democracy

noun
de·​moc·​ra·​cy | \di-ˈmä-krə-sē \
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 is one of our top all-time lookups, and user comments suggest that’s because it is often used in opaque ways. In some sources, communism is equated with socialism; in others, it is contrasted with democracy and capitalism. Part of this 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, communism referred to an economic and political theory that advocated the abolition of private property and the common sharing of all resources among a group of people, and 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 used communism to refer to 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, controls a society’s economy and social activities with the goal of realizing Marx’s theories.

Communism is often contrasted with capitalism and democracy, though these can be false equivalencies depending on the usage. Capitalism refers to an economic theory in which a society’s means of production are held by private individuals or organizations, not the government, and where prices, distribution of goods, and products are determined by a free market. It can be contrasted with the economic theories of communism, though the word communism is used of both political and economic theories. Democracy refers 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. Democracy is contrasted with communism primarily because the 20th-century communism of the U.S.S.R. was characterized by an authoritarian government, whereas the democracy of the 20th-century U.S. was characterized by a representative government.

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 believe 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

From Dante to Dapper Dan via Coco Capitán, one of the truly newest things about Michele’s practice is his sense of collaborative democracy. Luke Leitch, Vogue, "The Gucci Garden Expands With Projects by Björk and Artist Isabella Cotier," 12 June 2018 The standoff was the latest in a series of clashes between government forces and protesters who want to oust Ortega and return to democracy in Nicaragua. Washington Post, BostonGlobe.com, "Two killed as pro-government militia traps protesters in Nicaraguan church," 14 July 2018 But there was in DSOC an idealism, a commitment to democracy, and a recognition that decent people could disagree. Michael S. Bernick, WSJ, "Democratic Socialists Used to Be Decent," 11 July 2018 Strong courts are something that Poland and Hungary had in common after their transition to democracy. Monika Nalepa, Washington Post, "Poland may forcibly ‘retire’ dozens of Supreme Court justices," 10 July 2018 Privacy - Terms This tendency toward the middle, toward principled compromise based on common interests and promoted by a local press, is the genius of American democracy. Alberto Ibargüen, star-telegram, "Support local news –it’s crucial to our lives and our democracy," 5 July 2018 From the election in 2016 in the United States of Donald Trump to the rising leaders in Hungary, Italy and other U.S. allies, populism is posing new challenges to modern democracy. Kate Linthicum, latimes.com, "With Mexico presidential election, another step in global populism — but this time from the left," 2 July 2018 The victory makes him the first leftist president since Mexico began its transition to democracy more than 30 years ago. Joshua Partlow, Anchorage Daily News, "Andrés Manuel López Obrador wins Mexican presidential race," 2 July 2018 In the name of ensuring a smooth transition to democracy, the country’s rightist and leftist parties agreed to forgo investigations or prosecutions related to the civil war or the dictatorship. Matías Costa, Smithsonian, "The Battle Over the Memory of the Spanish Civil War," 28 June 2018

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

7 Nov 2018

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 \
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 \
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 \ adjective
democratically adverb

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