democracy

noun
de·​moc·​ra·​cy | \ di-ˈmä-krə-sē How to pronounce democracy (audio) \
plural democracies

Definition of democracy

1a : government by the people especially : rule of the majority
b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
2 : a political unit that has a democratic government
3 capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the U.S. from emancipation Republicanism to New Deal Democracy— C. M. Roberts
4 : the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority
5 : the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges

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Communism, Socialism, Capitalism, and Democracy

Communism, socialism, capitalism, and democracy are all among our top all-time lookups, and user comments suggest that this is because they are complex, abstract terms often used in opaque ways. They're frequently compared and contrasted, with communism sometimes equated with socialism, and democracy and capitalism frequently linked.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the word communism has been applied to varying political systems over time. When it was first used in English prose in the mid-19th century, communism referred to an economic and political theory that advocated the elimination of private property and the common sharing of all resources among a group of people; in this use, it was often used interchangeably with the word socialism by 19th-century writers.

The differences between communism and socialism are still debated, but generally English speakers use communism to talk about the political and economic ideologies that find their origin in Karl Marx’s theory of revolutionary socialism, which advocates a proletariat overthrow of capitalist structures within a society; societal and communal ownership and governance of the means of production; and the eventual establishment of a classless society. The most well-known expression of Marx’s theories is the 20th-century Bolshevism of the U.S.S.R., in which the state, through a single authoritarian party, controlled a society’s economic and social activities with the goal of realizing Marx’s theories. Socialism, meanwhile, is most often used in modern English to refer to a system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control. (The term is also often used in the phrase democratic socialism, which is discussed here.)

Communism and socialism are both frequently contrasted with capitalism and democracy, though these can be false equivalencies depending on the usage. Capitalism refers to an economic system in which a society’s means of production are held by private individuals or organizations, not the government, and where products, prices, and the distribution of goods are determined mainly by competition in a free market. As an economic system, it can be contrasted with the economic system of communism, though as we have noted, the word communism is used of both political and economic systems. Democracy refers not to an economic system but to a system of government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised through a system of direct or indirect representation which is decided through periodic free elections. For discussion about whether the United States is accurately described as a democracy or as a republic, see the article here.)

Readers should consult the individual entries for a full treatment of the various ways in which each of these four words is used.

Is the United States a democracy or a republic?

One of the most commonly encountered questions about the word democracy has nothing to do with its spelling or pronunciation, and isn’t even directly related to the meaning of the word itself. That question is “is the United States a democracy or a republic?” The answer to this, as with so many other questions about meaning, may be phrased as some form of “it depends.”

Some people assert that a country calling itself a democracy must be engaged in direct (or pure) democracy, in which the people of a state or region vote directly for policies, rather than elect representatives who make choices on their behalf. People who follow this line of reasoning hold that the United States is more properly described as a republic, using the following definition of that word: "a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law."

However, both democracy and republic have more than a single meaning, and one of the definitions we provide for democracy closely resembles the definition of republic given above: "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections."

So if someone asks you if the United States is a democracy or a republic, you may safely answer the question with either “both” or “it depends.”

Examples of democracy in a Sentence

Democracy, I would repeat, is the noblest form of government we have yet evolved … — Norman Mailer, New York Review of Books, 27 Mar. 2002 … this and the economic failures of faithful democracies in places such as India or the Anglophone Caribbean demonstrated conclusively that there was no inherent link between freedom and capitalism … — Orlando Patterson, New Republic, 8 Nov. 1999 Even in democracies today, crucial knowledge is available to only a few individuals … — Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 1997 The nation has chosen democracy over monarchy. In a democracy, every citizen should have the right to vote. The company is not a democracy; decisions are made by a board of directors, not the workers. There is democracy within the company.
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Recent Examples on the Web

But democracies also need citizens and effective and equitable civic participants. Danielle Allen, Twin Cities, "Danielle Allen: If we care about democracy, we need to rebuild civics education in our schools," 8 Sep. 2019 The goal: to identify the root of our ailing political system while reimagining what an equitable democracy would look like. Rachel King, Fortune, "12 Books on Business and Journalism to Add to Your Fall Reading List," 7 Sep. 2019 More and more staffers want private-sector companies to operate like democracies, not autocracies. Alison Taylor, Quartz at Work, "Employees have given rise to something far more powerful than “CEO activism”," 6 Sep. 2019 The three-judge panel of state trial judges unanimously ruled that courts can step in to decide when partisan advantage goes so far it diminishes democracy. CBS News, "North Carolina judge rejects state legislative district maps drawn for GOP advantage," 4 Sep. 2019 The Christchurch Call has also helped widen the discussion about cyber peace to include thorny questions about democracy, such as how to balance freedom of speech with limits on extremist content. Scott Shackelford, The Conversation, "In a world of cyber threats, the push for cyber peace is growing," 3 Sep. 2019 The decision failed to satisfy democracy advocates in Hong Kong and led to the 79-day long Occupy Central protests that fall, in which demonstrators camped out on major streets in the financial district and other parts of the city. Ken Moritsugu, Fox News, "Hong Kong police storm subway with batons as protests rage," 1 Sep. 2019 Cyberattacks on election machinery and voter-registration systems threaten not only election outcomes but democracy itself. Seth Fletcher, Scientific American, "Truth, Lies & Uncertainty," 28 Aug. 2019 Although such interactions were socially accepted, the practice was officially frowned on in Athenian democracy. Raquel López, National Geographic, "Did sons and daughters get the same education in ancient Greece?," 28 Aug. 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'democracy.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of democracy

1539, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for democracy

borrowed from Middle French democracie, democratie, borrowed from Late Latin dēmocratia, borrowed from Greek dēmokratía, from dēmo- demo- + -kratia -cracy

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Statistics for democracy

Last Updated

12 Sep 2019

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for democracy

The first known use of democracy was in 1539

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More Definitions for democracy

democracy

noun

English Language Learners Definition of democracy

: a form of government in which people choose leaders by voting
: a country ruled by democracy
: an organization or situation in which everyone is treated equally and has equal rights

democracy

noun
de·​moc·​ra·​cy | \ di-ˈmä-krə-sē How to pronounce democracy (audio) \
plural democracies

Kids Definition of democracy

1 : government by the people : majority rule
2 : government in which the highest power is held by the people and is usually used through representatives
3 : a political unit (as a nation) governed by the people
4 : belief in or practice of the idea that all people are socially equal

democracy

noun
de·​moc·​ra·​cy | \ di-ˈmä-krə-sē How to pronounce democracy (audio) \
plural democracies

Legal Definition of democracy

1a : government by the people especially : rule of the majority
b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
2 : a political unit that has a democratic government

Other Words from democracy

democratic \ ˌde-​mə-​ˈkra-​tik How to pronounce democratic (audio) \ adjective
democratically adverb

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Comments on democracy

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