A quick Google search and this is what you get for democracy:

noun: democracy
  1. a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.
    “capitalism and democracy are ascendant in the third world”
    synonyms: representative government, elective government; More

    antonyms: dictatorship
    • a state governed by a democracy.
      plural noun: democracies
      “a multiparty democracy”
    • control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.
      “the intended extension of industrial democracy”
    • the practice or principles of social equality.
      “demands for greater democracy”



After all the search results about definitions of the word, you get organizations or publications that have democracy in the title. Then you get articles. Is the U.S. still a democracy? Have we turned into an oligarchy? Is democracy still real? Should we still aim for democracy in all parts of the world?

People are throwing around the word democracy and claiming it is failing and falling apart, but as a regime, it doesn’t truly exist. Democracy is supposed to be a regime that is fully responsive to the will of the people, “government by the people” if you will (and you should). The most classic example of democracy, the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece, excluded all citizens from their government except free men. Today, most modern political systems have elements of democracy, monarchy, and oligarchy mixed in. No state is a true, pure democracy, because that kind of system is far too idealist and impractical. Not to mention, in the case of the U.S., our government systems has been intentionally set up to prevent majority rule, or “tyranny of the majority,” and majority rule is a major characteristic of pure democracy (Pretty much comprehensive definition of democracy here).

One of my favorite explanations for the empirical study and practice of “democracy” is polyarchy, a term coined by political scientist Robert Dahl in 1956. Polyarchy has become a a common term and represents a seminal contribution to the field of political science, and it explains exactly why you think our American democracy is “failing.” Polyarchy is similar to democracy, but does not focus on achieving pure democracy itself. Instead polyarchy emphasizes a democratic principle that can be achieved through democratic institutions (See definitions of polyarchy here and here). Polyarchy represents different political groups jockeying for power rather than a model that has a small group of elite individuals running things. The two dimensions of polyarchy are inclusiveness and contestation.

Inclusiveness is measured by the existence of social groups, the ability to join such groups, and the autonomy these groups have from the government (think interest groups and political parties). Contestation is the ablility for more than one of these groups to exist, and their ability to keep the government accountable.

Polyarchy is a little closer to what we practice in the U.S. than democracy is, however as some polyarchy critics point out, there’s still room in polyarchy for political elites to concentrate political power. The pluralistic groups that are supposed keep all the political authority from falling into the hands of government elites can end up having an elite composition themselves. That’s why many democratic principles still exist in the U.S., such as universal suffrage, freedom of the press, constitutionally-elected officials, etc. but it seems like political entities are still running everything. Polyarchy doesn’t fix the problems we have with social justice and human rights, it just safeguards those democratic institutions that bring us closer to the democratic principle.

Because of polyarchy and its characteristics, democracy doesn’t truly exist and it seems like it is crumbling today. With the golden age of social media, it is easier than ever before for average citizens to contribute to the political conversation. When Robert Dahl first talked about democratic institutions that are essential to polyarchy nothing remotely similar to social media existed, but it has become a major force for democratization. The Internet has leveled the playing field when it comes to contributing political ideas and opinions.

But that has not translated into legitimate political power. The person who puts all their thoughts about the election and about foreign policy and healthcare and education on Twitter can add important facts and ideas to the discourse on those topics. But they can’t run for office if they don’t have the support (monetary and otherwise) from a legitimate political group. Even if they don’t run for office, even if they just want their own elected official to listen to their ideas, the official may be less inclined to listen to one un-affiliated person on Twitter.

The real-world practice of political power hasn’t caught up to the rapid democratization seen online. The real world still has major political parties and interest groups, which have more clout than an individual. The real world, for all intents and purposes, is still a polyarchy, and not a democracy. Our democracy is not falling apart, it was never truly here to begin with.