Democracy: Characteristics, Pros, and Cons

Democracy it is associated with political institutions, an ideal of collective self-rule, and egalitarian attitude (1). Historical texts often disparaged the concept and equated it with mob rule. Only more recently has democracy become widely valued.

British philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s (1588-1679) Leviathan (1651) drastically transformed perceptions of democracy in political thought because he advocated a secular state. John Locke (1632-1704) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) built upon Hobbes and asserted that democracy is the only form of government that protects individual dignity and the people against the arbitrary, brutal, and unjust rule of false prophets and demagogues. The philosophy of liberalism soon became entangled with the “rule of the many” built upon the foundations of equality and freedom.

Characteristics of Democracy 

Democracy is value-neutral as it does not declare what is moral or immoral (2). Whether or not democracy is preferable to any other political system depends on the values one applies to it. Proponents argue that democracy is qualitatively different from other systems because it issues political power to each individual. It embodies equal liberty affirming equal political rights and opportunities for political participation. Democracy serves human dignity, a value that is external to the system itself. 

S. E. Skaaning refers to “electoral democracy” according to which officials are selected in free, fair, and frequent elections (3). This process requires freedom of expression, populations having access to alternative sources of information, free access to media, and the opportunities to form independent associations and organizations (4). Democracy must safeguard procedures allowing voters to select between different views in a procedurally fair process. Each voter must have an equal impact on the political process.

Referred to as the “popular will”, democracy provides the means for influencing political decisions to conform to the preferences of a population (5). Democracy is therefore rule by the people with “people” considered a collective entity. Democratic processes enable the population to “induce the government to do what they most want it to do and to avoid doing what they most want it not to do” (6). Democracy’s value derives from its realization of the popular will.

Robert Dahl (d. 2014) postulated that procedures for collective decision-making in a democracy are characterized by five conditions: all members having the equal right to participate; having adequate opportunities to participate; having an understanding concerning items on the political agenda; fully controlling the agenda; and membership being inclusive of all adults subject to the rules. These five conditions represent necessary and sufficient conditions for democratic self-rule (7).

How democratic a system is depends on the extent to which it satisfies these requirements. Evaluating to what extent these requirements are satisfied is necessary because many governments describe themselves as democratic without actually being so.

During the apartheid era of South Africa (1948-1994), blacks, constituting a disenfranchised demographic, were allowed to engage in the voting process (8). These votes were placed on a separate roll whose influence in electing seats for MPs was minimal compared to the votes of whites. Although black voters could vote, their votes were of little effect. The opportunity to vote in an election is important in a democracy but is not itself sufficient for declaring a country democratic. For a country to be truly democratic, every vote must have an equal impact on the voting process and composition of parliament.

It is perhaps better to perceive a plurality of democracies located on a spectrum with their spots dependent on degrees of how consistent they are with the above fundamental principles. 

Positives and Criticisms

Democracy provides space for political disagreement and resolution through a process fair to all parties involved (9). Each party has an equal opportunity to influence an outcome. 

Democracy affords “human rights for everyone” (10) by maintaining their individual rights and liberties, which is only possible through the opportunity for political participation.

Public decisions are more informed and impartial when based on reflective and public deliberation (11). A democratic society is ruled by procedures and laws reducing to a minimum the relationships of superiority and inferiority. Democracies are superior in protecting their population from starvation (12). Further, democratic participation entails the responsibility of politicians and political entities to the people.

The Greek philosopher Plato (fifth-fourth century BCE) criticized democracy as a flawed system because it enables the ignorant masses to determine public policy. Public policy is the duty of a specialized group of men of philosophical talent, an intellectual elite called philosopher kings, who were selected in their youth and trained for the task of political rule. Plato, therefore, viewed democracy as a morally wrong system of governance.

Critics cite disruption and discontinuity in policy and the policy-making process caused by democratic processes. In addition, democracy polarizes society through social strife often capitalized on by politicians intending to exacerbate divisions for political gain. 

Proponents of the anti-capitalist, feminist, and decolonial movements argue that democracy entails, at least in part, exclusion, ignorance, dominion, violence, and Eurocentricism (13).

Today there are concerns about the global decline of democracy or a “democratic recession” as data produced by political scientists has shown. The number of democracies around the world is declining steadily. This decline is also a result of a growing indifference to democracy among populations, especially millennials in the West (14).


1. Ludvig Beckman, 2021. “Democracy”. Available. p. 1.

2. Harris, Bede. 2020. “Democracy”. In Constitutional Reform as a Remedy for Political Disenchantment in Australia, edited by Bede Harris, 63-87. Germany: Springer Nature. p. 64.

3. Skaaning, S. E. 2021. “Democracy: Contested concept with a common core”. In Research Handbook on Democracy and Development, edited by Gordon Crawford and Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai, 27-44. Edward Elgar Publishing.

4. Coppedge, M., Lindberg, S., Skaaning, S. E., and Teorell, J. 2015. “Measuring high level democratic principles using the V-Dem data.” Working Paper Series: The Varieties of Democracy Institute.

5. Beckman, Ludvig. 2021. Ibid. p. 10.

6. Dahl, R. 1989. Democracy and its Critics. Yale University Press. p. 95.

7. Dahl, R. 1989. Ibid.

8. Harris, Bede. 2020. Ibid p. 64.

9. Waldron, J. 2016. Political Political Theory. Harvard University Press.

10. Goodheart, M. 2005. Democracy as Human Rights: Freedom and Equality in the Age of Globalization. Routledge. p. 135

11. Cohen, J. 1986. “An Epistemic Conception of Democracy”. Ethics 97:26–38.

12. Sen, A. 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press. p. 152

13. Gebhardt, Mareike. 2019. “Democracy”. In Critical Terms in Futures Studies, edited by Heike Paul, 79-86. Springer Nature. p. 81.

14. Müller, Jan-Werner. “DEMOCRACY”. In Words and Worlds: A Lexicon for Dark Times, edited by Veena Das and Didier Fassin, 39-60. Duke University Press.


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