Purposes and Origins of Government

Democratic Government

In a direct democracy, citizens themselves make the laws and govern. Though that system is nearly impossible to implement in modern democracies of large size and population, citizens in some democracies have the power to exercise a direct voice by using such tools as referendum and initiative.

The United States is one of many democracies in the world, but democracy comes in different forms. In a direct democracy, also called pure democracy, laws and policy decisions are made directly by the people. The state's citizens are directly responsible for governing. While this process could work adequately in ancient Greece—considered the birthplace of democracy—the population and geographical spread of today's states make pure direct democracy nearly impossible.

Nevertheless, some examples of direct democracy continue to flourish. For example, in the New England region of the United States, some small towns hold meetings during which citizens discuss, create, and pass laws and budgets. This town hall government is a form of direct democracy. Many U.S. states allow a process called referendum (also called a veto referendum or popular referendum). In a referendum, a measure created by a legislative body is submitted for the people to either approve or reject through popular vote. The people's right to initiative is another example of direct democracy. This process allows citizens to begin, or initiate, the process to create new legislation or amend a constitution. Initiatives are allowed in a variety of states and are used regularly for proposing legislation focused on everything from legalizing marijuana to raising the minimum wage. Just over a dozen states allow direct initiative. Several more have an indirect initiative process in which the state legislature first considers a proposed law, which only goes to popular vote if the legislature does not act or passes a measure with substantive differences. Citizens of the United States lack the power of either referendum or initiative on a national level. By contrast, Switzerland makes extensive use of both referendum and initiative to make laws both on the local and national level, making it a strong example of direct democracy.

Representative Democracy

In a representative democracy, citizens elect representatives to create laws and govern for them, though some government officials may gain office through appointments.

Most democracies that exist today are indirect democracies, or republics. A republic is a political system in which citizens elect representatives to govern for them. This type of democracy is also called a representative democracy.

Forms of government should not be confused with the names of the major American political parties. A democratic form of government is one in which the ultimate sovereignty is seen as deriving from the people. However, a person belonging to the Democratic Party, one of the two largest political parties in the United States, is called a Democrat. Likewise, republican refers to a form of government characterized by having elected officials. A Republican is a member of the other major U.S. political party, the Republican Party.

In every representative democracy, voters elect the legislature, which makes laws. That legislature can be made up of one chamber or two. The U.S. Congress is a bicameral, or two-chamber, legislature, made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Members of both bodies are elected. In some countries, the upper chamber—the equivalent of the U.S. Senate—has members appointed or elected by regional government bodies rather than by the people. This is true of Canada's Senate, Germany's Bundesrat, and France's Senate. It was also true of the United States Senate prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913, which called for the direct election of Senators. The U.S. Senate also plays a more significant role in passing legislation than these other bodies. In some countries, particularly smaller ones, the legislature has only one chamber, making it unicameral. Israel and Finland are examples; Nebraska is the only state in the United States with a unicameral legislature.

In a presidential democracy, voters also choose the president, who serves as the chief executive of the country. In some U.S. states, voters also elect other members of the executive branch, such as the secretary of state and attorney general. Typically, members of the judicial branch are appointed, most often by the chief executive, though those appointments might require the approval of the legislature—as in the United States at the federal level. Most U.S. states provide for the election of some judges, however.

Majority Rule and Minority Rights

Although democratic forms of government embrace majority rule as the decision-making principle, they also work to protect the rights of minorities.

In democratic systems, the people are ultimately sovereign. In most elections in the United States, the candidate with the most votes wins, whether it's by a simple majority (50% plus one) or a mere plurality (which may fall quite short of a majority). This principle of majority (or even plurality) rule is a hallmark of democratic government. However, this majority rule does not always translate directly from voter to candidate. For example, American presidential elections are decided not by majority vote but rather by an electoral college.

In a liberal democracy, such as the United States, state power is limited in order to protect the rights of the minority. (The name liberal democracy reflects the fact that these governments derive from the liberal values of the 18th-century Enlightenment.) These constitutionally granted rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, are protected, no matter how unpopular the minority's views may be to the majority.

While the principles of American democracy dictate protection of minority rights, the government has not always met this standard. Harsh treatment of Native Americans, racial discrimination against African Americans, and the suppression of women's rights are just three examples of what has been called "the tyranny of the majority." The phrase refers to the ability of the majority to impose its will on the minority without regard for their fundamental civil rights. In the United States, the judicial branch is the independent institution tasked with ensuring that all citizens' rights are safeguarded and protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority. At times, however, the judiciary has failed to meet that test. In 1801, in his first inaugural address, President Thomas Jefferson warned of the dire consequences of that failure while explaining the fundamental importance of ensuring minority rights: "All too will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression."
Individual freedoms are protected in a liberal democracy.