If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Types of democracy: lesson overview

When creating the Constitution, one of the major questions facing the Framers was how to create a strong central government with the power to rule over its citizens without infringing upon citizens’ individual liberties. Foundational documents like the US Constitution, Federalist No. 10, and Brutus No. 1 illustrate the debate over this balance.

Key terms

TermDefinition
democracyA system of government in which the power of the government is vested in the people, who rule directly or through elected representatives.
participatory democracyA form of democracy that emphasizes broad, direct participation in politics and civil society, in which most or all citizens participate in politics directly.
pluralist democracyA form of democracy in which political power rests with competing interest groups so that no one group dominates political decisions.
elite democracyA form of democracy in which a small number of people, usually those who are wealthy and well-educated, influence political decisionmaking.

Key documents to know

Federalist No. 10 — An essay written by James Madison, in which he argued that a strong representative government would be able to control the effects of factions.
Brutus No. 1 — An Anti-Federalist essay which argued against a strong central government based on the belief that it would not be able to meet the needs of all US citizens.
Constitution (1787) — The fundamental laws and principles that govern the United States. The document was the result of several compromises between Federalists and Anti-Federalists surrounding the ratification of the Constitution.
Image of the US Constitution.
The US Constitution. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Important takeaways

Participatory democracy in action: Participatory democracy (sometimes called direct democracy) is the idea that everyone should be, and can be, involved in politics. It emphasizes broad participation in politics and encourages ordinary people —not just a small subset of the population— to be responsible for political decisions.
An example of participatory democracy in the United States today is the use of referenda in some states. Referenda allow citizens to have a direct vote on a particular law. A referendum is an example of participatory democracy because the citizens themselves (not their government representatives) are the ones who decide whether to enact that law.
Pluralist democracy in action: Pluralist democracy is the idea that policymaking is open to lots of groups who have different interests. Each of these groups has the potential to influence policymaking, but no one group dominates all political decisions.
An example of pluralist democracy in the United States today is the participation of interest groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Global Green USA. Both of these groups raise funds for candidates, promote candidates, and strive to influence current members of Congress on political decisions. Interest groups are an example of pluralist democracy because citizens join groups to influence policymakers, rather than having direct access to political decisions.
Elite democracy in action: An elite democracy is one in which a small subset of citizens makes political decisions. Those who make policy are usually wealthier and more educated than the average citizen. In an elite democracy, those who are in power are highly qualified to make political decisions.
An example of elite democracy today is the Electoral College. The Electoral College is used in presidential elections and determines the outcome of most elections. Under this system, a candidate might win the popular vote in an election (meaning more citizens voted to elect them than their opponent), but lose the electoral vote, and thus the presidency. The Electoral College is intended to provide a check on voters and act as a safeguard in case the voters make an unwise decision.

Review questions

Which model of democracy does Federalist No. 10 describe? How do you know?
Which model of democracy does Brutus No. 1 describe? How do you know?
Based on what you've learned, construct an argument for which type of democracy you think creates the most stable form of government that is run by the people.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Andres Londono
    Which kind of democracy does Federalist No. 10 describe? Brutus No. 1? For all their differences in views, I have to think they are both pluralist. The Federalists because they don't want one single faction to dominate, and the Anti-Federalists because they don't think a participatory democracy is feasible in a country so big, but also because they are wary of elites?
    (21 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Jovani Cuadra
    Which kind of democracy does Federalist no. 10 describe?
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • winston default style avatar for user John
      Hey, Jovani! Technically, it describes all of them in different ways. Federalist No. 10 advocates a participatory democracy to elect representatives. These representatives then make laws through an elite democracy. Generally, however, these representatives stick to party lines, making it partially a pluralist democracy that Federalist No. 10 advocates.
      I hope this helps to answer your question.
      (7 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user zeladaayja
    which doc would be best to represent an elite democracy.
    (8 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • cacteye purple style avatar for user ALEJANDRA ERAZO
    James Madison argued strongly for a pluralist democracy. Since the best way to protect the rights of the people from dangerous factions is to encourage a large republic of competing groups. As Brute is more toward the elitist side of democracy. I believe a democracy run by pluralists would be better in a larger nation
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine seed style avatar for user shekinah
    which doc would be best to represent an elite democracy
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • starky tree style avatar for user Jovana Martinez
    No 10. James Madison argues about how that a strong representative government is able to control the government which leads us to believe that the representative government is an Elite democracy.

    No 1. He argues about how a negative federalist which went against a strong central government bringing this to how the central government is a Participatory democracy.

    Participatory democracy would be the best form of government ran by people because it is a must for everyone to be involved in politics, thus leading to people being able to elaborate with others as a group effort.
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user normamatthews9
    What is the difference between participation democracy and direct democracy?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user P4 Joji,Jestin
    what grades are all you guys in
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user John Courtney
    I have a question on the quiz and am unsure if this is the correct place to ask it. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

    Two questions on the quiz describe one similar situation as I understand it. One is big companies donate to a lobbyist group to influence law and the other is a Joe Shmoe joins a lobbyist group to influence law. The answer options for both were different, but the first answer was Republicanism and the second was Pluralist democracy. Are they both examples of both Republicanism and Pluralism just different scenarios depicting each or are they distinct from each other for a reason I am not understanding?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • winston default style avatar for user John
      Hey, John! Love your name!
      Republicanism is when a company or Joe Schmoe is able to influence his government. A pluralist democracy is one where groups of people meet up and debate laws. Thus, republicanism and pluralist democracies are different, but either answer should have worked.
      I hope this helps to answer your question.
      (0 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user JAKE THE SNAKE
    how do they write like that because i really want to learn
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user