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Types Of Democracies: The Fundamentals That Make A Democracy

You would be surprised to learn that there is really only one type of democracy that exists today. That democracy is a representative democracy. You will also hear a lot of talk about different types of democracy, but most political scientists are in agreement on the core principles or characteristics of a democracy. In this article you will learn about 3 types of representative democratic systems and the 6 core democratic principles that make up a democracy.

Major Types of Democracies With Representative Democracy Being The Norm.

There are two major types of democracies, direct and representative. Direct Democracy is only used in limited cases, and representative democracy is the norm in most democratic countries. There are many “flavors” of representative democratic systems in use throughout the world today. To better understand these systems, below are some definitions of democracy and definitions of the two types of democracies.

  • Democracy Definition. ThoughtCo has a good definition – “… a form of government that empowers the people to exercise political control, limits the power of the head of state, provides for the separation of powers between governmental entities, and ensures the protection of natural rights and civil liberties.” The key phrase is “empowers the people“. Democracy comes from the Greek words for “people” (dēmos) and “rule” (karatos).
  • Direct Democracy. This is where every citizen participates and votes on all government laws. Due to the large size of populations and governments today, direct democracy is only used in a limited form. An example of this is when a referendum is put on a ballot and ordinary citizens have the power to create or repeal a law. Democracy has its Greek origins in a direct democracy. In 508 B.C Cleisthenes’ , a political leader in Athens, implemented reforms that broke the power of aristocrats and placed political power into the hands of the “deme” of villages.
  • Representative Democracy. All democracies today are representative democracies where the people vote for who will represent them in a legislature or parliament. This governing body then votes for laws as representatives of the people. Additionally, in many democracies, the people also vote for other government officials such as a president, judges, etc.
Types of Democracies - Cleisthenes, the Father of democracy

Generally Accepted Democratic Principles.

It can be a challenge to clearly identify which country is a democracy as well as the different types of democratic systems. Every country has unique government apparatuses that some may call democracies and some may not. Some countries may even use the name “democracy” when clearly to most it is not a democracy. To better distinguish what is a democracy and what are the different types of democratic systems, there are some fundamental principles of a democracy. ThoughtCo lists six principles of a representative democracy. Most political scientists have a consensus on these principles:

  1. Popular Sovereignty. The government is created and maintained by the consent of the people through their elected representatives.
  2. An Electoral System. The people are the source of all political power, and having a clearly defined system of conducting free and fair elections is essential.
  3. Public Participation. Active participation of the people. Healthy democracies enable and encourage the people to take part in their political and civic processes. 
  4. Separation of Powers.` Based on a suspicion of power concentrated in a single individual—like a king—or group, the constitutions of most democracies provide that political powers be separated and shared among the various governmental entities.
  5. Human Rights. Along with their constitutionally enumerated rights and freedoms, democracies protect the human rights of all citizens. In this context, human rights are those rights considered inherent to all human beings, regardless of nationality, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other considerations.
  6. A Rule of Law. Also called due process of law, the rule of law is the principle that all citizens are accountable to laws that are publicly created and equitably enforced in a manner consistent with human rights by an independent judicial system.

Types of Representative Democratic Systems.

Others may list more types of democratic systems, but the three systems listed below represent the full range of democratic systems that meet the democratic principles listed above. Some countries’ democratic systems can also consist of one or more of the systems described below.

  1. Parliamentary Democracy. This type of democracy system gives more power to the legislature (also called a parliament or congress). Additionally, the elected legislature chooses the head of the government, usually called a prime minister.
  2. Presidential Democracy. This type of democracy, the president is not elected through the legislature. Also, the president cannot dismiss the legislature and in most cases the legislature cannot remove the president. Additionally, the president has the power to veto a bill from the legislature, and the legislature, if it has enough votes, can override a president’s veto. Democracies use various popular vote methods to elect a president. This includes a electoral college system (popularly elected state-level electors who then vote for the national president) or a nationwide popular vote to elect a president.
  3. Social Democracy. This type of democracy system is where the people empower the state to provide extensive social services. In this case, the state does a lot more than just enact and administer civil laws. This type of democratic system is usually part of a presidential or parliamentary system.

See ScienceABC’s What are the Different Types of Democracies?, Saylor Academy’s Introduction to Comparative Politics, and Council of Europe’s Democracy for more details and more viewpoints on different types of democracies and their systems.

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