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 which means ‘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 and the most popular opinions among voters. 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.
Democracies aim to protect the best interests of the people, regardless of 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. Some present day examples include Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
- 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. For example, the North Korean dictatorship is currently the longest enduring autocratic regime post World War II.
- Constitutional monarchy. A constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a singular person (a monarch - usually a king or queen) has agreed to share power with a constitutionally organised form of government. Monarchs usually achieve their position through hereditary succession, meaning they are born into it through their family. Common examples include Britain, Belgium and Spain.
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 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. In the USA, the federal government allows members of each state to elect an official representative for their state to protect their interests at a higher government level.
- Promoting equality. One principle of democracy is that all people are equal in the eyes of the law, and every person gets a vote. For example, Canada has a universal franchise decree in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which explicitly allows every citizen of Canada the right to vote in any Canadian election.
- 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 it has been criticised for a number of different reasons. Some of the most common complaints about democracy include:
- Not everyone exercises their right to vote. In some countries, like Australia, voting is mandatory by law for certain elections - but this is not the case in other democratic countries. Although everyone living in a democracy has the right to vote (at a certain age), not everyone actually does it, which means that in the end, not every voice gets heard. For example, only 55% of voting-age citizens cast their vote in the 2016 US presidential election.
- Not everyone has the right to vote. In some democratic countries, there are laws that stop some people from voting. For example, the 1983 Representation of the People Act in the UK prevents people who have been convicted of crimes from voting while they are in prison.
- 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. For example, the United States has an extensive process in which a bill (first draft of a law before it is passed) must be supported by several levels of government, such government committees, congress members, public officials, and the executive office.
- Not everyone who votes is well-informed. Although ordinary citizens are asked to vote on essential issues or who should make decisions for them, not everyone has the specialist knowledge required to understand the full implications of their vote. And of course, politicians themselves often spread misinformation during campaigns, which only makes it harder to stay well-informed of issues. For example, after the 2016 Brexit referendum which saw the majority of the British public vote to leave the EU, GoogleTrends noted a huge spike in search requests on what would happen if Britain were to leave.
- There’s still 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.
Why is democracy important for young people?
People that vote have a hand in shaping the world. Politicians of all nations have a history of ignoring young people and focusing on policies that benefit older people – because older people are much more likely to vote. At the 2019 UK general election, just 47% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, compared to 74% of people over 65. So politicians might look at those figures and decide to either:
- Make policies that benefit the 2.6 million people aged 18–24 who are engaged in politics.
- Make policies that benefit the 9 million people over 65 who are engaged in politics.
For the best chance of winning next time, they might be sensible to choose number 2. But if more young people voted, governments would realise that they need to do more to appeal to young people.
In the US and in England and Northern Ireland, you must be 18 before you can vote. In Scotland and Wales, you can vote at 16 (but 18 for UK-wide elections). But in a democracy, you can still make your voice heard if you are younger than that. For example:
- 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 are 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.