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 At a recent lunch at the Hong Kong Club, there were three generations of democracy advocates around a table seating eight. George F. Will, The Denver Post, "Will: Hong Kong is a “hair’s breadth from destruction”," 15 Sep. 2019 At a recent lunch at the Hong Kong Club, there were three generations of democracy advocates around a table seating eight. George Will, Twin Cities, "George Will: Hong Kong is a ‘hair’s breadth from destruction’," 15 Sep. 2019 At a recent lunch at the Hong Kong Club, there were three generations of democracy advocates around a table seating eight. George Will, National Review, "The Protest Leader Fighting for Hong Kong," 15 Sep. 2019 At a recent lunch at the Hong Kong Club, there were three generations of democracy advocates around a table seating eight. George Will, The Mercury News, "Will: Hong Kong is a ‘hair’s breadth from destruction’," 14 Sep. 2019 Pepper, the former Cincinnati city councilman and Hamilton County commissioner, also talked about his political thriller novels and the role local journalism plays in democracy. Cincinnati.com, "Ohio Democrats' strategy to defeat Donald Trump: Be the 'firewall' and 'left tackle' for Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania," 4 Sep. 2019 Is the filibuster slowing the progress of American democracy? The Christian Science Monitor, "Dousing the political fire over the Amazon," 27 Aug. 2019 One in 10 voters in the 2020 election will be members of Gen Z, but most college students are ambivalent about political parties and even the future of democracy. Jennifer Rich, The Conversation, "Talking about Charlottesville with alt-right students," 9 Aug. 2019 At one end of the age spectrum was Martin Lee Chu-ming, 81, the founding chairman of the city’s principal pro-democracy party. George F. Will, The Denver Post, "Will: Hong Kong is a “hair’s breadth from destruction”," 15 Sep. 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

24 Oct 2019

Time Traveler for democracy

The first known use of democracy was in 1539

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More Definitions for democracy

democracy

noun
How to pronounce democracy (audio)

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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