Introduction to Political Science PART 9 – Modern Democracy

In the last post we looked at the development of the state as the common model of political community. This post is about the development of democracy, also an important part of modern politics.

What is democracy? 

Democracy is a type of government in which the authority of the state is limited and comes from the people. It tries to satisfy society’s interests. As you can see from results of this quick google search, not that many countries in the world are full democracies. In this video, we’ll briefly cover how modern democracy developed, what is necessary for democracy, and how modern democracy works.

Why did Democracy Come into Existence? 

There is evidence (or proof) that modern democracy developed because of popular resistance to war. Leaders of early modern states made war to eliminate (or get rid of) outside rivals, but war is dangerous to society as well. Of course, the greatest danger is death! Also, war is very expensive. The state needs a lot of money to make war, and historically taxpayers often paid for unnecessary wars. Some early modern states, France for example, even went bankrupt because of expensive wars. Another danger is that leaders can use the army against society. As a result of these and other factors, in France and England, people began to demand representative government in order to limit the king’s authority to raise taxes and make war. Their popular resistance to war was important for the development of modern democracy.

What do Democracies have in Common?

When we compare modern democracies, there are several necessary features that they share. First, people have rights. A right is a freedom to have or do something that cannot be limited by the state. The right to own property and the right to speak freely are common rights. Second, the government represents society. In other words, people can choose the members of government. In a democracy, the purpose of government is to represent and satisfy the interests of society. Finally, there are courts. Courts make decisions about the limits of state authority and people’s rights.

How do Democracies Work?

Modern democracy works through representation. An election is a competition for votes to decide who will win “seats” in the government to represent society. Individuals who compete for the seats are called candidates, and groups that support candidates are called political parties. We can compare four ways that votes become seats. In some states, like the United States of America, representation is decided by plurality. Plurality means that the candidate who gets the most votes wins the seat even if she wins less than 50 percent of the votes. In other democracies, like France, only the candidate with a majority of votes wins. If no one gets a majority of votes, all but the top two candidates are eliminated, and everyone votes again.

Other democracies, like South Africa, use proportional representation of parties. The percentage of votes a party gets is proportional to the percentage of seats it wins. If the party gets 20 percent of the votes, it wins 20 percent of the seats. Finally, some democracies use mixed representation. In other words, they have two or more ways of turning votes into seats. For example, Japan uses both proportional representation and a plurality.

Both the state and democracy are common features of modern politics. There is evidence that popular resistance to war was one of the reasons that modern democracy developed. People tried to satisfy their interests, especially for life and money, by limiting the state’s authority to make war. They did that with rights, representation, and courts. All modern democracies share those three features. One way they differ, though, is how they turn votes into seats. For example, the United States, France, South Africa, and Japan are all democracies, but they have different ways of representing votes.

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