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Types of democracy

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 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. 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.
1

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?
    (30 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!
      (59 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 savagebhuvan
    For those of u who r confused of why the answer to the last question isn't participatory democracy, it is because it is. Marty is organizing a group of local residents to oppose the mayor's plan and save the historic clock tower. By mobilizing the community and advocating for their cause, Marty is actively engaging in the democratic process and working towards influencing the outcome of the decision. This type of grassroots activism and citizen involvement aligns with the principles of participatory democracy. This can also be easily identified when the question mentions an "initiative". However, pluralist democracy is the best answer because it is only an organized group which is influencing the decision rather than a broad group of people.
    (10 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user 1699139296
      Actually, It might make more sense for the answer to be a pluralist democracy because Marty is organizing a group with a single motive. Direct Democracy was more like discussing the opinions of every single individual, where everyone contributes to the final decision, whereas here they organize a group with a single motive.
      (1 vote)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user khaich5443
    Is this going to be on the new AP test (2020)?
    (10 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user MALIKW
    why do types of these democracies exist?
    (4 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?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user john.matylonek
    I think that most important ideas of the Constitution in practical terms: 1) Free, fair elections of representatives, majority rule, minorities protected for peaceful transitions of power. 2) The checking and balancing of all organized selfish powers for inclusive compromise governance. 3) The equal application of fair law and equitable economic policies for justice 4) The use of self-correcting evidence-based science, journalism and education for driving public policy and reporting corruption. To the extent we have approximated those ideals we been a successful Democratic Republic. To the extent we have failed to implement those ideals we have endangered popular sovereignty. What organized selfish powers (special interests) have we not formally checked and balanced?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 21izzos
    which would you say America is MOST similar to?
    (2 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?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Lilly Roepnack
      Caleb, many European countries give every party that gets votes that percentage in parliment. It leads to gridlocks because there so many parties it's hard for one party to get a majority in congress. So yes, I would say many European countries most resemble a pluralist democracy.

      The U S, however, most closely resembles a particapatory democracy.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Sintayehu Hall
    what is the definition of direct democracy?
    (0 votes)
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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.
      (4 votes)