The word democracy derives from the ancient Greek demokratia, formed from the roots demos ("people") and kratos ("rule"). The word and the idea originated in Athens, Greece, many years prior to the conquest of Greece by Macedonia, and the subsequent spreading of Greek culture by the empire-building of Alexander the Great.
Throughout much of Western history, to speak of "democracy" was to speak of the system of government in ancient Athens. The Athenians prided themselves on their public spirit and citizen control of government. Only certain free adult males were considered citizens, however, so the majority of ancient Athens never rules in any real sense: women, children, slaves, and resident foreigners were not citizens, and did not participate in the government of the city-state.
The features that set Athenian politics and government apart from nearly all other governments was the prevalence of debate and voting by the whole of the citizenry (in the Assembly), and the selection of leaders sometimes through voting and in other cases by sortition, or allotment.
Perhaps because the two memorable decisions of Athenian democracy were also the most ill-advised — the war with Sparta (related by Thucydides in his classic history) and the execution of the philosopher Socrates (related by both Plato and Xenophon — historically, up until the last several hundred years, democracy often received little praise and much derision.
Though Athens was by no means a pure direct democracy, that is often how it has been thought of. The idea of a direct democracy is that all major and many less significant policies are decided by the citizens directly. Most thoroughgoing direct democracies have been small communities, such as towns; historians, politicians, political scientists and others invariably call these policies "weak."
The most common use of the procedures of direct democracy have been in small organizations, throughout (and even prior to) history. In modern times, increases in citizen control are usually called democratic, and the extensive use of the initiative in, for example, the most populous state of the U.S., California, has led some scholars to argue that direct democracy can be more stable than previously thought.
The Institutions of a Democratic Republic
The founders of the United States of America, almost to a man, did not see themselves as establishing a democracy. They instead referred to their preferred form of government as a republic. This is mixed form of government with a long history. Early advocates of the idea included the Roman philosopher and politician Cicero, and these ideas were being revived in Europe prior to the American revolution. A republic included democratic elements, as well as separation of powers as conceived by Montesquieu, and notions of federalism that originated from a wide variety of sources, including the Iroquois Confederacy.
The main feature of a republic was the idea of constraints put upon all agencies of the state. The people who acted in their governmental capacity were required to abide by the laws they enacted. Further, the number and nature of the laws they could create were conceived as limited in number, since the scope of government was to be limited by the rights of the people.
This domain of non-governmental society rested on a number of institutions, some deriving from the common law tradition, such as the trial by jury. In fact, many republicans (and democrats) considered the trial by jury to be the primary institution of political society, and it was increasingly seen as something controlled directly by the people, as a check against the abuses of elected and appointed officials.
Because of these basic rights, limiting the role of government, and because of the prevalence and fundamentality of a few democratic institutions like the jury trial, the word "democracy" gained increased favor in the early days of the American republic. After the United States Constitution was adopted, and the first amendments added (the Bill of Rights), democratic reforms became increasingly popular, along with the extension, throughout the states, of such ideas as the separation of church and state. Originally, in most states, only land-owners could vote. Soon the franchise was extended to all male adult white citizens. After the Civil War and the suppression of the secessionist efforts of the southern states, the slaves were freed, and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution adopted, allowing freed male slaves to vote.
Further extensions of the franchise started in the Western territories and states, including the right of women to vote — a reform movement federalized with the 19th Amendment.
During this same period of agitation for woman's suffrage, a number of states adopted Constitutions or Constitutional Amendments institutionalizing initiative, referendum, recall and other practices of direct democracy. It is no wonder that one term for the kind of government found in America is democratic republic. Features of democracy and representation and constitutional limits exist side by side, and appear to be (mostly) mutually reinforcing.
Democracy Broadly Construed
The word "democracy" today has wide and near-universal appeal; even when despised, it is often honored in odd and frequently hypocritical ways. What is often meant, though, is not direct democracy, but the idea of a democratic republic, often called liberal democracy, featuring representation, protection of minority rights, a rule of law, and extensive liberties.
The popularity of the term "democracy" is in part the result of people wanting, most of all, an extensive sphere of private action, as guaranteed by the rule of law and as filled with opportunity by institutions of private property and mostly unhampered markets. The right to vote also comes for praise, but often seen as marker of good government more than a good to be sought directly by individual citizens.
Also widely recognized is the idea of countervailing powers within society, as well as within government. Families, churches, fraternal organizations, institutions of learning, and many other social groups tend to flourish in a society with limited government and a rule of law. Alexis de Tocqueville's classic analysis of ante-bellum American society, Democracy in America, helped spread this broad conception of democracy. Tocqueville famously noted Americans' penchant for creating organizations to obtain specific goals. An optimistic reading of his lessons was that a society that extended democracy in government also allowed non-governmental institutions to serve the people with greater directness and efficiency.
Mechanisms of Democratic Decision
The chief method of deciding an issue democratically is voting. In a democratic republic, voting occurs among the general electorate primarily to determine the chief executives of the state, and representatives to the legislative assemblies. Voting also occurs among legislators themselves, to enact, amend, and repeal law, and to engage in other official acts.
Issues of critical concern to citizens about the mechanisms of democracy include ballot access for running for office, as well as for initiative and recall. Various Voting reform proposals and the regulations on the behavior of political parties and on the amount one may give to finance candidates for office are also major issues of modern political life.
The Scientific Study of Politics and Constitutions
Many branches of social science study the institutions of modern liberal democracy. Political science, social psychology, and Public Choice economics present a variety of paradigms for explaining and predicting human behavior in a variety of institutional settings. Those ideas are covered in separate articles.
Prior to the 19th century and the rise of such disciplines as political economy and sociology, most of the theoretical discussion of these issues was carried on by philosophers. Plato, Aristotle, Hugo Grotius, Nicolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and David Hume are just a few of the figures that not only offered provocative and persuasive explanations of the nature and role of politics in society, but also helped shape (if often quite indirectly) the democratic institutions of modern society.