What is democracy?

Democracy is something that most people take for granted and seem to agree is a positive thing. But what exactly is democracy? In order to be able to ask how democracy is doing in Sweden and the world, to ask questions about the desirability of democracy and to consider how democracy can be improved, it is important to start with a clear definition of democracy.

We define democracy as an ideal of how collectives (i.e. human groups, companies, non-profit associations or countries) can make decisions together. According to our definition, which is inspired by the famous democratic theorist Robert Dahl[1], a decision-making process can be more or less democratic depending on how well the decision-making process meets the following criteria of democracy:

  • Political equality. The decision-making process is based on the equal value of all people and thus treats everyone as political equals. This means that everyone's vote should be weighed equally, i.e. in the same way. However, there are different scales that can be used to weigh votes. The most common scale is to count the number of individuals and let the proposal with the most support win. But votes can also be weighted based on the strength of participants' preferences, how the participant's interests are affected by the decision, or by participants' geographical proximity to the location affected by the decision. All these methods are consistent with the idea of political equality. Choosing one scale over the other is no more or less democratic, but decisions may have better or worse effects for the vast majority depending on the scale used.
  • Effective participation. All participants should have the same opportunity to make suggestions and arguments that others read, take note of and discuss. All participants must also have equal opportunities to cast their vote without undue influence.
  • Enlightened understanding. All participants should have equal access to impartial information, independent facts and the best possible analysis and predictions about the options being voted on. Participants should also have equal and effective opportunities to understand the steps of the decision-making process and the implications of the methods used.
  • Agenda control. All participants should have an equal opportunity to decide whether, how and when issues should be raised for decision, and to choose the order of decision and voting method.
  • Broadest possible inclusion of interested participants. Democratic decision-making requires that all persons of legal age who are affected by the decision are included in the decision-making process. For example, in one country this means that all adults living in and subject to the law of a country are included in the decision-making process.

A decision-making process can be considered democratic if it meets the above conditions, but in practice it is very difficult to meet all the criteria in full. Most organisations' and countries' decision-making processes only partially meet the criteria. The governance systems that exist today can therefore only be said to be partially democratic; they can be placed on a sliding scale between 0% and 100% democracy.

But what is the point of democracy? Why should companies, organisations and countries use democracy as a method for making collective decisions?


[1] Robert A Dahl (1999). Democracy and its antagonists.

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The Digital Democracy Association is a non-profit association that is religiously and politically independent. It aims to support and promote effective democratic organisation of people at all levels: from small networks and organisations at grassroots level to large companies, political parties and organisations at national and international level.

Its ultimate goal is a world in which everyone's influence and participation is maximised in a way that is compatible with high flexibility, efficiency and power to act in human co-operation and organisations. The Association's sub-goals are to (i) develop innovative open-source tools for digital democratic organisation (ii) disseminate knowledge and stimulate interest in effective democratic decision-making and organisational practices (iii) support organisations and companies to improve their internal democracy.