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Democracy is where two wolves and a sheep vote over lunch
—Attributed to Benjamin Franklin, though he never said it[1]

Democracy is the least bad system of government ever devised by humans. The word's origin is Greek, meaning "rule by the people."[2] Aristotle ranked democracy as the third-best form of government, after aristocracy and monarchy.[note 1] One particular boon Aristotle ascribed to democracy was his claim that even if corrupted, democracy merely degrades into what he considered the third-worst form of government — ochlocracy (with 'silver' and 'gold' in "ass-backward governance" going to oligarchy and tyranny, respectively).[3]

What is a democracy?[edit]

The modern concept of democracy encompasses 12 basic ideas:[4]

  1. Consent of the governed
  2. Free elections
  3. Constitutional limits
  4. Majority rule, minority rights
  5. Transparency and accountability
  6. Multiparty system
  7. Economic freedom
  8. Rule of law
  9. Human rights
  10. Freedom of expression
  11. Freedom of association
  12. Freedom of religion

Types of democracy[edit]

Representative democracy[edit]

The French National Assembly.
Not to be confused with political representationWikipedia

Representative democracy (also referred to as a "democratic republic", though not always correctly) is a system in which people choose and authorize representatives to make decisions. The parliamentary system is a version of representative democracy. Some countries have claimed the establishment of new kinds of democracy, including "direct democracy", "people's democracy", or "organic democracy"; most of the time, the leaders of these countries are slimeballs — or outright tyrants — who are trying to pull the wool over people's eyes, and their countries are actually totalitarian states.[note 2]

Republic, not a democracy[edit]

A common exercise in pointless semantics involves labeling the United States of America as "a republic, not a democracy" — as done primarily by partisans. The origin of the phrase in the US dates back to the 1930s when conservative anti-interventionists used it to oppose entrance into World War II.[5] It was later used by Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, to express his opposition to the Warren court actually applying the Bill of Rights to legal interpretations.[5]

Those who say "republic, not a democracy" might define democracy as the direct kind, not the representative kind; they might claim democracy leads to mob rule. In fact, the United States is both a democracy and a republic — a representative democracy is sometimes also a republic (although not all republics are representative democracies).

On the other hand, if your candidate loses in an obscure constitutional mechanism like the Electoral College, or if you're not part of the wealthy oligarchy that actually determines policy, then the distinction between a democracy and a republic might not seem so pointless.[6]

Direct democracy[edit]

Decisionmaking assembly in a Swiss canton.

A direct democratic system is a system in which votes are directly counted by the people and action is taken. This method is mostly found only in small countries and communities because a few people can take less time to decide than many people, and it takes time to count all the votes.

Since medieval times, this sort of democracy has been continuously practiced in some Swiss cantons in the form of a meeting called the Landsgemeinde.

Ballot initiatives and referenda[edit]

One form of limited direct democracy which exists in conjunction with representative democracy is the ability of citizens to propose new laws and collect enough signatures to put them on the ballot as a referendum to be voted on by the people. This exists in some states in the United States, although not at the federal level. Attempts by a few, such as former Senator Mike Gravel, to enact the right to initiatives and referenda at the federal level have found little support.

At the state level, this form of direct democracy has become controversial in recent years due to the passage of such ballot measures as California Proposition 8 , the presence on the ballot every election of initiatives proposed by libertarian activist Tim Eyman in Washington state,[note 3] and the use of ballot initiatives in several states to legalize medical marijuana. This can be seen in two ways, either as a positive thing in which citizens can make an end-run around a legislature that does not represent the actual majority view or in a negative way as either giving too much power to one unelected person (e.g., Eyman) or as enabling a majority vote to run roughshod over the rights of a minority as with Proposition 8 (or similarly Brexit in the UK). Which view one takes often varies state by state and issue by issue; the same people who might praise the initiative process when used to legalize medical marijuana might be critical of the process when it is used to ban same-sex marriage, and vice-versa.

Because ballot initiatives give any group the ability to pass a law quickly and without the likelihood of it being debated and amended to death in the legislature, there seems to be little desire to end or limit the practice, even among those who dislike some of the outcomes; after all, if their political opponents can use the initiative process, they can too. Fortunately, there has been little success by cranks proposing fringe causes using ballot initiatives, as those few crank initiatives that manage to collect the necessary signatures to appear on the ballot end up failing at the polls by a wide margin. In any case, this limited experiment in direct democracy points to both the possibilities, and limitations, of direct democracy, and while there is little desire to end the practice, attempts to expand it to the federal level or to expand its use at the state level (for example having the people give their final approval at the ballot to all laws passed by the state legislature) have little to no support.

Democratic centralism[edit]

Democratic centralism is based on the notion of a democratic process of discussion and formulating public policy only up to the point where a policy is decided on. Once the policy is agreed on, it is enforced top-down. Democratic centralism is associated with one-party governments, particularly Marxist-Leninist, and the only debate that exists takes place within the ruling communist party. Such countries may have universal suffrage, but only the ruling political party's candidates are on the ballot, so "voting" has no effect on policy; the only way to have a say is to join the ruling party and try to move up in the party hierarchy. This form of "democracy" is a sham, as party members only have a limited voice, and non-members don't have any.[note 4]

This can be contrasted to a democratic republic, where citizens retain the continuous right to petition their elected representatives. Public policy can change in response to public opinion, and multiple competing political parties exist.

"People's" Democracy[edit]

National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

Later, the concept of democratic centralism was enlarged to "people's democracy" (or, in Maoism, "people's democratic dictatorship"). This had its theoretical origins in the Popular Fronts of the 1930s when communists entered coalitions with competing forces such as socialists and social democrats and other "bourgeois" political forces, but was theorized by Bulgarian communist leader Georgi Dimitrov and by Mao Zedong. Thus, a multiparty, cross-class coalition composed of workers and the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, and the "progressive bourgeoisie" would guarantee a peaceful transition to communism.

In practice, what this meant was that the communist parties (which in countries that adopted this concept were often not officially communists but "socialist" or "workers'" parties) dominated political life and controlled all other parties, either by causing splits in the originally independent non-communist parties, then taking advantage of the splits (e.g., Hungary's "salami tactics"), or by creating new, supposedly "representative", puppet, parties from scratch, with socialists and social democrats being forced to merge with communists into communist-dominated "socialist" or "workers'" parties (such as, e.g., East Germany's Socialist Unity Party). A characteristic of the political life in these countries is that the parties would always be in a coalition (e.g., East Germany's National Front), sometimes involving non-party loyal mass organizations (such as for youth, women, etc.), which presented the single, communist-dominated, electoral candidate list; after elected, they would always vote in sync with the communist government, with sporadic exceptions.

All "people's democracies" were either instituted in the post-World War II Soviet-occupied countries of the Eastern Bloc or otherwise in communist dictatorships.

Economic Democracy[edit]

Economic democracy is different from the abovementioned forms of democracy as it's a hypothetical way of running the economy democratically and is different from capitalism as capitalist enterprises are plutocracies by definition, with the rare exception of co-ops or a powerful Labor Union. Economic democracy seeks to replace the standard way of running an enterprise while keeping the market system, effectively making it a form of market socialism. Many people proposed and worked on it, including philosopher David Schweickart,[7][8] Marxian economist Richard D. Wolff,[9] and economist Gar Alperovitz.[10]

As for how this actually works in practice, the empirical evidence is minimal at best, so any claims about the effectiveness of a proposed system can't really be proven or disproven.


Casting a ballot in France.

The key to democracy, one way or another, is what we call "voting." This is where each enfranchised citizen expresses their desired outcome in a given situation.

The franchise[edit]

The concept of who is allowed to vote has been critical to democracies since the first. In many, only a few of the people subject to rule were allowed to vote for their rulers. In some, vast portions of the population were not allowed to participate — to use the example of the United States, most women were not allowed to vote until the early 20th century (women's suffrage).[note 5] People with dark skin have slowly made progress since the reforms of the 1960s but face the occasional hiccups to this day *cough*felonydisenfranchisement*cough*.

The rule has been that whoever is allowed to vote can only vote once.

The secret ballot[edit]

This concept is a key idea to fair democracy. If one is required to raise one's hand in public, as in old New England town meetings, the police will always get their budget request,[citation NOT needed] however ridiculous it might be. If one is allowed to present one's opinion on these matters in private — via a secret ballot — one's opinions can be trusted to be honest and not coerced.

Public voting has a long history of coercion and stifled votes.


Democracy, like all forms of government, has numerous flaws.

Voting systems[edit]

There is no "perfect" voting system; every possible system is inherently flawed. In fact, this is a mathematically demonstrable fact; between Arrow's Impossibility TheoremWikipedia and the Gibbard–Satterthwaite theorem,Wikipedia every possible voting system with more than two positions or candidates to be voted on has significant problems. All possible voting systems have at least one of the following flaws:

  • The rule is dictatorial (i.e., there is a single individual who can choose the winner).
  • There is some candidate who can never win under the rule.
  • The rule is susceptible to tactical voting because there are conditions under which a voter with full knowledge of how the other voters are to vote and of the rule being used would have an incentive to vote in a manner that does not reflect their preferences. This means, in other words, that there is no truly "fair" voting system. Worse still, rank-order voting systems, which are the easiest systems to use, suffer from additional flaws. The more complexity is added to the system to mitigate these flaws, the more power individual voters have to vote strategically, and the more confused voters get about how to vote. They also lead to undesirable outcomes, such as very unpleasant extremist candidates being elected due to large numbers of people gaming the system.


People in democracies have a tendency to vote in their own perceived personal interest, which leads to widespread inefficiency and corruption; because representative democracy relies on being elected by your personal constituency, "pork barrel" spending on local projects is pure upside for your constituents, even though it may be bad policy. Because everyone thinks the same way (and is rewarded by doing the same thing), candidates who do so have an advantage over those who do not. Thus, even though each individual voter seems to be behaving rationally, they are, in fact, making an irrational decision, leading to a wide-scale prisoner's dilemma of sorts. Nonetheless, evidence suggests that democracy is the most efficient political system, at least when it comes to economic growth.[11]

Hoi polloi screw-ups[edit]

Throughout history, there have been several instances where the electorate is not competent to make good decisions about what to do (or whom to put in charge) because of misinformation on even important issues. Socrates himself believed that any given electorate formed primarily of uneducated people will lead to situations wherein leaders get elected by populism rather than by genuine competence.[12]

Selection criteria[edit]

Democracy selects for electability, not competency at leadership, and charismatic but substandard leaders (or substandard leaders with no charisma at all) can be, and frequently are, elected and re-elected.

Mob rule[edit]

Because decisions are made by the majority of voters, this can lead to repression of minorities, and extensive un-democratic protections are necessary to protect minorities from the majority. In the United States, the non-democratically elected judiciary is the major bulwark against the majority repressing minorities and still are not always successful (other nations are better). Additionally, panic can lead to disastrous decisions, such as those seen in the wake of 9/11 in the US. Plato, befitting his preference for a society ruled by philosopher-kingWikipedias, believed that democracy, in particular, would lead to mob rule, which Plato saw as evil and corrupt.[12][note 6]

A common view among early and Renaissance republican theorists was that democracy could only survive in small political communities.[13] Heeding the lessons of the Roman Republic's shift to monarchism as it grew larger, these Republican theorists held that the expansion of territory and population inevitably led to tyranny.[13] Democracy was therefore highly fragile and rare historically, as it could only survive in small political units, which, due to their size, were vulnerable to conquest by larger political units.[13] MontesquieuWikipedia famously said, "if a republic is small, it is destroyed by an outside force; if it is large, it is destroyed by an internal vice."[13] Rousseau asserted, "It is, therefore the natural property of small states to be governed as a republic, of middling ones to be subject to a monarch, and of large empires to be swayed by a despotic prince."[13]

Lack of choice[edit]

First past the post system typically decays over time into two-party rule, barring strong regionalism or other independent factors that cause political parties to collapse. This is because it is better to have a leader you can tolerate than a leader you cannot; the more power an acceptable party has, the more likely it is to remain in power, even if it is not what you would choose if you could choose anyone to be in charge (simply because the harm done by an unacceptable party is seen as too great to allow to take power). If neither major party is acceptable to you, your vote has no power unless you make up a sizable enough portion of the electorate to usurp one of the major parties.


Semi-presidential democracies, such as France or Finland, are sometimes put in a situation where the president and parliamentary majority are of different, usually opposing political parties. The problem is that a prime minister must be appointed by the parliament. The president must approve of the prime minister, often causing the appointment to be virtually impossible, forcing snap elections. A similar issue can happen in the US when the president and the Congressional majority (but not supermajority) are of different parties, often ending in just about nothing getting passed, especially if the Senate majority is high enough for filibusters. And while parliamentary democracies don't have any issue like this, their head of government is not elected.

Forced demands[edit]

A democracy, by definition, requires the citizens to be concerned with and preferably interested in politics to make a vote reflecting what they see as the best candidate. This can be particularly problematic with people who aren't interested in politics and have to vote. In addition, people who don't believe in democracy are excluded from any direct involvement in the government, as they don't believe that their vote should have any power.

Populism and lack of quality press[edit]

Within a democratic election, it is more important to be popular than it is to have good policies. Many politicians abuse this by creating massive controversies allowing themselves to remain the focus of all media attention. Since the media usually is way too focused on local drama to do any sort of other reporting, it leads to a situation where the media ends up being just as populist and corrupt as the politicians who are running in the race making these remarks, thereby obstructing democracy rather than promoting it.[14]

Furthermore, democracies encourage wasteful spending for this very reason. People hate paying taxes[citation NOT needed] and love getting more benefits. A politician might campaign on "fiscal responsibility", but actually telling people they will pay more tax is a losing political strategy, which is why every campaign specifically claims that any proposed benefits will either come from only the richest citizens or from magical thinking, yet when it comes time to actually raise taxes on the rich...

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Noting that the dude is quite a bit past his prime when it comes to 'being a reasonable first choice' on pretty much any current topic. Since, like, two rough millennia. Just saying.
  2. Example: Pre-2011 Libya, where the direct democracy or "Jamahiriya" (state of the masses) exercised little control over governance, with actual power concentrated in an unelected revolutionary council and its leader Muammar al-Gaddafi.
  3. Most of Tim Eyman's initiatives attempt to limit taxes, government revenue, or government spending. His controversy is such that some people will vote against any of his initiatives, even those they might individually agree with (such as cutting Washington's exorbitant vehicle plate fee to a flat $30, opening HOV lanes during non-peak hours, and legalizing scratch ticket gambling), solely because "it's a Tim Eyman initiative." Another activist filed a ballot initiative in 2003 that, if passed, would "proclaim that Tim Eyman is a Horse's Ass," but it failed to make the ballot.
  4. Does this sound similar to how governance occurs within religious hierarchies, particularly the Roman Catholic and Mormon churches?
  5. Depending on State. Technically women could vote in some of the very first few elections of the US, but this was ended almost immediately, and Wyoming enshrined Women's Suffrage in their constitution 40 years before the other states due to the extreme shortage of vaginas in the Wild West.
  6. Since Plato was an Athenian, a society plagued with all the problems of direct democracy, his views on the matter can be somewhat excused because of that.


  1. Aryssa Damron (May 29, 2019). "‘Democracy Is Two Wolves And A Lamb Voting On What To Have For Lunch’ – Did Ben Franklin Say This Quote?". Check Your Fact.
  2. "Democracy" —
  3. "Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, Chapter 10 (1160a.31-1161a.9)". Internet Classics Archive. Retrieved 21 June 2018. 
  4. Introduction: What Is Democracy? by Danielle Allen Democracy Web: Comparative Studies in Freedom.
  5. 5.0 5.1 The Unlucky Many: A History of the "Republic, Not A Democracy" Slogan (October 9, 2020) On The Media.
  6. The Silver Lining to Our Oligarchy by Boer Deng (April 24 2014 3:10 PM) Slate. A 2014 Princeton University study concluded that the US is an oligarchy.
  7. [1] thenextsystemeconomicdemocracy.
  8. [2] Economic Democracy.
  9. [3]WSDE's (worker self directed enterprises).
  10. [4] Pluralist Commonwealth.
  11. Democracy Does Cause Growth Journal of Political Economy Volume 127, Number 1 by Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, Pascual Restrepo, and James A. Robinson
  12. 12.0 12.1 The Republic by Plato
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 "Deudney, D.: Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village. (eBook and Paperback)". 
  14. The Review of Policy Research, Volume 22, Issues 1–3, Policy Studies Organization, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Blackwell Publishing, 2005. p. 28