A Short Definition Of


U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) defined democracy as:

«Government of the people, by the people, for the people»

The term democracy comes from the Greek language and means "rule by the (simple) people". The so-called "democracies" in classical antiquity (Athens and Rome) represent precursors of modern democracies. Like modern democracy, they were created as a reaction to a concentration and abuse of power by the rulers. Yet the theory of modern democracy was not formulated until the Age of Enlightment (17th/18th centuries), when philosophers defined the essential elements of democracy: separation of powers, basic civil rights, religious liberty and separation of church (religion) and state.

Democracy - Classical Definition

Often democracy is defined opposite to other types of government:


Government by a single ruler (king/queen, emperor).


Government by noblemen (hereditary)


Government by few persons


"Government by God" (in reality this means government by religious leaders)


Government by people, that have seized power by force (often: military dictatorship)

Today, the majority of democratic countries in the world are republics, i.e. officials are elected. Some well-established democratic countries in Europe, however, (the United Kingdom, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg and the Scandinavian countries) are constitutional monarchies, i.e. a king or queen is head of state while the constitution guarantees nevertheless all basic rights as in any democratic republic and sets clear limits to duties and competences of the monarch. Such a king can be regarded as a stabilizing factor rather than as a danger for a democracy. Therefore the classical definition of democracy is little helpful - at least concerning monarchy.

Democracy - Modern Definition

Because the definition of the term democracy opposite to monarchy and aristocracy rather creates confusion with regard to constitutional monarchies instead of establishing clarity, it is more appropriate to define democracy opposite to authoritarian and totalitarian regimes:


Form of government, where a constitution guarantees basic civil rights, fair and free elections, and independent courts of law.

Totalitarian regime

Government by a little group of leaders on the basis of an ideology, that claims general validity for all aspects of life and usually attempts to replace religion. The regime does not tolerate any deviation from its state ideology. Regime opponents are persecuted, tortured, detained in concentration camps and members of ethnic minorities are killed in mass executions (genocide).
The best known historic example of a totalitarian regime is National Socialism (Germany under Hitler, 1933-1945).

Authoritarian regime

Government by a little group of leaders. In contrast to totalitarian regimes, authoritarian regimes have no distinct state ideology and grant some amount of freedom (e.g. economic and cultural) as long as their rule is not jeopardized. The most important goal of authoritarian regimes is the maintenance of power and the personal enrichment on cost of the country and its population.


"Government by God": in reality this means government by religious leaders. Usually a certain interpretation of ancient religious laws replaces modern forms of law and is enforced with utmost severity. Example: Islamic Republic of Iran.