A Definition of Democracy
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Journal of Democracy 14.4 (2003) 103

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A Definition of Democracy

Oral report to the European Council

Democracy is an ensemble of institutions aimed at giving legitimacy to the exercise of political power by providing a coherent response to three key questions.

  1. "How can we achieve change in our society without violence?" The simplest definition of democracy has been given by Karl Popper: a system that makes it possible to get rid of a government without spilling blood. This definition may be a little too restrictive, and perhaps it is laconic rather than simple. Its implications, in fact, are really rather complex.
  2. "How can we, through a system of checks and balances, control those who are in power in a way that gives us assurance that they will not abuse it." I do not agree with the famous remark of Winston Churchill according to which democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Probably this great man was annoyed by the restrictions placed on his power by Parliament, elections, parties, and all the rest. The same is true of many great and not so great men, but it is precisely for this reason that democracy is such a civilized form of government. It protects us from tyranny, even from the tyranny of great men.
  3. "How can the people—all the citizens—have a voice in the exercise of power?" Democracy is the voice of the people which creates institutions, and these institutions in turn control the government and make it possible to change it without violence. In this sense, the demos, the people, is the sovereign that gives legitimacy to the institutions of democracy.

—Ralf Dahrendorf, Dopo la Democrazia, 5-6