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What is Democracy, really?

Image Credit: Weekend Wayfarers (CC BY 2.0)

Democracy. It’s a word you hear thrown around everywhere, from news sources to classroom discussions—but what really is it? Even political scientists can’t agree on a specific definition of democracy, but in its simplest terms, it is characterised by the ‘people’s say,’ essentially alluding to systems that are put in place by the people rather than enforced onto the populace. In a democracy, the people are the ones with the power to change institutions through methods such as elections, encouraging equality and freedom of choice. However, as this article will detail, democracy can be seen in so many different ways, and by the end, you may have your own ideas about the effectiveness and importance of democracy in your own perception.

The beauty of political science is that the definitions of large processes are perception-based. This means everyone gets to share their own opinions and cognitive ideas around large topics, which means there are many different ways of looking at what ‘democracy’ really entails. To understand truly what a ‘democracy’ is, it is easier to see it in terms of what it most definitely isn’t. It is not an autocracy or dictatorship, nor is it an oligarchy, which is where a small privileged group in society reigns. Democracy, in its simplest terms, should not be seen as the ‘rule of the majority’— though in practice, as we shall see, certain aspects of democracy cannot be practised as effectively as theory may encourage. 

The simple definition of democracy 

In the journey to understanding what democracy is and how the definition has been developed in the real world, we need to start with the birth of the idea—in the realms of Ancient Greeks. The etymology of ‘democracy’ comes from the Greek words ‘demos’ (people) and ‘kratos’ (rule), forming the basis of the system, which is the ‘people’s rule.’ This raises many questions that have underpinned the introduction of different democratic systems today. For example, who constitutes the ‘people’ and how are they able to ‘rule?' Is it by systems or in a different way? Another part of democracy, if we translate it simply as the ‘people’s will,’ is the two areas that unite these things together—equality, and individual autonomy. Individual autonomy is the idea of ‘total will,’ which essentially means that everyone should be free to live life with their own free will, and able to control their own decisions and freedoms. Equality is the idea that everyone is able to have the same opportunities to control decisions around them, and both autonomy and equality are born out of the idea of the ‘people’s will.’ This explains why democracy is so highly regarded by many; though it is important to understand that the ideals of ‘individual autonomy’ and total ‘equality’ are very difficult to achieve. However, the degrees to which they are able to be realised in the world we live in today are governed by the extent to which democracies adhere to the simplified definition. These principles of autonomy and equality are extremely difficult to put into full practice because a mechanism is needed to decide how to address conflict in views and ideas, and is needed to create fuller social order. This is why we have political bodies, elections, and institutions, which act as the basis of this mechanism to allow you to have a say in determining issues that affect you—it is crucial that you use your power to make the difference that you can!

What does democracy look like today?

In practice, democratic systems today differ from the ‘heart’ of democracy, the idea of the total ‘will of the people.’ Every system is different and adheres to the core values of democracy in different ways. One common thread throughout all modern democracies is the use of politicians as representatives of the people. In Ancient Greek democracy, the ‘people’ directly took part in political decisions and were the ‘politicians’—but there was a catch. In Athenian democracy, there was only a small minority who got the classification of ‘people’—richer, upper-class men—while the majority of the population was not able to directly take part in lawmaking. This adaptation has been effective to be able to have a wider representation in national consensus, meaning that the democratic ideal of ‘equality’ can be realised to a greater extent. Politicians act as your voice and direct mouthpiece to voice concerns to the wider nation—this system is known as ‘representative democracy.’ Elections should allow for everyone to have their say, though a problem with some modern democracies is the growing binary split. With only two parties or three to vote for, many people do not feel as if they can truly have their ‘will’ realised by those representing them. This is a problem with certain areas of democracy. However, the electorate system still manages to work in many areas of the world, and the ideas of ‘equality’ and ‘autonomy’ are so crucial to keeping the idea of democracy alive. 

Why is democracy so important, and what can you do? 

Using the idea of democracy as ‘the people’s will,’ it may seem that democracy has been failing in recent years. The problem of voter apathy, where people abstain from voting and thus non-democratic governments are put in place, is a real problem in recent years. Also, the reduced scope of voting and the rise of extremism are all symptoms of declining democracies, as many countries have not completely adhered to the true definition of democracy as detailed above - leading to certain majorities having a greater say and changing institutions to marginalised minorities. The problems that democracies are currently facing are due to the fact that systems are straying from the real core ideas of democracy: equality and autonomy. Democracy is a system that should empower people to feel like they can change their situation. It enables hope, and the idea of change being in the hands of everyone. These ideas, although not in our current systems to the extent that they should, can be reinvigorated by everyone’s participation in politics. In order to achieve the full ‘people’s will’ to the greatest possible amount, everyone needs to be involved. Get people you know to talk about politics and discuss policies and the news. You can make a difference and help reinvigorate democracy again for future generations by voting and encouraging as many people as you know to vote, even if they have never voted before. Democracy, as noted, has ‘people’ in the forefront of the name—and we need you and everyone to continue to take part in the politics of the world. 



Wallace, Jon, et al. “The Importance of Democracy.” Chatham House, 14 Apr. 2021,

Council of Europe. “Democracy.” Council of Europe, 2012,

‌“Overview: What Is Democracy?” Principles of Democracy,

‌Dahl, Robert A, et al. “Democracy | History, Development, Systems, Theory, & Challenges.” Encyclopædia Britannica, britannica, 8 Feb. 2019,


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