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The Concept of Democracy in Political Theory

Introduction and Background

The concept of democracy is familiar to most people. Developed first in ancient Greece, democracy came to flourish in the 20th century, when decolonization, economic circumstances, and the establishment of just political rules led to the popularity of democratic institutions. Today, the majority of western societies have settled on liberal democracy as the most efficient system of government. The development of democratic institutions continues in many countries of the African region.

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The complexity of the concept of democracy and the implications of its practical implementation led to the interest of scholars worldwide. Researchers studied democracy, its origins, and economic implications, covered related concepts, such as human rights. This paper seeks to address the concept of democracy and related ideas described in scholarly papers and books. The paper includes a critical review of interdisciplinary research on the origins of democracy, its economic impact, and the concept of rights. The researcher presents the authors’ thoughts and findings and also critically evaluates the results of their work. Problems of social complexity and challenges the world faces in the 21st century necessitate the understanding of democracy and related concepts.

The Concept of Democracy

The article by Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl provides a comprehensive overview of the concept of democracy. The researchers define democracy as a system governance in which “the rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives” (Schmitter and Karl 76).

A system of governance is a term that encompasses all the characteristics of government, the rules, and responsibilities that are related to the making of publicly binding decisions (Schmitter and Karl 76). The institutionalization of a system of governance is necessary for it to work properly. When a system of governance is institutionalized, its characteristics become known and accepted.

The article by Dalton, Shin, and Jour emphasizes the need to consider outcomes when defining democracy. The researchers claim that democracy can also be defined through its outcomes. This system of governance puts freedom and liberty front and center and the goal of democratic institutions is creating and adhering to policies and procedures protecting freedom and liberty of citizens (Dalton, Shin and Jour 144). I believe that it is important to consider the outcomes as more representative of whether a particular country can be considered a democracy. The existence of certain democratic institutions or procedures does not necessarily mean that a country is a democracy if the freedom and liberty of its citizens are under attack. Democracy is built upon the concept of freedom. I believe that for a system of government to be considered a democracy, policy-makers and citizens must be able to freely cooperate and act collectively. Freedom is required for citizens to have a level of independence from authorities and to be able to restrain the actions of policymakers.

In comparison to other systems of governance, democracy is highly dependent upon citizens. Citizens elect their representatives, form and join political parties, and play an important role in a democratic society. Schmitter and Karl claim that the component inherent to all definitions of democracy is regular elections (78). During the elections, citizens choose between various candidates proposed by political parties. Following the elections, citizens can influence the work of their elected representatives through such means, as petitions, social movements, interest associations, etc. (Schmitter and Karl 78).

The work done by Schmitter and Karl conceptualizes democracy and provides the reader with a valuable understanding of what democracy is and what it is not.

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Democracy and Rights

In a democratic country, citizens have rights, which can be defined as certain goods, services, or protections delivered by one party to another (Tilly 56). In a democratic country, the government works to reinforce the protection of rights to all of the people under the state’s jurisdiction (Tilly 56).

Three types of rights include civil, political, and social (Tilly 59). While a democracy implies the delivery and protection of all three types of rights, the rights emerged at different times during a course of history. Research suggests that civil rights emerged in the 18th century, political rights were recognized in the 19th century, and social rights in the 20th century (Tilly 59).

Researchers outline the following four values of democracy:

  • political liberties;
  • participation rights;
  • equality before the law;
  • equal rights for women (Dalton, Shin, and Jour 144).

Out of these four values, I believe the last one should include all citizens, not just women. Democracy is a system of governance that provides equal rights to all of its citizens. The last value seems to be the result of a century-long battle against inequality and woman rights, in particular, voting rights.

Modern democratic countries protect and deliver the rights of their citizens to education, freedom of expression, healthcare, income, etc.

The Origins of Democracy in Modern Societies

The origins of democracy in modern societies have been the focus of many scientific studies. Some studies emphasize the role of education and economic development as the factors which led to the establishment of democracy, therefore providing a behavioral basis for the development of democratic institutions (Huber, Rueschemeyer and Stephens 71). Other studies favor a conflict-oriented political economy approach and conclude that the development of democracy is the result of conflicting interests and economic changes (Huber, Rueschemeyer, and Stephens 71). The second line of research is developed by Barrington Moore, Jr. in his book “Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy”.

In the book, the author examines the historical preconditions which led to the establishment of various systems of governments, including democracy. The author provides a detailed analysis of the factors which led to the establishment of different institutions in different countries and outlines conditions that favored democracy in Western societies. Moore proposes a path or route called “the route of bourgeois revolution” which led to the establishment of democracy in the United States, France, and other countries (Moore 415).

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In many Western societies, democracy was established as a result of a series of revolutions, such as the American Civil War and the French revolution. The author argues that features specific to Western feudalism favored democratic possibilities. Such features included “the growth of the notion of the immunity of certain groups and persons from the power of the ruler, along with the conception of the right of resistance to unjust authority” (Moore 415). As such, democracy originated in those societies where the government left some degree of independence to the nobility. This independence, the author claims, is a historical fact in those societies, which are now established as democracies (Moore 416). The revolution typically occurred to overcome those factors, which were unfavorable to democracy.

One such factor was plantation slavery in the United States. The conflict between the industrial Northern and agricultural Southern states on the issue of slavery was one of the factors which contributed to the Civil War (Moore 132). Also, the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation changed the legal status of slaves and allowed the government to frame the conflict as a war against slavery. Although the Civil War started as a war to preserve the nation, it ultimately decided the legality of slavery as an institution and led to the establishment of democracy in the United States.

In comparison to other studies on the origins of democracy in modern societies, the study was done by Moore largely ignores the role of education and the resulting greater political interest among citizens in establishing democratic governments. Instead, the author focuses on the interaction between economic and political power and the driving force behind the process of democracy establishment. While these factors are of central importance, the role of education in making people more involved in the political life should not be ignored. The fact that education was not examined by Moore is the weak point of his work.

The role of the interaction between economic and political power is further examined by Huber, Rueschemeyer, and Stephens. The authors’ theoretical interpretation of the origins of democracy is in line with modernization theory, a theory which recognizes the interrelation of society, economy, and politics, and hypothesizes that these structures are subject to increasing specialization and diversification as a result of value-driven motif (Huber, Rueschemeyer and Stephens 71; Mazzuca 16). In their study, the researchers highlight the fact that the origins of democracy lie in the change of the power balance in society (Huber, Rueschemeyer and Stephens 73; Mazucca 3).

The comparative historical research done by the authors suggests that the change in power balance is the result of economic development, which “transforms the class structure, enlarging the working and middle classes and facilitating their self-organization” (Huber, Rueschemeyer and Stephens 83). Such transformation results in a weaker upper class, which is one of the factors which favor the establishment of democracy. As such, the researchers view the development of democracy as a result of the economic development (Huber, Rueschemeyer, and Stephens 83).

The contribution of the researchers’ work lies in a comprehensive overview of democracy origins from the economic point of view. The outcome of their work is scientifically valid and suggests the need to consider economic factors as well as the concept of power as the driving force behind democracy development.


In democratic countries, power is given to the people who freely elect their representatives in the government. Since democracy focuses on people, the issue of rights is prominent in many democratic societies. Multiple types, variants, and forms of democracies exist, adding to the complexity of the concept of democracy. While democracy is typically associated with the freedom and power of the people, the actual power structure in different democratic societies varies. As such, some democracies are more people-centric than others. The variations in political structure inevitably lead to changes in the economic outcomes of this system of government. As such, it is important to consider the components of democracy and those concepts which make a system of government a democracy.

Works Cited

Dalton, Russel, Doh Shin and Willy Jou. “Understanding Democracy: Data from Unlikely Places”. Journal of Democracy 18.4 (2007): 142-156. Print.

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Huber, Evelyne, Dietrich Rueschemeyer and John D. Stephens. “The Impact of Economic Development on Democracy”. The Journal of Economic Perspectives 7.3 (1993): 71-86. Web.

Mazzuca, Sebastián. “Macrofoundations of Regime Change”. Comparative Politics 43.1 (2010): 1-19. Web.

Moore, Barrington Jr. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Boston: Beacon Press, 2015. Print.

Schmitter, Philippe and Terry Karl. “What Democracy Is… and Is Not”. Journal of Democracy 2.3 (1991), 75-88. Print.

Tilly, Charles. “Where Do Rights Come From?”. Democracy, Revolution, and History. Ed. Theda Skocpol. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. 55-72. Print.

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