For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, democracy was a very difficult word to use in public debate. In C19, this was because most of what was written about democracy was hostile, and therefore characterized by a ready slide from ‘rule by the people’ to ‘mob rule’. Tocqueville stood out as a relatively sympathetic, but critical writer, on American democracy.
In C20, the problem was the opposite. Nearly everyone (except the Nazis) claimed to advocate and practice democracy of some kind. In particular, the Soviet Union claimed that it was the real democracy because the revolution had destroyed the ruling class that manipulated the supposed democracies under capitalism.
Now, however, all this is behind us, and democracy is a simple word again. The only serious opponents of democracy at present, reactionary Islamists like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, make no pretence of being democrats. Afghanistan under the Taliban was not a “people’s democracy’ or even an “Islamic republic’, it was an ‘Islamic emirate’.
Definition: Democracy means almost exactly what the person in the street uses it to mean without a definition. The crucial components are that governments should be chosen through free, fair and regular elections and that political decisions should be made either by elected governments or by (free and fair) direct popular vote.
There remains some tension between the representative and direct approaches, and this is the subject of occasionally overheated rhetoric, with one side or the other claiming to be the only genuinely democratic approach. In practice, however, nearly all democratic systems rely on representative government for day-to-day functions,while uisng plebiscites and referendums for a variety of special purposes including constitutional change and symbolic issues such as flags and anthems. Citizen-initiated referendums are used in a few countries, notably the US and Switzerland, but their impact, for good and bad, has not been nearly as great as was hoped by their advocates and feared by their opponents.
A trickier problem for democracy has been the relationship between legislatures and executives. Both have been claimed at different times as the true repository of democratic legitimacy. Advocates of the executive have used the theory of the mandate to back their claims, but to little effect.
Even more surprising than the ease with which we can define democracy is the fact that most countries now have a broadly democratic form of government, though imperfections abound. In a world where lots of things are going badly, this is a reminder that the general trend is still positive.