What is Democracy?


Democracy is a system of government in which the power to govern — to determine the direction of society — is vested in the hands of the people (Przeworski, 2010). Today, many nations inappropriately hold the title of democracy when, instead, they are republics. A republic is a form of government in which citizens vote for representatives who enter legislative bodies. The representatives, rather than the citizens, have the power to determine the direction of society (Przeworski, 2010). This distinction has important implications for nations that are suffering from government ineffectiveness, systemic inequalities, and social disillusionment.

Social Contract

The foundation of democracy is the social contract — an agreement between the public and the government that details what citizens can expect from the state and vice versa (Rothstein, 2023). For example, the state can expect to collect taxes for the functions of government, and the public can expect the provision of public goods and services. In return for public compliance with laws and procedures, the government is responsible for maintaining public goods and addressing the systemic barriers for all citizens, no matter their identity or background (Rothstein, 2023).


To ensure that elected leaders uphold their end of the social contract, citizens can utilize different accountability mechanisms. The most common mechanism is the ability to vote. Voting is considered the quintessential democratic act because it should allow the public to shape the actions of elected leaders. Once elected, if leaders don’t address the needs of the voters, citizens can remove them and elect other officials who will carry out the will of the people with substantive and impactful policies. Therefore, if the vote loses its ability to shape the performance of elected officials and the societal outcomes that follow, the foundation of democracy is lost.