Democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people (as Abraham Lincoln defined it). It was invented by the ancient Greeks and has spread widely in western nations since the English Civil War in the mid 17th century.
Democracy means the people rule and can do anything they want by majority rule. In the U.S. "super majorities" (over 50%) are required for many decisions, such as ratifying a treaty or passing a constitutional amendment. Republicanism means there is a system of rule of law, or inalienable rights, which no majority can vote out.
The origin of the term is Greek, from the words demos (people) and kratos (strength).
The defining characteristic of a democracy is that the citizenry of a nation are sovereign. Constitutional monarchies become democratic (as in Britain, Japan and Scandinavia) by narrowing the power of the monarch to ceremonial roles and letting an elected government rule.
The United States Constitution guarantees a republican form of government. With elected executives (governor/president) and legislatures. In parliamentary democracies, the executive and legislative branches are not separate. In them parties form winning coalitions and the coalition controls both the government and the parliament.
In ancient Athens, male citizens (not women, children or slaves) were allowed to vote in the Assembly which made the laws of the city-state. Citizens did not elect representatives--they acted themselves. This form survives in "town meetings" in small New England villages.
Debate over the merits of democracy
While a direct democracy in the manner of the Athenians is probably infeasible in a modern nation-state comprised of millions of citizens, there continues to be debate among conservatives as to whether representative democracy is a desirable system. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who could be considered the father of both modern democracy and totalitarianism, believed that in a democracy the government should be guided only by what he called the General Will. Other thinkers of the French Enlightenment described a republic as a system in which the law applies equally to the government and the people, a concept abbreviated in the 21st century by the phrase rule of law. Most contemporary thinkers would identify universal suffrage and the right of any citizen to argue for a change in existing law as desirable features of democracy; but there is some question as to whether the rule of law can be indefinitely sustained in a system with these features. Thomas Jefferson believed that it could so long as the people were educated, and thus devoted his post-presidency to founding the University of Virginia. Nonetheless, property continued to be a proxy for education throughout the antebellum period and Jefferson's home state of Virginia only abolished property qualifications for voting in 1851, years after any other state. Another (probably apocryphal) quote attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler says that a republic can only last until the people find out that they can vote themselves public funds. This would be considered a welfare state, which most conservatives feel is an abuse of the U. S. Constitution's Necessary and Proper Clause.
Democracy may have its problems; an uneducated populace, for example, is the bane of any democracy, since unless people know what they need, they can not properly elect people to serve these needs. Other problems emerge from a capricious electorate, which caused Winston Churchill to remark that, "Democracy is the worst form of government... except for all the other forms that have been tried," a quote which eloquently notes that, despite its problems, democracy almost universally provides for peace and prosperity.
Majoritarian systems are, however, problematic in that, in theory, they permit a majority to debase the welfare of a minority. Socialists argue that a high degree of socio-economic equality is required for real political equality, but also contend that solidarity and fraternity may be sufficient to overcome the distorting effects of unequal wealth and enact pro-labor policies.
Democracy may also create the illusion that truth belongs to the people, which is not the case because truth only belongs to God. It should be also noted that democracy allows un-Christian leaders to gain power in a normally Christian nation.
Evolution of Anglo-American democracy
In the United States, the current system of representative democracy evolved as a result of six major reforms:
- The American Revolution which severed ties with the King of Great Britain and endowed the people with the sovereign prerogatives that formerly belonged to the monarchy.
- The U. S. Constitution's creation of the House of Representatives, a Federal government entity elected directly by the citizens, and retention of federalism, the right of individual states to govern themselves and make their own laws.
- The abolition of property qualifications for white male voters. This process, which was accomplished at the state level, took between 1820 and 1851 and is also known as Jacksonian Democracy.
- The Fifteenth Amendment, which prevented the use of race as a restriction on voting.
- The Seventeenth Amendment, which caused Senators to be elected directly by the citizens instead of the state legislatures.
- The Nineteenth Amendment, which extended the franchise to women.
Historically, the Fifteenth Amendment inspired the most opposition. Indeed, every state of the former Confederacy circumvented the Fifteenth Amendment between the end of Reconstruction and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, considered the ultimate guarantee of that Amendment.
In Britain, there were six major reforms in the direction of democracy:
- The 1832 Reform Act, which gave representation to the new industrial cities for the first time.
- The 1867 Reform Act.
- The 1884 Reform Act.
- The 1911 Parliament Act, which ended the ability of the House of Lords to rein in spending by the Commons.
- The 1918 Reform Act, which made suffrage universal among males and extended it to women 30 years of age or older.
- The 1928 Reform Act, which equalized voting ages for male and female at 21.
It is noteworthy that it took the British 84 years to complete the process of abolishing property qualifications for voting (the first three Acts lowered the threshold incrementally) and that they only began to do so after Jacksonian Democracy emerged in the United States.
While none of these Acts has sustained a serious movement for repeal, historically the one which inspired the strongest opposition was the 1911 Parliament Act. Not surprisingly, this opposition came from the House of Lords, the last body of unelected people to retain any legislative power in the British system. Ultimately, the bill passed only after King George V promised to create an unlimited number of new peers in order to pass it.
The United States, Britain, Canada and many other countries mostly utilize a first past the post system for elections. The highest vote-getter wins. This limits the number of political parties and helps to stabilize the system, in contrast to democracies which use proportional representation where a party winning 5% of the vote is guaranteed a seat. Italy, Germany, France, and Israel have at times had over 10 parties represented in their legislatures.
- Dahl, Robert. On Democracy (2000) excerpt and text search, by a leading theorist
- Dunn, John. Democracy: A History (2006) excerpt and text search
- Held, David. Models of Democracy (3rd ed. (2006) excerpt and text search, useful textbook
- Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1943) influential conservative interpretation excerpt and text search
DEMOCRACY - That form of government in which the sovereign power resides in and is exercised by the whole body of free citizens directly or indirectly through a system of representation, as distinguished from monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy." 
- Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition, P. 432