Today, we primarily think of two different types of political regimes – democracies and dictatorships.  While there is debate as to whether regime type should be considered a binary variable – democracy vs dictatorship – or a continuous scale – “levels” of democracy – scholars and philosophers have been defining what democracy is since Ancient Greece, and the meaning has evolved significantly since then. 

Procedural definitions of democracy

Robert Dahl in his classic work Polyarchy defines democracy along two dimensions: competition and participation.  He argued that you could divide countries into categories based on how openly they allowed people to compete for office and how many people they allowed to participate in that process.  While elements of his definition are a bit out of date, this two-dimensional view of democracy forms the foundation of how we think about the idea today, as well as the basis of the most common data used to measure democracy – a country’s polyarchy score. 

Source: Dahl 1971

The first thing we always think of when we think of democracy is elections.  When we talk about democracy today, we rarely speak of the direct democracy of ancient Athens, where all citizens voted directly on all issues.  Instead, we have representative democracies, where we vote for politicians who make policy decisions on behalf of a larger group of people.  Holding elections is just the minimum standard for democracy – and all definitions of democracy emphasize that these elections must be free and fair. 

Free and Fair Elections

Just what is “free and fair” is contentious, but generally includes both an honest count of all eligible votes and a variety of civil liberties that ensure that mainstream political views are allowed representation through elections.  We generally categorize these under freedom of expression and freedom of association, but you can think of them more specifically as guarantees that:

  • more than one candidate is allowed to compete for office
  • candidates that represent different views are allowed to run for office
  • candidates are allowed to campaign without interference from the government
  • candidates have equal access to media and public resources

These are relatively straightforward principles, but are not always evenly applied in all democracies.  Many people criticize the role of money in elections, arguing that it can provide an unfair advantage to some candidates and views. 

In addition, while all democracies feature free and fair competition, many democracies will limit the candidates and parties that can run for office or take seats in parliament.  For example, Germany bans some extreme right-wing parties and requires that parties win 5% of the vote to win a seat in parliament.  It adopted these policies to avoid a repetition of the conditions that allowed the Nazi party to take power through elections in the 1930s.


The second dimension of democracy is participation, which for Dahl meant suffrage – what percentage of the population has the right to vote.  While this was an important element of the historical evolution of democracies, with most early “democracies” only adopting universal male suffrage between the 1850s and 1918 (when European democracies were pressured to allow the soldiers who fought in WWI to vote) and female suffrage between 1900 and 1950.  While there were a few outliers, like Switzerland, which did not allow women to vote until 1971, today even Saudi Arabia allows women to vote in local elections.  That said, restrictions on voter participation ranging from taxes to intimidation existed long after formal suffrage was granted, and continue to limit democratic rights in a range of countries.

And so, in established democracies, the fight to make elections more free, fair, and accessible continues.  But what is important here is that even flawed democracies have competitive elections that can and do lead to the peaceful transition of power between different parties and leaders.

Value-based definitions of democracy

As more and more dictatorships hold elections, there are fewer people who would simply argue that elections and universal suffrage are sufficient to call a country a democracy.  Even basic, procedural definitions of democracy emphasize the need for elections to be accompanied by core political freedoms.  The proliferation of elections has, however, renewed efforts to define what is “special” about democracy, including the values that support it.

The study of “civic culture,” which goes back to de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, argues that elections both produce and require a certain type of culture, including values of tolerance  and trust.  Schmitter and Karl define this concept more narrowly, focusing on the idea of “bounded uncertainty” – that since today’s winners may be tomorrow’s losers (and vice versa), everyone will agree to abide by both the rules and the decisions of today’s winners.

Other definitions of democracy focus on different sets of values.  One major distinction is between social democracy (best represented by the Scandinavian states) and liberal democracy (found in its purest form in the U.S.).  While these refer to economic systems as much as political systems – social democracies have larger states that provide more public services than liberal democracies – they also represent different attitudes toward government.  Social democracies have a “corporatist” approach to state-society relations that resembles the developmental state.

Participatory Democracy

Finally, in response to voter disengagement with their representatives, some countries have experimented with what is called “participatory democracy.”  These forms of democracy seek voter input on policy issues beyond just the electoral process.  This can mean a country’s use of referenda – a nation-wide vote on a major policy issue such as a new constitution.  More often, it means creating formal channels for civil society (such as non-governmental organizations) to provide input on local budgets and decision-making, often facilitated by new technologies.

What democracy is not

Schmitter and Karl conclude their essay on democracy by noting that democracy is not necessarily effective or efficient – it does not necessarily produce better policies than other forms of government.  We’ll discuss this more over the next few weeks, but for now I would like to note that this is not always the way democracy is seen from the outside.

In the immediate aftermath of the pro-democracy protests (and occasional democratic transition) of the Arab spring (in 2012), surveys found that majorities in several countries, like Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt, defined democracy in economic terms.  In a world where there is a strong correlation between countries that are democratic and countries that rich, this is not surprising, but it highlights a central challenge of democratic transitions.  Reducing economic inequality and providing public services may depend more on the strength of state institutions than the type of political system a country has, and if new democracies don’t deliver on citizens’ expectations, they may fail.