Governments, systems of groups or people who organise communities, have existed for at least 5,000 years. Throughout history, we’ve seen many approaches to running civilisations. Nowadays, the method of rule that most countries live under is democracy. We take a look at what it is, what the alternatives are, and why it’s so essential in world politics.
What is democracy?
The word ‘democracy’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘rule by the people.’ It’s used to describe a system of government where power is held by the citizens. They can impact important decisions, either directly or through the people they elect.
Democracy is based on freedom and equality between all people. It’s often described as the ‘rule of the majority’, as important decisions are based on the votes of the people. This can either be:
- Through direct democracy. Everyone gets the chance to vote on the outcome of a decision. An example is the Brexit referendum in 2016.
- Through representative democracy. People vote to elect officials to make decisions to reflect the wishes of the people, such as the US Congress and UK Parliament.
Check out this video on the history and development of democracy. As it explains, democracies should protect the best interests of the people, no matter their race, gender, sexuality, religion or political opinion.
What other systems are used?
Today, there are around 75 countries in the world that have democracies of some kind. However, some countries have different systems of government:
- Oligarchy. While democracies give power to the many, oligarchies give power to the few. It’s a system where a small number of people hold power, usually thanks to their wealth, social status, education or business interests. Power is often passed from one group to the next without the majority of the population voting.
- Autocracy. In autocracies, a single person possesses absolute power to rule over the country. This ‘autocrat’ is often above the laws that apply to everyone else.
- Anarchism. Anarchism refers to systems that reject traditional power structures. Instead, society is self-managed and self-governed. Anarchists feel that typical governments are harmful and unnecessary. There are a few active communities in the world today.
What are the benefits of democracy?
Winston Churchill once famously said, ‘democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ Although it’s not perfect,, democracy aims to bring the most benefits to the most number of people. These include:
- Protecting the interests of citizens. People get the chance to vote on the key issues affecting their country or can elect representatives to make these decisions.
- Promoting equality. One principle of democracy is that all people are equal in the eyes of the law, and every person gets a vote.
- Preventing abuse of power. In democracies, people in authority are usually elected by people who vote them in. They are therefore responsible for carrying out the will of those who elected them. If they misuse their position, they won’t be re-elected.
- Creating stability. Democracies have rules and laws that provide stability and protect human rights (see our guide on Understanding human rights to find out more). Democratic governments have time to make changes that are in the interests of everyone.
What are the problems with democracy?
Democracy isn’t always perfect, and there are many ways in which it’s been criticised. Some of the most common complaints about democracy include:
- Not everyone votes. Although everyone living in a democracy has the right to vote, (at a certain age) not everyone does. They may not know the impact of their vote or are maybe just reluctant to get involved. However, it’s hard to understand the true will of the people if not everyone takes part.
- There’s a risk of corruption. Once someone is elected into power, there are no guarantees they won’t use that power for personal gain. They may have made promises to people to try and get voted in, but they may not follow through on those promises once they’re elected.
- Decisions can take a long time. The process of changing laws and making decisions about the country has to go through various stages of voting before they come into effect. This means that carrying out what people want often takes a long time.
- Not everyone is informed. Although ordinary citizens are asked to vote on essential issues or who should make decisions for them, many people don’t have the specialist knowledge required to understand the full implications of their vote.
Why is democracy important for young people?
For young people, democracy can seem like a great yet frustrating system. It can give you a voice and a chance for social action. However, you may not be able to directly vote in elections and referendums until you’re older.
In the US and in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, you must be 18 before you can vote. In Scotland, you must be 16. However, even if you’re not yet at voting age, in democracies, you can still make your voice heard:
- In the UK, organisations such as the British Youth Council encourage young people to get involved in matters that affect them. They help people under the age of 25 make a difference in their local, national, and international communities and democracies.
- Generation Citizen in the US takes a similar approach. They’re ensuring that young people have the skills to participate in their democracy.
- In both countries, you can contact your MPs or representatives to voice your opinions and concerns. They’re responsible for carrying out the wishes of the people they represent, including you.
- Both the US and UK allow the right to peaceful protest. If there’s a cause that you believe in, you can attend rallies and protests to show your support.