What Are the Six Characteristics of a Democracy?

by Rosanne Tomyn

Democracy, derived from the Greek term "demos" or "people," is a system of government that gives power to the people. Democracy can be exercised in several ways -- either directly by citizens or through elected agents. First established by the Greeks, democracy didn't reappear on a global scale until after the 17th century. According to the U.S. Department of State, the democratic style of government -- adopted by the United States in 1776 -- has six basic characteristics: established popular sovereignty, majority rule, individual rights, free and open elections, citizen involvement and open compromise.

Citizen Rule

Woman handing out

A democratic government grants adult citizens the right to elect their representatives. It also establishes clear guidelines for election cycles and term limits so that key positions are contested at regular intervals. Through this process of voting, citizens are regularly given the ability to hire or fire their representatives.

Majority Rule and Minority Rights

Group of businessmen discussing idea together in meeting.

The principle of majority rule is an important parts of the democratic system. The majority rules in the election process, but individual rights are protected by the maintenance of decentralized, local government bodies. In a democracy, it is understood that all levels of government should be accessible to, and representative of the people.

Individual Rights

People with different religious beliefs in office together.

Democracies value the protection of individual rights. These rights, such as freedom of religion and equal protection under the law, are such important parts of a democracy that the term "freedom" is often associated with the term "democracy."

Free and Fair Elections

Hand casting ballot into box.

The key to the exercise of democracy is the election process. Free and fair elections are held at regular intervals for the election of representatives at all levels of government. In a free, democratic election, all adult citizens are given the right to cast votes -- ensuring that the will of the people will be expressed.

Citizen Participation

People raising hands in meeting.

Citizens of a democracy not only have the right to vote, but also the responsibility to participate. Informed participation is key in a democracy. Having the right to vote and express themselves, those living in a democratic society are called upon to act as guardians of their own freedom.

Cooperation and Compromise

Hands piling together in agreement.

Democracies also value cooperation and compromise to protect individual rights. To adequately safeguard diversity, and accurately represent all communities, a democracy must protect the right to be different. For this, a climate of tolerance is critical.

About the Author

Based in the Pacific Northwest and educated at the University of Washington, Rosanne Tomyn has been writing historical, cultural and political articles since 2005. Tomyn was awarded the International Labor Communicators Award for Best Profile and Best Labor History Story in 2011.

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