3-Minute Civics: What is a democracy, anyway?

For the Monitor
Published: 2/23/2020 7:15:10 AM

It’s an uncertain time in our politics, and a lot of important words are being thrown about – words like fascism, authoritarianism, oligarchy, and of course, democracy. But whether people spit these words in accusation or wave them as flags of allegiance, how can we be sure we’re all operating on a shared level of understanding?

Let’s take a look at some of the forms of government most often discussed in our current news and see what they really mean.

Democracy: A democracy means rule by the people. People can make decisions directly, as in a referendum, or via representatives chosen by the people.

Republic: A republic is a form of democracy in which decisions are made by representatives elected by the people. Power is granted by the people via elections, and the people can revoke that power. Representatives are supposed to represent the people fairly.

Constitutional: A constitutional government is one that operates under the authority of a founding document, guided and limited by the laws, principles and constraints set forth in it.

Liberal democracy: That’s not “liberal” as we use the word in American politics; rather, it’s “liberal” in the sense of liberty, and its opposite is “totalitarian.” (See below.) Most Western democracies qualify as liberal democracies, meaning that they’re representative democracies characterized by free and fair elections, respect for civil and human rights, multiple branches of government that are independent from each other, independent judiciaries and multiple political parties. Liberal democracies often have some form of governing constitution, and they respect the rule of law.

These forms of government may be combined, as they are in our own country. The United States is a constitutional republic. (This is why, when we recite the Pledge of Allegiance, we say, “and to the republic for which it stands” instead of “and to the democracy for which it stands.”) The U.S. has also been, historically, a leading liberal democracy.

But what of the other government labels that have appeared much in the news lately?

Monarchy: In a monarchy, power is invested in a king and/or queen – usually for life – and passed down through the monarch’s family. Power can be either absolute or limited. Saudi Arabia is an example of an absolute monarchy; the United Kingdom is an example of a limited, constitutional monarchy.

Authoritarianism: Under an authoritarian government, the state imposes its will on the people. Leadership is often consolidated into the hands of one individual or small group, whom the people have little or no ability to replace. Leaders are not constrained in fact by laws, political movements or constitutions. Some personal freedoms may be allowed. China today is an example of an authoritarian government.

Totalitarianism: In a totalitarian government, the state controls all aspect of citizens’ lives. The government demands adherence to all aspects of an overarching ideology, and participation in many aspects of political life is required. There is only one political party. Dissent is forbidden; punishment is often harsh. A modern example of a totalitarian state is North Korea.

Fascism: Fascism is a totalitarian dictatorship characterized by militarism and an ultra-nationalist, racist ideology. Ethnic superiority matters more than individualism. Fascists use oppression, fear and extreme measures to govern and stamp out any opposition. Italy under Mussolini and Germany under Hitler were fascist states.

Communism: Communism is a form of authoritarianism in which the government controls both the political and economic reins of society. Cuba is a communist country.

Socialism: Socialism is actually an economic form in which the workers, or the people, theoretically own the means of production in a society. In a liberal (again, in the sense of “liberty”) state, the economy is decentralized. Under an authoritarian government, a socialist state often has a centrally planned economy and public services are owned by the state. Vietnam is a socialist – and communist – state. States can incorporate socialist elements to varying degrees, as do Sweden and Finland – and, to a lesser extent, the United States, with programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Theocracy: In a theocratic government, the state and a particular religion are one; the rulers of the country are the religious elite. Although very small groups of dissenters may sometimes be tolerated, people in general are expected to comply with mandates of the religious leaders. Iran is an example of a theocracy. (Or, to be more precise, it is a theocratic republic.)

Oligarchy: An oligarchy is a government run by a group of “a few.” This “few” can be defined in various ways, but it is most commonly used today to refer to wealth. Many people consider Russia to be, among other things, an oligarchy.

These are the descriptive governmental terms most often used in our political discourse today – brandished as swords, raised in protective shields, planted in the ground in defensive positions, splashed on social media in accusation. (There are other, less common forms of government, such as “capracacy” – government by goats – but let’s hope we don’t need to resort to those definitions anytime soon.) Sometimes they are used appropriately; just as often, they are not. It’s to everyone’s benefit to understand what terms apply to our country’s past and present so that we can avoid talking past each other as we determine its future.

(Tracy Hahn-Burkett lives in Bow.)


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