3 Chapter 5: Theories of Democracy

What is a democracy? Why should we choose democracy?

In this chapter we will develop theories of and theoretical justifications for democratic governance and a democratic political society. We will also consider some of the similarities and differences between a republic and a democracy. Lastly, this chapter will consider causes and conditions of democratization and the influence the development of democracy has on economic reform. At the end of this chapter, students will write a reflection paper on the ways in which democratic society influences their lives.

What is Democracy?

Let’s consider three core elements of what constitutes a democracy—individual sovereignty, equality amongst citizens, and democratic norms and values. Democracy is essentially the idea that political sovereignty resides at the level of the individual. In this sense, a political community derives its supreme power and authority from the consent of the people within that community. Individuals may hold the sovereign right of political rule in a democratic country, but it is a public and shared right—no one individual can claim absolute sovereign power and authority. Some individuals may have greater political power, however. In a representative democracy, for example, representatives typically wield political power on behalf of citizens and some representatives may have greater or lesser political power relative to other representatives. But if we define sovereignty as the absolute authority and supreme power of political rule, democratic sovereignty is not reserved for particular groups or individuals, nor is it derived from a divine or hereditary right, but rather a general right dispersed at the level of individuals within a political community.

The second element of democracy is that there should ideally be political equality among citizens. Citizenship is a legal status that confers onto an individual the formal recognition that they are a member of a sovereign state. Non-democratic societies still have citizens, of course, but those citizens do not enjoy political rights associated with determining who should exercise political power. Citizens in non-democratic societies may still have rights, particularly compared to non-citizens in those societies, but political rights are generally very limited or absent. Equality amongst citizens is a democratic ideal, but in reality this equality may be limited, incomplete, or inadequate, even in what is generally considered to be a democratic political community. In the United States, for example, equal representation in the Senate (2 senators per state) means that the votes of some citizens hold greater weight than others. According to Robert Dahl, a U.S citizen in Alaska has a vote 54 times greater than the vote of a Californian.[1] Likewise, in the selection of the U.S. President through the Electoral College, the absence of a direct popular vote means that votes in some states are more important than votes in other states. Being a liberal Democratic Party voter in Kansas or a conservative Republican Party voter in California can be a frustrating experience—very often such citizens feel as though their vote doesn’t matter, and this sense of a “wasted vote” can have an overall negative effect on voter turnout.

Characteristics of a democracy.

The third element of democracy constitutes ideas that strengthen and reinforce the elements above: norms, values, and rules that affirm and solidify individual sovereignty and political equality amongst citizens. This last element suggests that abstract concepts such as sovereignty and equality are not enough—democracy requires a set of norms and values that affirm its place in society. Imagine a democratic political community that simply went through the motions of a democratic process but did not necessarily value democracy nor develop any positive norms regarding the rule of the people. What’s missing here? In this Zombie Democracy, citizens become mere automatons, acting out the motions of the democratic process with no articulation or understanding of its value. In this respect, democracy requires public acknowledgement, understanding, and deliberation on why we choose democracy and what specific forms a democracy should take. Civic engagement and civic participation is not just about voting or formal democratic processes, but rather include a wide range of political and non-political activities in which individuals or groups come together to solve problems and better their community. Volunteering, participating in local government, and attending community events all help bring about a vibrant public sphere. Placing value on these activities is a vital foundation of democracy.

Lastly, a useful distinction can be drawn between a democratic society and a democratic form of government. High levels of civic engagement—individuals engaged in collective action for the public betterment—point to a strong democratic society. A democratic form government, on the other hand, implies a set of rules and processes for democratic elections and democratic governing. These concepts, of course, go hand in hand and are mutually reinforcing: rules and processes that limit democratic forms of government can have a deleterious effect on civic engagement. Conversely, strong institutions of democratic government can facilitate and encourage active community participation in the public’s well being. There can, however, be a gap between the relative strength of a democratic society in relation to a democratic form of government. We can imagine a scenario in which rules and processes of democratic elections and governance are transparent and fair, yet voter turnout is abysmally low; letters can be written to representatives, government meetings can be free for anyone to attend, yet most of the public do not contact representatives nor attend any meetings, preferring instead to go about their private lives. Conversely, we can also imagine a scenario in which there is robust political activism, civic engagement, and collective action to solve public concerns, and yet the institutions of government contain powerful obstacles to democratic governing. Although the United States of America is considered as having a democratic form of government and a democratic society, there is sometimes a gap between these two forms of democratic activities. Think of some specific examples in American politics that highlight the difference between a democratic society and a democratic form of government.

Democracies and Republics

What exactly is the difference between a republic and a democracy?

It is often said that the United States of America is not a democracy but a constitutional republic. What exactly is the difference between a republic and a democracy? A republic is a form of government in which the country itself is a public concern, not a private entity owned by a particular ruling group, such as a monarchy. Public ownership over the country does not, however, necessarily imply a democracy. The vast majority of sovereign states today use the word republic in their official names but many of these are not democratic. A republic is a form of government defining the ownership of a country as a public matter, whereas  a democracy is a system of government in which citizens themselves engage either directly or indirectly in government.

But when we look at different conceptions of a republic in history, the matter gets very complicated. The term republic derives from the Latin Res Publica which literally means “public thing” and was used to identify the Roman Republic (509 B.C. to 27 B.C.). This classical era of Roman civilization, which predates the Roman Empire, was characterized by mix rule, in which numerous popular assemblies were offset by a wealthy aristocracy who wielded significant power through the Senate. While not exactly democratic, citizens were nonetheless able to participate in government through these popular assemblies. Much of the evolution of the term republic is a variation on mixed government and civic participation in governance. During the Italian Renaissance, several city-states experienced a form of rule that was termed republican by political thinkers of the time, particularly, Leonardo Bruni and Niccolo Machiavelli. These republican governments were mainly contrasted with monarchies, were not particularly democratic, and often emphasized citizen participation and mobilization in defense of the city-state.

In this concept of mixed government, a republic (as a form of government) is related to classical republicanism, a political theory that first emerges in the writings of Aristotle. Classical republicanism can useful be distinguished from classical liberalism—where classical liberalism emphasizes the rights of the individual, classical republicanism emphasizes the rights of the community. Politics is a shared, social, and communal activity—in fact, for Aristotle, living a life of politics was the greatest virtue and highest honor of our human experience. Aristotle and Machiavelli—both classical republican political thinkers—advocated for a form of mixed government among the one, few, and many. The one would be a kingship or monarchical ruler of some kind, the few would be a wealthy aristocracy, and the many would be the populace at large (Aristotle saw this as a polity of middle class rule; Machiavelli saw this as a democracy). The French political philosopher Montesquieu took this idea of mixed government and emptied it of economic classes, instead theorizing on an institutional separation of powers among legislative, executive, and judicial lines. Montesquieu thus directly influences arguably the most important development in the history of republicanism—the framing of the American Constitution.

Perhaps the most important historical development in republican rule is the adopted of the US Constitution and creation of the American republican experiment, which today remains the oldest continuously running constitution in the world. The framers of the U.S. Constitution sought to blend Lockean liberal ideals of rights and property with republicanism’s commitment to enlightened rule and mixed government. In this context, the American republican form of government is characterized by a separation and balance of powers in legislative, executive, and judicial institutions of government. As discussed in Chapter 3, America’s republican form of government also includes federalism—a system of local, state, and federal governments that are distinct, if interrelated and and overlapping at times (this is discussed in Chapter 3).

Democratization: Conditions and Causes

Democratization is the transition from a non-democratic or more authoritarian form of government to a more democratic one, and is a key concept in the study of political science.

1. How do democratic forms of government emerge, take root, and develop?
2. What are key factors that bring about democratic political societies?
3. Should foreign governments act to influence other countries to be more democratic?
If so, what sort of diplomatic, economic, or military actions should be taken to achieve this?

These questions are not just academic—they are crucial political questions central to many events in global affairs, such as the Cold War, the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the lead up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Arab Spring Revolt of 2010 and subsequent political violence in Libya, Egypt, and Syria.

Democratization, of course, should not be viewed as a simple black and white transition from a non-democracy to a democracy. There are gradations and nuances to the development of democracy—authoritarian governments may mae semi-democratic reforms but slide back into authoritarianism (which roughly mirrors what happened in Egypt after the Arab Spring). Semi-authoritarian regimes may transition into full and robust democracies (as was the case in South Korea in that last quarter of the 20th century). In short, democratization is messy and includes different reforms in different institutions, as well as the complex development of a democratic society (for, as noted above, there is a distinction between a democratic form of government and a democratic society).

Pro-democracy protest in Hong Long during the Umbrella Revolution, September 30, 2014.

Democratization is a key concept in political science because, in providing an explanation for when it does and does not happen, we must look at the conditions and causes that bring forth democratic reform. Using our basic social science method of causal inquiry, democratization would be the dependent variable, whereas we can list and analyze several independent variables such as wealth, culture, urbanization, education, and social equality. Let’s consider several of these variables together, namely wealth, culture, and urbanization. It may be that when a country modernizes such that wealth increases, education improves, and society becomes more urbanized, that country is likely to democratize. Indeed, the relationship between modernization and democratization is one of the most studied in comparative politics. The theory that as a country modernizes it will become more democratic remains controversial. South Korea, Taiwan, and South Africa are often held up as examples that support this theory. Germany—which modernized in the 19th century, long before democratic reforms in 1918—is held up as a counter example.

What about the economic system of capitalism—what relationship does it have to democracy? Some studies suggest that economic reform to make a country more capitalist does little to spur on democratic reforms, but the reverse may be true: democratization very often leads to liberal market reform. The case of China is an interesting example. China has made huge strides in modernization in the last 40 years, improving education, becoming more urbanized, and increasing wealth. It has also largely embraced capitalism and has become a leader in the global economic marketplace. Democracy, however, remains very minimal—China is officially a one-party state and there is little political opposition to the Communist Party of China.

Why Should We Choose Democracy?

Let’s explore three justifications as to why democracy is a worthy political goal—aggregative, deliberative, and radical. First, we may choose democracy because it is an effective system for aggregating political preferences. In short, democracy allows us to vote and state our preferences in such a way that we can tally up choices—a numerical aggregation of votes—to determine the best course of action on policies. “Well let’s put it to a vote,” is an ideal solution for those who value democracy because it clearly demonstrates the aggregate preference of a political community. An advantage to this aggregative view of democracy is that it can give a clear indication of majority preference and thus a clear determination of the best course of action. In short, aggregative democracy gives clear determined outcomes: in theory, majority decisions provide definite answers to political problems.

A disadvantage to the aggregative view of democracy is that such a view does not necessary bring about consensus, compromise, or understanding—it simply tallies individuals preferences and determines what the numerical majority is. This view might be criticized for turning democracy into a cold and calculating machine, devoid of deliberation or ethical regard. Take for example the famous debates on slavery between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. Douglas argued, in effect, that the question of slavery has a fairly simple answer—just put it to a vote. If a state decides for slavery through democratic means, then so be it. Lincoln, by contrast, argued that the question of slavery was a moral one. While denying that he was an abolitionist, Lincoln asserted that the expansion of slavery in the territories and new states was a direct threat to the union. For Lincoln, something more than a mere tally of votes was necessary to resolve the question of slavery.

A second justification for democracy is deliberative. Deliberative democracy suggests that we value self-rule because it provides an area for discussion, compromise, and consensus. The ideal of deliberative democracy is not that a majority number of votes will clearly determine an answer, but that through transparent and fair deliberation, we should arrive at something close to unanimous consensus, even if that consensus is a compromise in which no one individual gets everything they want. A deliberative democracy is one in which citizens and representatives justify their decisions in an open and transparent arena, using reason to arrive at a best possible conclusion while leaving open the possibility that the conclusion could be revised or changed in the future. Process is key to deliberation—it is a back and forth dialog among individuals engaged in the task of finding solutions to political problems of a community. Where aggregative democracy is centered on the end result, or aggregative, of preferences, deliberative democracy values the process of deliberating as much if not more than the conclusion itself.

In Sydney Lumet’s 1957 film 12 Angry Men, jurors retire to a deliberation room to determine whether or not a young boy murdered his father. All but one of the jurors (played by Henry Fonda) are fairly certain the boy is guilty. But as the discussion unfolds, little by little doubt over the boy’s guilt begins to grow. Deliberation, communication, and reason guide the jurors away from prejudice (the boy is Puerto Rican, and as the last hold-out admits toward the end of the film, “you now how those people are … not a one of them is any good!”) and toward a reasonable consensus on the verdict. By the end of the film, all 12 jurors realize that the guilt of the boy is far from beyond a reasonable doubt. The film takes place entirely in one room, and is confined to dialog that is centered on the best course of action, specifically a verdict in the case. The table in the room is a symbol of deliberation. Indeed, as the climax of the film nears and the last hold-out begins openly spewing prejudice directed at Puerto Ricans, the others jurors began to physically leave the table, standing up and turning toward the windows. These movements are a symbolic rejection of prejudice and a lack of deliberative reason. As Henry Fonda begins to respond to the prejudiced man, speaking about the need for reason to guide a deliberative process, members of the juror slowly begin returning to the table.

This film reveals the value of deliberation. Had the jurors simply voted their preferences after hearing all the evidence and testimony, they likely would not have arrived at the best possible conclusion. In short, we value democracy because it provides a venue for a deliberative process of fair, transparent, and rational dialog necessary to discern justice. But what are some disadvantages of deliberative democracy? Just as aggregative democracy gives us a clear cut majority preference, deliberation may not always provide such a clear conclusion. Indeed, one person’s values and political preferences can be simply incommensurable with another person’s values and preferences. Take, for example, the highly charged debate over abortion. This is an issue in which there seems for many little compromise or middle ground. It would perhaps be impossible to bring together strong pro-life and pro-choice individuals into a deliberative environment and have them come out with some consensus on the issue, regardless of how long they deliberated.

The third justification for democracy is radical. In this view, we value democracy not because we arrive at clear solutions (aggregative), nor because it provides some reasoned consensus through dialog (deliberative) but because democracy gives individuals power to that makes government responsible and accountable to their needs. In the radical view of democracy, power is won on the streets, through direct action of citizens who demand action or recognition from government. In the extreme sense, we may imagine riots, street violence, burning cars, and broken windows, but a radical conception of democracy does not necessarily mean violence or intimidation at all. Rather, a radical view of democracy suggests that dissent and resistance can form the bulwark of democratic power.

Returning to the issue of slavery in the 1850s, if Douglas advocated for a form of aggregative democracy to the question of slavery, and Lincoln a incremental form of reasoned deliberation on the moral question of slavery, Henry David Thoreau provided a clear radical argument of resistance and civil disobedience. For Thoreau, the act of voting strips individuals of political conscience, rendering the fate of gross injustices such as slavery to a mathematical game of who has the most votes. Likewise, in his seminal speech “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass forcefully rejects the notion that abolitionists should engage in rational debate over whether slaves were humans deserving of freedom. “The time for argument has passed,” thundered Douglass, “[a]t a time like this, scorching irony is needed, not argument… For it is not light that is needed, but fire.”[2]

Reflect on these three justifications for democracy: aggregative, deliberative, and radical. Which do you prefer? If we had to come to a conclusion on which of these three conceptions of democracy we should value most in this classroom, right now, how should we collectively arrive at an answer? This is a tricky question, for one student may say, “let’s vote on which justification of democracy is best for us,” they would clearly be valuing an aggregative conception more than others. Likewise, if another student countered that it would be best to reach consensus after a reasonable debate on the matter, they would clearly be favoring a deliberative conception. If a third student were then to counter that they should resist the question (and all assignments in the class) and engage in academic disobedience to pressure the professor into responding to the student’s needs, they would clearly be favoring a radical conception of democratic power (full disclosure: the professor does not advocate for this third option).

It’s A Wonderful (Democratic?) Life

George Bailey is trapped in the small town of Bedford Falls, unsatisfied with his seemingly dead end existence in the classic Hollywood film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, dir. Frank Capra). Driving out to a bridge on Christmas Eve with the intent of taking his own life, George is instead met by his own guardian angel, who proceeds to show George what life would really be like had he never been born. No one would have been alive to save his brother from a fall in the ice or to save the Bailey Building and Loan from Mr. Potter, the rich and conniving banker of Bedford Falls. Indeed, the entire town is renamed Pottersville and driven to poverty and vice had George Bailey not been born. As George ponders what his world would have been without him, his guardian angel says it best: “You see, George, you really have lived a wonderful life.”

Imagine if George was not a human but democracy itself. Let’s take democracy out of your life entirely. Let’s go further and assume that, unlike George Bailey and Bedford Falls, your life is exactly the same. Your past is the same, your present is the same, and your future is the same. You have the same family, same jobs, same schools, same car. The only difference is that you do not live in a democracy. Does this matter? Why or why not? Write a minimum 3-page paper reflecting on the absence of a democracy in you life. Use at least two of aggregative, deliberative, and radical conceptions as examples of the kinds of experiences that may be missing in a life without democracy. For students who do not live in a democracy, reverse the assignment—imagine that your life is the same but you do live in a democracy. Does this matter? Why or why not?


In this chapter we defined democracy as sovereignty residing at the level of individual citizens who are equal to one another and who live in a society that affirms the norms and values of individual sovereignty and citizen equality. We made some distinction between democracies and republics, while identifying some important connections between the two. We reviewed the concept of democratization—the transition from a non-democratic to a democratic regime—and identified some approaches to studying this important phenomenon. Lastly, we considered justifications for democracy—in asking why should we choose democracy, we arrive at three possible answers: aggregative, deliberative, and radical. Which do you think is more important and why? How exactly does democratic society and democratic governance effect your life?

The first section of this book has introduced students to key concepts in political science and understanding politics. In seeking to define politics, review ideologies, analyze the distinction between behavioralist approaches and institutional approaches, identifying the ways in which public law structures politics, and, lastly, considered theories of democracy and why democratic values are important, we have along the way covered key political concepts that are essential for understanding the complexity and important of politics in our world today. In the second section of this book, we will take an in-depth look at the major sub-disciplines in political science, with the aim of both introducing students to the discipline and learning more about how to analyze and understand political behavior, thought, and institution

Media Attributions

  1. Robert Dahl, How Democratic is the American Constitution? 2nd edition, Yale University Press: 2003, pp. 47.
  2. Frederick Douglass, "What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?"

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