Democratic States: Introduction

Democratic States: challenges and responses (Paper 2: SL/HL)


The 20th century witnessed the establishment, survival, destruction and re-emergence of democratic states. Democratic systems faced threats to their existence from internal and external sources. In some cases the system coped successfully, in other cases the pressures proved difficult to withstand. The performance of democratic states in relation to such pressures—economic, political and social—form the basis for this topic.

Major themes

Nature and structure of democratic (multiparty) states

  • Constitutions (written & unwritten)
  • Electoral systems, proportional representation, coalition governments
  • Role of political parties; role of an opposition
  • Role of pressure/interest/lobby groups

Economic and social policies

  • Employment
  • Gender
  • Health, education
  • Social welfare

Political, social and economic challenges

  • Political extremism
  • Ethnicity, religion, gender
  • Movements for the attainment of civil rights
  • Inequitable distribution of wealth/resources

Key terms

-        Democracy
-        Government
-        Coalition
-        Legislature
-        Judiciary
-        Executive
-        Separation of Powers
-        Bicameral
-        Republic
-        Constitutional Monarchy
-        Federal system
-        Unitary system

Introductory Concepts

What is democracy?

Democracy is a method of organising power within a body (be it a club or a country) so that the ‘will of the people’ is best represented and acted upon.

There are three main types of democracy: 

DIRECT DEMOCRACY (Ancient Athens, Switzerland)

  • laws are voted on by all eligible citizens
  • can be unwieldy, slow to change
  • generally only feasible in small populations


  • President is Head of State & Leader of Government
  • President appoints members of Cabinet (not necessarily elected)
  • Separation from Legislative body: President is not a member or, nor his/her party may not control, the Legislature


  • Head of State & Leader of Government are different roles
  • Leader of Government comes from within Legislature (leader of party which commands a majority – on its own, or in coalition
  • Members of Cabinet must also be elected members of Legislature
  • May or may not be a republic

See also: 

Each country has adapted its structures to its own needs and history, so that even Westminster countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have quite different structures within the general umbrella of ‘Parliamentary Democracy’.

Elements of democracy

  • Political system for choosing government through elections
  • Involvement of citizens in public life
  • Primacy of the rule of law – equality of all citizens before the law
  • [Protection of human rights]
    I think this is more a feature of a ‘liberal democracy’ with an emphasis on individual freedoms that is not a part of other democratic systems, eg in Asia with a Confucian emphasis on community over individual (see this article by Francis Fukuyama – a little dated (1995) but a good treatment of East Asian Confucian principles vs US-style democracy and its perceived weaknesses and problems.)

See also:

What is a state? A nation? A country?

These are interesting and sometimes confusing terms, usually used interchangeably but technically ‘nation’ refers to a group of people with a shared tradition, culture and racial background, whereas a state / country is self-governing, independent, with globally recognised government and borders. And then there are countries which have ‘States’ as their sub-unit, e.g. USA or Australia.

You can have a nation within a country (most easily: English, Welsh, Scottish within the United Kingdom; or Quebecois within Canada), or in the case of the Kurds, across four ‘national’ borders (see how it gets confusing? The term ‘national borders’ are actually country borders – a national border for the Basques would cut across the French/Spanish country border.)

Further reading:

Types of democracy (Saylor University)

The development of the Westminster system‘ produced by the Australian Parliament, but covers UK, Australia, Canada & New Zealand in some depth. Well worth a read.

What’s gone wrong with democracy?The Economist

Journal of Democracy has a number of interesting free articles