

    Indirect Democracy

    An indirect democracy, also known as a representative democracy, is a political system in which elected officials vote and make decisions for the broader group. Most Western democratic nations employ some form of indirect democracy. A simple example occurs during each election cycle in the United States when voters decide which congressional candidate to elect to represent their interests.

    Consensus Democracy

    A consensus democracy brings together as many perspectives as possible to discuss and come to an agreement. It is intended to account for both popular and minority opinions. Consensus democracy is a component of the government system in Switzerland and serves to bridge the views of a wide variety of minority groups.

    Majoritarian Democracy

    A majoritarian democracy is a democratic system that requires a majority vote to make decisions. This form of democracy has been the subject of criticism for not considering the interests of minorities. An example is the decision for most school closures to be planned around the Christian holidays because Christianity is the leading religion in the U.S.

    There are additional subtypes of democracy that are interesting to explore including constitutional, monitory, autocratic, anticipatory, religious, inclusive democracies, and many more.

    Vote Democracy StudySmarterMan holding sign in support of voting. Pexels via Artem Podrez

    Similarities and Differences in Democracies

    Democracies take a variety of forms throughout the world. Pure types seldom exist in a real-world context. Instead, most democratic societies feature aspects of various kinds of democracy. For example, in the United States, citizens practice a participatory democracy when they cast votes on a local level. Elite democracy is displayed through the electoral college, where representatives vote for the president on behalf of the greater population. Influential interest and lobby groups exemplify pluralist democracy.

    The Role of the Constitution in Democracy

    The U.S. Constitution favors elite democracy, in which a small, typically wealthy, and educated group represents the greater population and acts on their behalf. The United States was established as a federalist republic, not as a democracy. Citizens elect representatives to represent their political views. The Constitution itself established the electoral college, an institution that is characteristic of elite democracy. However, the Constitution also includes aspects of pluralist and participatory democracy.

    Pluralist democracy is present in the lawmaking process, in which various states and interests must come together to reach an agreement about laws and policies. Pluralist democracy is seen in the Constitution in the first amendment right to assemble. The Constitution further allows citizens to form interest groups and political parties which subsequently influence laws.

    Participatory democracy is apparent in the way the government is structured at the federal and state levels, giving states some authority to create laws and policies, so long as they don’t undermine federal laws. Constitutional amendments that expanded suffrage are another support of participatory democracy. These include the 15th, 19th, and 26th amendments which allowed black people, women, and later, all adult citizens 18 and older to vote.

    Democracy: Federalists and Anti-federalists

    Before the ratification of the United States Constitution, Federalists and Anti-federalists considered different democratic systems as models upon which to base the U.S. government. The Anti-federalist authors of the Brutus Papers were wary of the potential for abuse by a heavy-handed central government. They preferred that most powers remain with the states. Brutus I, in particular, advocated for participatory democracy, involving as many citizens as possible in the political process.

    The Federalists considered aspects of elite and participatory democracy. In Federalist 10, they believed there was no reason to fear a powerful central government, believing that the three branches of government would protect democracy. A wide range of voices and opinions would allow different viewpoints to coexist in society. Competition among various perspectives would safeguard citizens against tyranny.

    Types of Democracy - Key takeaways

    • Democracy is a political system in which citizens have a role in governing the society in which they live.
    • The three main types of democracy are elite, participatory, and pluralist. Many other subtypes exist.
    • Elite democracy identifies a small, typically wealthy, and property-holding subset of society to participate politically. The rationale for this is that it requires a certain degree of education to make important political decisions. Leaving this role to the masses could result in social disorder.
    • Pluralist democracy involves political participation by various social and interest groups who affect the government by banding together around shared causes.
    • Participatory democracy wants as many citizens as possible to get involved politically. Elected officials exist but many laws and social issues are voted on directly by the people.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Types of Democracy

    Where does the word 'democracy' originate? 

    The Greek language - demo kratos

    What are some of the characteristics of democracies?

    Respect for individuals, a belief in human advancement and societal progress., and shared power. 

    What is elite democracy?

    When political power resides in the hands of the wealthy, land-owning class.

    What are the three main types of democracy?

    Elite, Participatory and Pluralist

    What is another name for indirect democracy?

    Representative democracy

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In a direct democracy, the citizens exercise their power through voting and contacting elected representatives who are then responsible for voting on laws and matters of the state.  

    A direct democracy allows citizens more control over decisions as they personally vote on all policies and laws.

    Since 1900, the number of democracies worldwide has increased dramatically with over ________% of all nations fitting the definition.

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