Politics: What is democracy? The essay question answered

What is democracy?

This big question is one that students all around the world have to face. Unfortunately, as you probably realised when I mentioned the words ‘big question’, it is not one easily answered, not least because of the many definitions that have tried to address it. Perhaps because of its difficulty, it is a question that schools and universities typically ask their Politics students to write about in an essay.

Normally, when I answer essay questions on this blog, I alter them to make them more reader-friendly. However, for those students who are a little stuck on how to structure their essays, posting a full essay would be more useful. So today, this article will offer a full essay answering the question “What is democracy?” for all the students and researchers out there who need it. It uses the categorisation made by Charles Tilly- that there are generally 4 different types of definitions of democracy (Procedural, Constitutional, Substantive and Process-oriented) to answer the question. If you have any further queries about the essay, please feel free to comment or contact us at contact@breaktheenigma.com! Please note: any opinions given in this essay are my own judgements. There is no ‘right’ definition of democracy, and many different definitions, Your opinion matters and I would encourage you all to research to come to a judgement about what you think.

Now to the question…


What is democracy?

For a political system that hundreds of countries around the world claim to have, it is perhaps

not surprising that the concept of “democracy” should have numerous different definitions.

Whilst “democracy” is often understood simply to mean “equality” and “freedom”, it could, and

has, been argued that these descriptions are too vague to be used to effectively classify a regime

on its level of democracy, particularly as there are several different interpretations of what

“equality” and “freedom” constitute. Thus we should now look to more specific definitions of

democracy. Although countless scholars and authors have given their own interpretations of

what democracy is, scholars have generally classed them into four main types of definitions:

“constitutional, substantive, procedural and process-orientated”(Tilly, 2007, p.7). This essay will

use Tilly’s classifications to focus on these four main types of definitions, critiquing the strengths

and weaknesses of each by comparing them to each other.


The first of these definitions that we will discuss is the “constitutional” perspective. Advocates of

this approach concentrative on the “legal procedures” (Tilly, 2002, p.192) of a regime, i.e. its

constitution and laws and how a country may be seen to be democratic based on if the said

regime claims in its constitution to allow democratic procedures, e.g. “representation, rule of law

and limitations of power” (Isakhan and Stockwell, 2012, p.143). Although it has been argued that

this definition of democracy is beneficial in the ease and clarity by which it allows a state to be

identified as “democratic”, it is weakened most significantly by the “large discrepancies between

announced principles and daily practices [which] often make constitutions misleading”(Tilly,

2007, p.7). This can be observed in Indonesia, for example: although its constitution states that it

is “based on the rule of law” (Hafner, Kroissenbrunner and Potz, 2009, p.131), Freedom House

reveals that “the court system remains plagued by corruption and other weaknesses” (Freedom

House, 2015) awarding Indonesia a low 5/16 for Rule of Law.


The second classification that Tilly groups definitions of democracy into is “procedural”

definitions, which focus on “governmental practices” ( Rodriguez et al, 2013, p.135). Shumpeter

famously defined democracy in the procedural approach as allowing “individuals [to] acquire the

power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (Shumpeter, 1947,

p.269). Similarly to the constitutional approach, procedural definitions draw attention to

important features of democracy (elections). Procedural definitions have been criticised for

“reduc[ing] the meaning of democracy to periodic parliamentary elections” (Abdelrahman, 2004,

p.33) Whilst Constitutional definitions at least require that a regime provide its citizens with the

Rule of Law and restrictions on power in writing, procedural definitions ignore very significant

prerequisites for democracy, particularly the accountability of the government to the governed.

Tilly notes how Jamaica, “despite its documented assaults on democratic freedoms”(Tilly, 2007,

p.8), qualified in 2004 as an electoral democracy according to the procedural definition in

Freedom House evaluations.



We might hope to look to substantive definitions to offer us a less “thin” (Rodriguez et al, 2013,

p.135) definition of democracy, yet scholars have noted that they too suffer from weaknesses.

Substantial definitions do differ from Procedural and Constitutional definitions (the former being

more focused on methods) in the specific qualifications they look at to qualify a state as

“democratic”, emphasising outcomes and asking questions about “human welfare, individual

freedom, security… and peaceful conflict resolution” (Tilly, 2007, p.7) to determine whether a

regime is democratic or not. However, whilst it is important that democracies promote such

freedoms and rights, simply fulfilling them in the present arguably does not make them secure

from future infringement. Møller and Skaanin (2012) ask substantial advocates an important

question: “if democracy is, say, a form of deliberation which realizes the common good, who can

determine with any certainty how democratic a given country is?” Whilst substantive definitions

do, in contrast to constitutional definitions, look for democratic freedoms being promoted in

practice, they are lacking in the difficulty they present of measuring how far one state can be said to

be democratic in comparison to another.


This very drawback of Substantive definitions is what Tilly claims makes process-orientated

definitions so beneficial in comparison. Magara (2014) describes process-oriented definitions as

“highlighting the minimum set of processes at the core of democracy- effective participation,

voting equality, enlightened understanding of each community member, their control of the

agenda and inclusion of the adult population”. Tilly’s process-oriented definition, particularly its

consideration of “state capacity” (Tilly, 2007, p.7) is arguably more greatly encompassing than the

alternative definitions, especially because it acknowledges that state enforcement has a role to play in

how far a state is democratic in practice, unlike constitutional definitions, which focus more on

theory than practice. Moreover, in describing a “minimum set of processes that must be

continuously in motion” (Tilly, 2007, p.9) process-oriented definitions encourage both

accountability in a state and outline the areas in which regimes can improve to enhance

democracy (democratization) but also present understanding on how de-democratization can

occur in a state.


Nonetheless, to conclude, all four main types of definitions of democracy that we have assessed

and compared are correct in their own right. We have seen that there are numerous definitions of

democracy, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The consequences of choosing one

definition over another change depending on the scope of the definition- favouring Constitutional

definitions, for example, may have costs in that a regime that is undemocratic in practice will not

be seen so. In light of the important points each definition raises and in representing different

values and perspectives, however, all are vital in contributing to our understanding of what

democracy really is according to each one of us.



TILLY, C. (2002) Stories, Identities, and Political Change. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers



ISAKHAN, B AND STOCKWELL, S. (2012) The Edinburgh Companion to the History of Democracy.

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press


TILLY, C. (2007) Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


HAFNER, A, KROISSENBRUNNER, S AND POTZ, R. (2010) State, Law and Religion in

Pluralistic Societies – Austrian and Indonesian Perspectives. Vienna: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht


Freedom House. (2015) Indonesia [Online] Available from:

https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2015/indonesia [Accessed: 6th November



RODRIGUEZ , C ET AL. (2013) Turkey’s Democratization Process. Abingdon and New York:



SCHUMPETER, J. (1947) Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. 2nd ed. New York: Harper


ABDELRAHMAN, M. (2004) Civil Society Exposed: The Politics of NGOs in Egypt . London: Tauris

Academic Studies


MAGARA, H. (2014) Economic Crises and Policy Regimes: The Dynamics of Policy Innovation and

Paradigmatic Change. Glos: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.


MØLLER , J AND SKAANING S. (2012) Democracy and Democratization in Comparative Perspective:

Conceptions, Conjunctures, Causes, and Consequences . Oxon: Routledge


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