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Essay: What makes a democracy?

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  • Published: 14 July 2022*
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  • Words: 924 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 4 (approx)

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The positive connotation of the word “democracy” has led to many states characterizing themselves as a democratic regime. However, a vast number of the world’s states are governed by non-democratic regimes. When studying a state, many factors that point to the presence of a democracy may be found. But while there are numerous characteristics of a democracy, a state cannot be considered a democracy without three specific requirements being fulfilled.

A state cannot be considered a democracy without having protections for civil liberties in place. The people of a state must be able to exercise their civil liberties, particularly the rights to free expression and to free press, in order for a democratic regime to exist. Those civil liberties serve as a mechanism for the people to exercise their authority over their rulers and hold their rulers accountable, and accountability of the rulers to the people is a cornerstone principle of democracy.

The right to freedom of speech and expression is one of the primary ways the people can hold their rulers accountable. Being able to voice opinions either in favor of or opposition to the party in power enables the people to assert their authority. In a democratic regime, the ruling party would not try to maintain power by suppressing opposing opinions. Consider the annual Women’s Marches that have occurred in the United States since 2017. Although these marches were arranged to protest President Trump and the Republican Party, the marches were still held nationwide, with police and governmental support where required. Because the United States is widely viewed as a democracy, the freedom of expression and freedom to protest is protected, even when that speech is directed against the ruling party. The opposite is true of non-democratic regimes such as North Korea; any protest against the North Korean government will likely result in severe repercussions for the protestors.

The freedom of the press is another critical element for democracies. The press can serve as a valuable tool for the people to observe the government and its actions, and a free press forces the government to be more transparent than it would have been originally. If the state has undue influence into the press, the media can easily become propaganda machines for the rulers and prevent the people from gaining crucial knowledge and authority. An example of the importance of a free press is found in Russia. After President Putin came to power again in 2012, the Russian government began seizing control of the press and using it to push a positive image of Putin and his government to the Russian people. And while this action is one of many Putin has taken to undermine democratic principles in Russia, this violation of civil liberties is one of the most obvious signs of a turning away from democracy. A true democratic regime is not compatible with state-sponsored media since the people lose part of their authority over their rulers in the absence of a free press.

The second vital element of a democracy is having an inclusive citizenship. In a democratic regime, rulers should be chosen by an electorate comprised of almost all adults, not just those in select groups. A state that denies the right to vote to opposition groups, minority groups, or potential political threats cannot be considered a democracy because the lack of universal suffrage creates a government that is accountable to only a few. Furthermore, almost all adults should be eligible to run for an elected office in a true democracy. This is necessary to prevent one party from obtaining an excessive amount of power and becoming authoritarian. Non-democratic regimes may prohibit members of particular groups or classes from campaigning for office, whether through the means of arbitrary disqualification, violence, or something in between. In true democracies, there are minimal, if any, limitations on whom is eligible to vote or hold office.

The third required component of democracy is that free and fair elections are held at regular intervals. Holding regular elections is one important method by which the people can hold the rulers accountable in democracies. If the rulers are no longer satisfying the will or needs of the people, new rulers will be installed in their places. In these elections, all voters should be free from the threat of coercion when campaigning and casting votes. Additionally, democratic elections are contested. No one candidate or party should obtain more than 70% of the vote in any given election and ideally more than one candidate should be running for a given seat. In a democracy, the ruling party acknowledges and accepts the risk of losing power in elections. And when faced with that risk, the ruling party does not resort to manipulative or authoritative measures to secure power for the future. These stipulations for elections protect the people’s ability to remove rulers from office, which is key to the rulers’ accountability to the people.

There are numerous qualities that democracies may possess. However, of all those characteristics, there are three that I argue are essential to democracies: the protection of civil liberties, particularly the freedom of expression and press; inclusive citizenship; and regularly-held free and fair elections. Each of these three traits are crucial to the people’s ability to assert their authority over their rulers. Without these elements of democracy present within a state, rulers can wield extraordinary amounts of power and influence with relatively little checks on that power. Therefore, no state that lacks any of those three elements of democracy can be considered democratic.


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