The word democracy originates from the Greek "demos" meaning "the people" and "kratein" meaning "to rule" or, literally: "the people to rule", which means "Rule by the People." The term is also sometimes used as a measurement of how much influence a people has over their government, as in how much democracy exists. Anarchism and Communism (as in the final stage of social development according to Marxist theory) are social systems that employ a form of direct democracy, but have no state independent of the people.
Modern democracy can be characterised by the following institutions:
"I cannot help concurring [e.g., with Aristotle, inter alios] that an absolute democracy, no more than an absolute monarchy, is not to be reckoned among the legitimate forms of government. They think it rather the corruption and degeneracy than the sound constitution of a republic."
Burke's agreement with Aristotle is in reference to the fact that Aristotle called democracy one of three "evil" forms of government (the other two: ochlocracy and tyranny).
Further, people who believe, as does David Friedman, that any government will do more harm than good, naturally regard the issue of whether the best government is democratic as secondary, like the issue of how long is the horn of a unicorn.
Nonetheless, many people think that there is no system that can ideally order society and that democracy is not morally ideal. These advocates say that at the heart of democracy is the belief that if a majority is in agreement, it is legitimate to harm the minority. The opponents to this viewpoint say that in a liberal democracy where particular minority groups are protected from being targeted, majorities and minorities actually take a markedly different shape on every issue; therefore, majorities will usually take care to take into account the dissent of the minority, lest they ultimately are part of a minority on a future democratic decision.
While a clear improvement over tyranny, this potential threat of coercive power is still cause for concern. For this reason, some countries (such as the USA) have created constitutions that protect particular issues from majoritarian decision-making. Generally, changes in these constitutions require the agreement of a super-majority. This means a majority can still legitimately coerce a minority (which is still ethically questionable), but as a practical matter it is harder to get a larger proportion of the people to agree to such actions.
As well as constitutional protections for citizens' rights (such as the right to stay alive, express political opinions and form political organisations, independent and regardless of government approval); some electoral systems, such as the various forms of Proportional Representation, attempt to ensure that minorities are represented fairly and equally in the nation's legislative bodies, according to their proportion in the community. This differs from majoritarian forms of democracy that tend to give legislative power only to the two most popular political parties. This, proponents of PR often argue, results in more bitter partisanship and systemic discrimination against political minorities.
Some critics of representative democracy argue that party politics mean that representatives will be forced to follow the party line on issues, rather than either the will of their conscience or constituents. But it can also be argued that the electors have expressed their will in the election, which puts the emphasis on the program the candidate was elected on, which he then is supposed to follow. One emerging problem with representative democracies is the increasing cost of political campaigns which lends the candidates to making deals with well heeled supporters for legislation favorable to those supporters once the candidate is elected.
Les Marshall, an expert on the spread of democracy to nations that have not traditionally had these institutions, notes that "globally, there is no alternative to multi-party representative democracy" for those states that embrace democratic methods at all. This is not controversial: representative democracy is the most commonly used system of government in countries generally considered "democratic". However, it should be noted that the definition used to classify countries as "democratic" was crafted by Europeans and is directly influenced by the dominating cultures in those countries; care should be taken when applying it to other cultures that are tribal in nature and do not have the same historical background as the current "democratic" countries.