For those of us who are sincere, defining “democracy” is a simple matter. The word is derived from the Greek word demokratia, which was formed from two Greek words: demos (“people” or “the people”) and kratia (“have power”). A democratic government, therefore, is one in which the people have power. In the context of civic matters, “power” is the ability to act or produce an effect; the possession of control, authority, or influence.
There are two basic forms of democracy. In a “direct democracy” (sometimes called a “pure” democracy) the people vote directly on public policies and laws. In a “representative democracy” citizens elect some of their fellow citizens to act as their representatives and those representatives discuss, debate, and vote on public policies and laws.
Working with a shared understanding of democracy, determining whether a government is democratic is relatively easy. In a democracy the will of a majority of the people determines public policies and what laws are passed. To the extent that the will of a majority of the people has little or no effect on public policies a government is not democratic.
Orwell’s observations regarding the difficulty of agreeing upon a definition for “democracy” also apply to the use of the word “republic”. The term “republic” has long been treated as being synonymous with “representative democracy”. There is an overlap between those two terms, properly defined and understood, but we can reach a clearer understanding of political reality by treating “republic” as synonymous with “federation”, which is “a group of states with a central government but independence in internal affairs”. A republic is a representative form of government, in that each state sends representatives to the legislative body of the central government but a republic is a representative democracy only to the extent that those representatives, collectively assembled, reflect the will of the people of either their state or of the nation, ideally both.
As is the case with “democracy”, governments often incorporate the term “republic” in the name of a county in order to appear to be democratic even when they are not. In sorting through the fog of misrepresentation resulting from the gap between the real aims and the declared aims of many of our leaders (and the leaders of other nations), perspective matters, and bias often intrudes. The nature of a nation’s economic system tends to influence opinions regarding how “democratic” the government of a nation with a different economic system may be, and therefore how accurately the terms “democratic”, “representative democracy”, or “republic” apply to a given government. The perspective of people living in a country with an economy based primarily on the principles of capitalism is often quite different than the perspective of people living in a country with an economy based primarily on the principles of communism, with socialism, or democratic socialism, falling somewhere in between the two extremes. For example, leaders in the United States, in the wake of successful communist revolutions in Russia, China, and Cuba, routinely labeled the governments of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (now Russia once more), the People’s Republic of China, and the Republic of Cuba as communist dictatorships or “totalitarian regimes”. Leaders in those countries do not consider the government of the United States to be a true democracy, representative democracy, or republic.
The grim and tragic reality is that, if we apply our simple, honest definition of democracy as a government in which the people have power, very few governments around the world, including the United States, even come close. Furthermore, experience has shown that the people are less likely to have true power in a representative democracy and most of the democratic governments in the world are representative democracies. Direct democracies have been extremely rare in the political history of the human race and a representative democracy is only a democracy to the extent that the representatives elected by the people actually represent the will of the people.