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Types of democracy

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There are several types of democracy. In this article, learn about participatory democracy, pluralist democracy, and elite democracy. 

Key points

  • Participatory democracy is a model of democracy in which citizens have the power to decide directly on policy and politicians are responsible for implementing those policy decisions.
  • Pluralist democracy is a model of democracy in which no one group dominates politics and organized groups compete with each other to influence policy.
  • Elite democracy is a model of democracy in which a small number of people, usually those who are wealthy and well-educated, influence political decision making.

Models of democracy

When the United States was founded, the Founders created a democratic republic, a system of government in which the power to govern comes from the people, but elected officials represent their interests. This system of government allows American citizens to participate in government in many ways.
The United States also has many different levels and branches of government that any citizen or group might approach. Many people take this as evidence that US citizens, especially as represented by competing groups, can influence government actions. Some political theorists, however, argue that this is not the case. These different opinions have sprouted three popular models of democracy: participatory, pluralist, and elite.
We can see each model of democracy in the American government today. In this article, we’ll define participatory, pluralist, and elite democracy and describe examples of each.

Participatory democracy

A participatory democracy is a model of democracy in which citizens have the power to make policy decisions. Participatory democracy emphasizes the broad participation of people in politics.
However, this is not a direct democracy, in which citizens are directly responsible for making policy decisions. In a participatory democracy, citizens can influence policy decisions, but do not make them. Politicians are still responsible for implementing those policy decisions. The United States does not have a pure participatory democracy, but at some levels of government, we can see examples of a participatory democracy playing out.
Senator Ted Cruz at a New England College Town Hall meeting.
Senator Ted Cruz at a New England College Town Hall Meeting on February 3rd, 2016. Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Examples of participatory democracy today

We can see participatory democracy in local and state forms of government, where citizens have multiple access points to influence policymakers. Town hall meetings are a way for local and national politicians to meet with constituents to hear their opinions on topics they are interested in or to discuss upcoming legislation.
Initiatives and referendums are two ways in which local and state governments allow for citizens to influence policy decisions. An initiative is a process that allows citizens to bypass their state legislature by placing proposed laws on the ballot. Some states even allow citizens to place constitutional amendments on the ballot.
Only 24 states have an initiative process. Nevada is one of those states, and in 2016, the state of Nevada voted on Nevada Background Checks for Gun Purchases, Question 1 which would require individuals who intend to purchase guns from someone who does not have a firearms license to undergo a background check.
A popular referendum, on the other hand, allows voters to approve or repeal an act of the state legislature. Similar to initiatives, voters sign a petition to get the measure on the next ballot, but popular referendums differ in that the law in question has already passed in the state legislature. In 2016, Maine conducted a referendum vote on a measure that would outlaw hunting bears after baiting them with doughnuts. Because doughnuts are so popular for controlling Maine’s bear population, voters overwhelmingly defeated the measure.
Both initiatives and referendums show how local and state governments allow for the broad participation of voters to influence policymaking. Elected representatives are then responsible for enacting the decisions of their constituents.

Pluralist democracy

Pluralist democracy is a model of democracy in which no single group dominates politics and organized groups compete with each other to influence policy. We see examples of pluralist democracy at both the state level and the federal level. As in a participatory democracy, anyone can participate in influencing political decisions, but in a pluralist democracy, individuals work through groups formed around common causes.
Theorists who back pluralist democracy argue that people self-select which causes they want to spend their time on and then support those groups. Those groups then compete over gaining support from notable politicians who will advocate their interests.

Examples of pluralist democracy today

The most notable example of pluralist democracy in the American political system is the role that interest groups play in political decisions today. Interest groups are groups of people who attempt to influence policymakers to support their position on a particular common interest or concern.
We’ll go into more detail about interest groups later in the course, but for now, what you need to know is that groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the National Organization for Women (NOW) influence policymakers in many ways. They influence politicians through monetary donations, lobbying, and testifying in Congressional hearings.
Interest groups are an example of pluralist democracy because people join groups that are focused on issues that they care about.

Elite democracy

Elite democracy is a model of democracy in which a small number of people, usually those who are wealthy or well-educated, influence political decisionmaking. Advocated by some of the Framers, like Alexander Hamilton, the elite democratic model argues that participation in politics should be limited to a small group of highly-informed individuals who can make the best decisions for all citizens.

Examples of elite democracy today

We can see the influence of elite democracy today in the structure of the Electoral College. Although the people popularly elect a presidential candidate, the Electoral College serves as a check on the potential tyranny of the majority. In US history, there have been three presidential elections in which the people popularly elected one candidate for president, but the other candidate won the Electoral College and therefore the presidency.
Electoral college map for the election of 2000.
Electoral college map for the election of 2000. Look at which candidate won the electoral college and which candidate won the popular vote. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Electoral College is an example of elite democracy because it places a small group in charge of making major political decisions, even if those decisions contradict the popular will.

Review questions

Check your understanding
Match each type of democracy with its definition.

Marty learns that his city's mayor plans to replace a historic clock tower. He opposes this plan, and organizes a group of local residents in a Save the Clock Tower initiative. Which model of democracy best represents Marty's actions?

Want to join the conversation?

  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user suehn
    How is an Elite democracy a democracy it seems more like an oligarchy to me?
    (21 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Hypernova Solaris
      That is a pretty interesting observation. They are definitely similar terms, but there is one key exception: elite democracy is still a "democracy" whereas an oligarchy is more on the end of a totalitarian government. You see, even though the range of voters is somewhat restricted in an elite democracy (I intentionally understate this to back up my point), they still get to vote; in an oligarchy, a small group of people simply lords over a nation, and the term "vote" is not something found in an oligarchy. Hope this answered your question, keep on learning!
      (41 votes)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user Bhargav Koshti
    I have a slight concern/question, for the Bush versus Gore map of who got the electoral votes, it says that Washington DC. has only 2 electoral votes, but in the 23rd amendment it says that it should get 3. Is that a mistake in my memory or is the picture wrong?
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user epicnick2424
      DC has 3 votes, but the picture is correct. If you look where it counts the electoral vote, it shows that one elector did not vote. This "faithless elector" as they are called, came from DC, meaning that DC only used 2 of its 3 votes in the 2000 election.
      (10 votes)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user khaich5443
    Is this going to be on the new AP test (2020)?
    (9 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Rida Hashmi
    Which of these theories resemble the most to the American political process today? Like if we have to choose one?
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 21izzos
    which would you say America is MOST similar to?
    (3 votes)
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  • primosaur seed style avatar for user babbittbreanna
    why is there different parts of the government
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Caleb
    Would European politics, with its many political parties and factions, be considered a pluralist democracy?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Sintayehu Hall
    what is the definition of direct democracy?
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hecretary Bird
      A direct democracy is a form of government where the citizens decide on policies directly themselves. It's real similar to a participatory democracy, but instead of citizens influencing and electing politicians to decide the laws they themselves decide. Direct democracy is usually replaced by participatory democracy at the large scale because it's a hassle for the entire population of a state to directly decide everything.
      (5 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user ambers67
    what if democracy does not work look at Russia and ucranie
    (0 votes)
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    • starky seedling style avatar for user rob5865
      Well, assuming your comment is serious; Russia and Ukraine are not democracies; Russia is an oligarchy with incredibly rigged "elections", whereas Ukraine is a super corrupt anocracy where bribes decide the elections. Ukraine, however has made some progress unlike Russia in rectifying this issue, but it is still not a democracy, so Russia and Ukraine are terrible examples of the failure of democracy, and are better examples of how democracy is failed to be established, and their conflict is more the cause of imperialism(from either Russia or the US, depending on your perspective) and irredentism(Russia wanting to gain back its lost status after the USSR fell), however...

      Virtually all countries in Africa are failed democracies. In Africa, the countries have their borders drawn up foreign powers. All of them try democracy due to the fact that their colonial overlords were Western European democracies and now after the USSR fell, the UN almost forces elections on almost every new government by withholding recognition until a "representative government" is established. North Africa's problem is simple to understand due to it being mostly one ethnoreligious group(Arabs) divided in multiple countries. Their culture is not used to voting and so during an election, some guy coups nearly always coups, people are moderately upset, but they move on. Eventually, The guy in power tries to invade one of their neighbors to unite the Arabs or supports an attack on a NATO country out of revenge for colonialism or for insulting his regime and the UN gets mad and slams the country with sanctions. Then people get mad due to high food prices, and civil war or a coup happens. One side wins and rinse and repeat. This problem is prevalent in the Middle East, also. Sub-saharan Africa has it worse; They are large countries with super diverse populations; oftentime the most populus group makes up less than 35% of the population! Most countries had one free election before it fell apart due to allegations of fraud, mostly from minorities who are upset about results. They are upset because the countries have so many different cultures who are forced together and the majorities always outvote the minorities, so the minorities get little to nothing in the national government; imagine if the Japan and Korea were one country, the Japanese would outvote the Koreans every time due to that fact japan has a larger population and the Korean votes would be wasted. Due to the minorities often being collectively the majority, they are easily able to remove the government, but can not unite because they disagree with each other just as much as they disagreed with the majority. After this civil wars start and they nearly always end in stalemates because it is ethnic conflict, meaning one group is popular somewhere and hated elsewhere and another is hated somewhere and popular elsewhere. Eventually a rushed agreement is made for peace and the new government holds elections with the sole reason of fulfilling the "representative government" request from the UN so they can get recognition and therefore international aid and power. Then the elections are usually fake, heavily corrupt, and/or rigged. These elections are big reason why the nations stay poor; elections are expensive and oftentimes violent. They can serve as a place where violent groups can kill people easily waiting in line to vote. They can be used to find out who supports the leader and not, which can lead to literal lists of people to kill in violent purges. They can be used as an umbrella for stealing funds from the treasury by claiming a certain amount of funds are going to organizing the elections but in reality it is stolen.

      Even when it works "properly" it does not always work. Some countries (like Afghanistan) have clans that dominate society. This means rural people will leave voting to the clan elders, which is only weighed as a single vote, which means the cities will have disproportionate power over the country's decisions, and most people live in rural regions. Cities in poor countries tend to follow more closely to whatever foreign power has the most influence in the country, such as the US in Afghanistan. This means that in Afghan elections, people who were culturally heavily affected by American ideas did most of the voting whereas at least 80% of the population did not vote and these who did not vote are overwhelmingly rural. Less than 2 million of Afghanistan's 30-40 million people voted in 2019, which is downright atrocious. This leads to unpopular policies and corruption, as it easier to rig an election with 1 million voters than 20 million voters, which will destroy any nation. It got so bad that the Taliban, an extremist group, became more popular in the rural areas than the government.

      China is another example of where democracy failed. Democracy never made it past the drawing boards in China as people preferred a benevolent Emperor to an elected official. This was shown by Yuan Shikai being able to get away with a coup against Sun-Yat Sen's proto-democracy. Even the Chinese nationalists abandoned democracy after Sun-Yat Sen's death. It was not until Taiwan had to lean on America for its very survival this changed. In Chinese culture, people are required to respect their elders and government. The government was viewed as a parent; it takes care of you when you are helpless and as you grow you begin to take care of it as it needs you. Therefore a strong leader would be needed in China; someone the people could attach to for a long time. This means that in a Chinese democracy, the people would vote for a parent, which most Chinese would feel as kind of wrong. During the cold war, since the only sides were democracy and stalinism, the failure of adoption of democracy allowed the Chinese Communist Party to take power and abuse these ideas of respect for power for their personal gain.

      The long story short is that no government is perfect and democracy is no exception and forcing this government on people is just as bad as the Soviets forcing communism in Czechoslovakia. However, stating that democracy does not work is another erroneous statement, as there is no question that western europe is better off under democracy than fascism. However, most types of government would work better in Somalia than democracy.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Rory402
    which democracy is the best?
    (1 vote)
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    • duskpin tree style avatar for user son.maximus
      Participatory democracy is the best for a small group, which is why it worked in athens, but if every american voted on EVERY SINGLE BILL or budget or decision, americans wouldn't have the time to do anything else. On the other hand, elite democracy is bad because it so greatly limits your say. Pluralist democracy is the happy medium, you take two or three elections every now and join an interest group, and those you elect and support protect your interests. What we have right now is probably even better, where citizens can submit their own 'grassroots' bills and such, so its like a pluralist-participatory democracy where you can be extra active if you want a bigger say.
      (3 votes)