Reference Materials - Elements of Democracy

The idea of democracy is not simple. At its most basic level, we think of democracy as “the rule by the people,” but this well-worn formula tells us very little. To delve into the complex of ideas that make up what we call “democracy” we must explore a range of ideas that underlie it. Elements of Democracy is an attempt to explore such a range of ideas that make up the vocabulary of democracy.

At the dawn of the systematic study of politics more than two millenniums ago, Aristotle said, famously, that in this study, “We should not look for more clarity than the subject matter admits.” Like the idea of democracy itself, many of the ideas that comprise the vocabulary of democracy are to some degree contested or in other ways opaque. This reality means that perfect agreement among those who engage in political discourse about what each term means is not always possible.

Even so, the purpose of Elements of Democracy is to shed as much light as might reasonably be expected about the meaning or meanings of the fundamental ideas surrounding the theory and practice of democracy. At the same time, for the reasons just given, nothing written here can be taken as the “last word” on any of the ideas treated.

What we intend in setting out in brief compass the “elements” of this vocabulary is to bring what clarity we can to the subject matter to allow readers’ entrance into the conversation of democracy. We hope that in facilitating understanding of the complex ideas required to understand and discuss democracy, readers will be moved to inquire further into their significance as well as the controversies that underlie them.

Ideas, after all, have consequences. The ideas that surround the theory and practice of democracy are among the most consequential ideas of the modern world and, as the democratic revolution continues its sweep across the globe, they are destined to become more so. All the more reason, therefore, for youth as well as adults to become more deeply acquainted with them. It is to taking the first steps toward this “acquaintance” that the Elements of Democracy is dedicated.



CCE LogoThis site is brought to you by the Center for Civic Education. The Center's mission is to promote an enlightened and responsible citizenry committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy. The Center has reached more than 30 million students and their teachers since 1965. Learn more.

Center for Civic Education

5115 Douglas Fir Road, Suite J
Calabasas, CA 91302

  Phone: (818) 591-9321


  Media Inquiries:


© Center for Civic Education