The word democracy is coined from the Greek words demos (people) and kratos (rule), literally meaning ‘rule of the people.’ Democracy is mainly used as a political system, and therefore becomes important to define accurately, as many countries claim to be a democracy. For example, both Iran and America declare their electoral process and government as democratic, yet there are visible differences in the methods of governance between the two countries. I will conclude that democracy, conceptually, is a set of normative principles which guarantee equitable opportunities for everyone, and that, in the real world, these set of principles are used to democratize, or introduce democratic principles to, a political system. 

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The term democracy hints at a fundamental question: Who constitutes the people? Is it everyone under which the democratic government rule? Is it people who can vote? Or only people who end up voting for the winning party represented in a democracy? In America, a proclaimed democratic society, public voice through protests and other forms of free speech, a direct democracy through referendums, and opposition parties in the government make up for and protect the voice and autonomy of the people who are not represented by the majority vote. People who cannot take part in the electoral process are still protected by the law and therefore are also required to follow the law even if they cannot take part in voting for who legalizes them. Therefore, using this framework, the ‘demos’ in a democracy is everyone living under the democratic rule, as they all, in one way or another, are affected by and can influence policy-making.  

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Robert Paul Wolff makes an argument against the assertion that democracy protects individual autonomy. He claims that a representative democracy does not obey their constituent’s wishes, making it impossible to distinguish between the rulers and the ruled, going against the direct Greek definition that the people are the rulers. Wolff finally arrives at the conclusion that because autonomy and state power are incompatible, one must either embrace anarchism or surrender one’s autonomy, leaving no difference between democracy and dictatorship, as both require forsaking one’s autonomy.

Robert A. Dahl offers a solution to this problem. He coined the term “polyarchy,” meaning “rule by many,” to describe what is now seen as representative democracy – where a small group of people are elected to make policies for everyone else. This contrasts with direct democracy, a practice dating back to ancient Athens, where everyone in the state votes on a policy. Democracy can be seen through the lens of egalitarianism, a social ideal of equal opportunities, where poverty, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality are not the cause of inequality of any kind. It is this sense of democracy that permitted the movements for civil rights, gay rights, and women’s rights as a portrayal of the attempt to realize the true promise of democracy – one of equal rights. Therefore, as Dahl suggests, public power is essential to a democracy, and the extent to which those societal actors can operate autonomously as protected by law enhances the democratic quality of a state. His conclusion is that modern representative democracy is a polyarchy, where the power of a government is limited by the free speech of the people, disproving Wolff’s assertion that democracy strips autonomy from individuals.  

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Conceptually, a true democracy can be given a lexical definition, namely a set of normative principles that produce equal rights and equitable opportunities for everyone the principles protect. In practice, Dahl’s concept of polyarchy provides an empirical definition of democratization to approximate the ideals of a true democracy, enabling the analysis of extant democracies to see how they may be further developed.

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