On today’s episode, we will look at democracy. What is democracy? What does democracy look like? Is democracy the best type of government?

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Under the spotlight (idiom) – if someone or something is under the spotlight, they are thoroughly examined, especially by journalists and the public

The new tax law has put his earnings under the spotlight

ultimate (adj) – most important 

My managers will make the ultimate decision about who to employ

Feasible (adj) – able to made, done, or achieved

With some extra resources, the project will be feasible

contemporary (adj) – existing or happening now

I don’t like contemporary art

To govern (v) – to control and direct the public business of a country, city, group of people etc

The country is governed by a military regime 

Assembly (n) – the process of coming together, or the state of being together

The constitution protects freedom of assembly

To incorporate (v) – to include something as part of something larger

This car incorporates several new safety features

judicial (adj) – relating to or done by courts or judges or the legal system

The supreme court is the judicial branch of the government

consolidated (adj) – made stronger and more certain

His power was consolidated after his reelection

legitimacy (n) – the quality of being legal, reasonable and acceptable 

The lawyers expressed serious doubts about the legitimacy of military action

Democracy has been under the spotlight in recent days following the US election. This week i’ve read article after article and watched TV news report after news report focusing on the challenges currently facing the USA! In fact, a recent article from the Guardian describes US democracy as ‘broken’  and badly designed. Rather than looking at the US election result in today’s episode, I want to focus on the idea of democracy. What is Democracy? What does democracy look like? How do we measure democracy? Democracy is such a common term in the modern world. My old political science textbook from my first year as a university student talked about how the world was the most democractic it had ever been. Towards the end of the twentieth century democracy spread from its homeland in Western Europe and North America to more of Asia, Southern and Eastern Europe, Latin America and parts of Africa. However, a lot has changed since I was a first year undergraduate student. In fact, a number of the examples the textbook gave as new democracies include Hungary, Poland, and Brazil. Are these still democracies? According to some democracy rankings, not really anymore!

So what is a democracy? The simplest definition is rule by the people, and the central idea is self rule. In a democracy it is the people who hold ultimate political power, not a king, military leader, or tyrant. But democracy is not simply one united idea. In the original ancient Greek form, democracy was direct. The citizens of Athens themselves gathered to debate and reach decisions on matters of common interest. The problem with direct democracy is that it is incredibly difficult on a large scale. In a small village, town, or even small city, maybe residents would be able to regularly meet, discuss, and make decisions. But in modern countries? India, the world’s largest democracy, has over 1 billion people. Direct democracy is simply not feasible.

At a national level, all contemporary democracies are representative rather than direct. What does representative mean? Well, the original idea of self-government has changed and been replaced with the idea of elected government. How can the people be said to govern themselves if they are ruled by a separate government? Well, they probably can’t be. As one of my favourite philosophers Rousseau says “the moment a people gives itself representatives, it is no longer free. It ceases to exist”. As i mentioned earlier, however, as modern countries developed they needed new forms of government and democracy. In representative democracies the citizens elect a parliament, and in presidential systems, a president or leader. The people cannot meet and make decisions for themselves in this system, but they can choose representatives to do it for them. A representative stands in for another person or group. For example, a lawyer represents their client, a flag represents a country, and elected politicians represent the people who elect them! Modern representative democracy allows massive populations to have some control over their leaders. 

Although all modern democracies are representative, they are not all the same. One important distinction we need to make is between liberal and illiberal democracies. Liberal democracy is limited government. It is a version of representative democracy where the government’s power is limited by the constitutional protection of individual rights, such as freedom of religion, speech, and assembly. It is designed to protect individual rights from the power of the government. This is especially important in the design of the USA’s democracy. On the other hand, illiberal democracies have become increasingly common, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. An illiberal democracy is a version of representative democracy in which rulers, although elected, govern with few limits and little respect for individual rights. Essentially, democracy does not extend far beyond the election itself! Actually, even elections in illiberal democracy are influenced by the leaders actions. 

So we have looked at the definition of democracy, and some different forms it can take. But how do we measure democracy, and decide if a country is democratic or not? Well there are a number of different organisations out there which do this every year. Freedom House is one example, and I recommend everyone checks out their website and compares the rankings given to different countries. On Freedom house you can find rankings for freedom, internet freedom, and, importantly for us, democracy! Their democracy score incorporates separate ratings on national and local governance, electoral process, independent media, civil society, judicial framework and independence, and corruption. Let me give you two examples of their ratings. The country estonia was given 85/100 and described as a consolidated democracy. Their political system is relatively stable, elections are free and fair, the media is independent, and the law is effective. However there are some worries about corruption. On the other hand, the country Turkmenistan was given 0/100. All power in that country is in the hands of the President. The law is ineffective, there are few individual rights, and the country is in no way democratic. 

Final thought

In today’s episode we have looked at the idea of democracy. What do you think about democracy? Or maybe i should ask, what do you think about representative democracy? Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. Why do you think he said this? Can you think of any potential alternatives, or solutions to the problems in your country’s governments? Personally, I hope that we move away from representative democracy to what is called deliberative democracy. Deliberative democracy highlights the importance of public discussion among free and equal citizens in giving legitimacy to the decisions of government. Too often people vote in elections, and then are ignored until the next vote. Instead, I believe that the more people are involved and educated in the decisions of government and discussions about policy, the better government will be! What do you think?

Comprehension Questions

Q.Where did democracy start?

A.Ancient Greece

Q.Who is one of my favorite philosophers?


Q.Who said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”?

A.Winston Churchill

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

One thought on “18. What is Democracy? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Wiston Churchill was right, (representative) democracy is not perfect, but there are not believable alternatives. In my opinion, the main reason of democracy as best choice of government lies on men’s (and women) changement who lead the country, periodically, afterward the vote.
    Also a king or a dictator, abstractly, can govern well for a more or less short period of time, yet the impossibility of removing them by people prepares bad times for the country, because when the power Is kept too long in the same hands it is inevitabile that things get worse.

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