Skip to main content


Go Search
New Atlas
Atlas, A-Z
Atlas Maps
MPP/MPA Programs
Core Topics
Illustrative Courses
Topic Encyclopedia
Concept Dictionary
Career Tips
Best Practices Project

PPGPortal > Home > Concept Dictionary > D, E > Democracy


Democracy can be defined, at a minimum, as a political system in which people choose their leaders freely from among competing groups and individuals who were not designated by the government.

(Barber 2003, 188; Freedom House, cited in Perlin 2003,1, footnote no. 2; Haass, cited in Schmitz 2004, 9; Perlin, 2003, 9, citing Sartori) 




Democracy is an extremely difficult concept to define. Below are notes on the meaning of the concept drawn from a variety of sources:

Democracy is about self-government and majority rule, as well as about liberty, governmental limits, and minority rights. The first is achieved through political participation and elections, the second through limits on power and boundaries between society’s plural sectors. (Barber 2003, 188)

Democracy has been defined as, at a minimum, a political system in which the people choose their authoritative leaders freely from among competing groups and individuals who were not designated by the government. (Freedom House, cited in Perlin 2003, 1, footnote no. 2)

Democracy represents more than institutions and elections. At its most fundamental level, democracy is based on a diffusion of power in government and in society. Although it can be encouraged from outside, democracy is best built from within. (Haass, cited in Schmitz 2004, 9)

Democracy, at its core, is a normative concept. “What democracy is cannot be separated from what democracy should be. A democracy exists only insofar as its ideals and values bring it into being” (Perlin 2003, 29, citing Sartori)


Barber, B. 2004. Fear’s Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy. New York: W. W. Norton.

Perlin, George. 2003. International Assistance to Democratic Development: A Review. IRPP Working Paper Series 2003-04. Institute for Research on Public Policy. Accessed June 20, 2008.

Schmitz, Gerald. 2004. "The Role of International Democracy Promotion in Canada's Foreign Policy. IRPP Policy Matters 5 (10). Institute for Research on Public Policy. Accessed June 15, 2008.


Important Notices
© University of Toronto 2008
School of Public Policy and Governance