Democracy first flourished in the Greek city-state, reaching its fullest expression in ancient Athens. There the citizens, as members of the assembly, participated directly in the making of their laws. A democracy of this sort was possible only in a small state where the people were politically educated, and it was limited since the majority of inhabitants were slaves or noncitizens. Athenian democracy fell before imperial rule, as did other ancient democracies in the early Italian cities and the early church. In this period and in the Middle Ages, ideas such as representation crucial to modern Western democracy were developed.
Doctrines of natural law evolved into the idea of natural rights, i.e., that all people have certain rights, such as self-preservation, that cannot be taken from them. The idea of contract followed, that rulers and people were bound to each other by reciprocal obligations. If the sovereign failed in his duties or transgressed on natural rights, the people could take back their sovereignty. This idea, as postulated by John Locke, strongly influenced the development of British parliamentary democracy and, as defined in the social contract theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau, helped form the philosophical justification for the American and French Revolutions. The idea that equality of opportunity can be maintained through political democracy alone has long been challenged by socialists and others, who insist that economic democracy through economic equality and public ownership of the major means of production is the only foundation upon which a true political democracy can be erected.
English settlers in America faced frontier conditions that emphasized the importance of the individual and helped in breaking down class distinctions and prejudices. These led to a democratic political structure marked by a high degree of individualism, civil liberty, and a government limited by law. In the 19th cent. emphasis was placed on broadening the franchise and improving the machinery for enabling the will of the people to be more fully and directly expressed.
Since the mid-20th cent. most political systems have described themselves as democracies, but many of them have not encouraged competing political parties and have not stressed individual rights and other elements typical of classic Western democracy. With the collapse of one-party Communist rule in Eastern Europe, the fall of authoritarian dictatorships in Latin America, and the end of some one-party states in sub-Saharan Africa, however, the number of true multiparty democracies has increased. Despite the increase in the number of countries holding multiparty elections, however, the United Nations issued a study in 2002 that stated that in more than half the world's nations the rights and freedoms of citizens are limited.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.