The root of the word “democracy” is rule by the people. Almost all definitions emphasize that the individuals who are part of “the people” should have equal power over important decisions. That is what it means for the people, instead of any special group, to rule.
Debates constantly arise about who counts as a full member of the relevant people, with controversies about children, new immigrants, and people who have been convicted of (certain) crimes.
One prevalent way to ensure that people have equal power is to make sure that each person has exactly one vote at key moments, although voters may choose to delegate some decisions to representatives, smaller groups, or specialists. Thus Dahl (1989, 109) defines democracy as “voting equality at the decisive stage.”
Mansbridge (1980) argues that voting is characteristic of “adversary democracy,” which assumes that there may be disagreements among the people. Small and relatively homogeneous groups may prefer not to vote but instead to discern a consensus; she calls this approach “unitary democracy.”
Both unitary and adversary democracies make decisions. Many would say that a loose network or community of people that never makes decisions is not a democracy, even if it is egalitarian. For instance, several of the world’s religions have no single process for making decisions for all of their adherents, so they are not democracies.
Although voting (or discussing to reach consensus) defines democracy, it may require additional supports. Many argue that democracy requires free speech, or else the people cannot freely decide what to believe. Advocates of deliberative democracy go further and argue that a great deal of high-quality discussion must inform decisions, such as votes. Universal education and basic safety may be conditions for democracy, and some would add social or economic equality.
Another important debate concerns the appropriate application of democratic ideals. Should all of the world’s nation-states be democracies? Should entities other than nation-states be democratic? For instance, should democratic values and procedures be used in workplaces, religious congregations, schools and colleges, and other institutions?