The principles and pillars of democracy

The Principles and Pillars of Democracy

The pillars of democracy represent the basic principles of this type of government and sociopolitical structure. Of course, identifying and understanding these pillars require an understanding of the concept of democracy.

For starters, the word “democracy” comes from the Greek word “demokratia,” which is derived from “demos” or people and “kratia” or rule. In other words, democracy basically means “rule of the people.” However, there is no consensus for defining the scope or perimeters of democracy.

Academicians such as Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry L. Karl noted that the word has been circulating as a “debased currency” because of the ambiguity that surrounds it. It is also important to note that there are different types of democracy. Institutions and societies have their respective way of defining and implementing their own brand of democracy.

However, Schmitter and Karl explained that the common understanding of democracy is reflected in the perception of the ordinary people. The common people understand democracy as a word that resonates amid their struggle for freedom and a better way of life. Thus, for a greater majority, democracy is an idealized social, political, and economic structure or condition centered on promoting and safeguarding their interests and welfare.

The Principles and Pillars of Democracy

An analysis of the different definitions of democracy, including those discussed by Schmitter and Karl, as well as those found in the works of others philosophers scholar can lead to the identification of overlapping themes or concepts. Note that some of these concepts have also been derived from the works of ancient thinkers such as the Greek Philosopher Aristotle or the Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli. Nevertheless, these concepts generally correspond to the basic features, elements, or principles of democracy. Take note of the following:

• A pronounced consideration of the interest and welfare of the common people

• A political structure in which the government is held accountable for its actions

• A bestowment of sovereign power unto the people or the greater public

Furthermore, based on the aforementioned elements or principles, the pillars of democracy can also be identified as follows:

Freedom and Rights: Some rights or freedoms and privileges are inseparable in a sociopolitical structure that draws its power or authority from the public. Essentially, these rights and freedoms are aimed at promoting the interest and welfare of the common people. Examples of such include the right to property and privacy, freedom of thought and expression, the right to life or the right to a decent life, freedom of movement, and the right to fair trial, among others.

Representation: A concept pertaining to the most basic democratic principle or right of every citizen to have the opportunity to choose their representatives in the government that would promote and protect their interests. Representation demonstrates the fact that in a democratic setting, sovereign power rests in the people. Some of the ways a democratic society exemplifies representation are through suffrage, public consultations or town hall meetings, and public referendum.

Equality and Equity: Part of promoting freedoms and rights, as well as the concept of representation is ensuring that there are equality and equity across the citizenry. Note that equality and equity are two different things. Equality is essentially about giving equal opportunities to everyone while equity is about recognizing and addressing the special needs of special groups of people such as the poor and marginalized, members of ethnic and cultural minorities, and those with health disabilities, among others.

Justice: Promoting the fundamental and specific principles of democracy requires effective and efficient justice system. The concept of justice is essentially about promoting the welfare and interest of the people while also administering fairness. More specific concepts include the promotion of due process and the rule of law, equality before the law, limitation of the power of the government or protection from government abuse.

Other Interpretations Regarding the Pillars of Democracy

There may also be other interpretations and explanations as regards what should constitute the pillars of democracy depending on the context. For example, in considering the structure of a democratic society, the following may be considered as pillars of democracy:

Executive: A branch of the government primarily responsible for the proper and effective executing or implementing laws, as well as for maintaining order in the society. In a presidential system such as the United States, the executive branch of the government and thereby, the primary leader of the entire country is the president. In a parliamentary system, the prime minister serves as the leader of the cabinet and the ministers.

Legislative: The legislative branch of the government is primarily tasked to create laws that would promote and protect the interest of the country, as well as its people. The senators and the congressmen of the U.S. Congress are examples officials working in this branch. Usually, these legislators are also representatives because they represent the interests of the people or specific groups of people.

Judiciary: Another branch of the government that deals with the interpretation of laws. To be specific, the judiciary is responsible for ensuring that the legislated laws and their respective execution or implementation do not contradict with one another or that they do not curtail the fundamental rights of the citizens or the basic principles of democracy as stated in the constitution or the highest law of the land.

Free Press: The press is not an official branch of the government. But modern democratic societies have necessitated the existence of this institution because of their role in promoting transparency across all three branches of the government, ensuring that government activities reach the consciousness of the people, and safeguard the entire citizenry from possible abuse of power and authority. A well-functioning press should be free from media bias.

The aforementioned institutions are considered as pillars of democracy because they promote the concepts of separation of powers, and check and balance. For example, all three branches of the government are independent of one another. They have different but equal powers to ensure decentralization of authority and promotion of limitations. On the other hand, while not an actual branch of the government, the press has been responsible for ensuring that all three branches or the entire government perform within its scope.


  • Schmitter, P. C. and Karl, T. L. 1991. “What Democracy Is…and Is Not.” Journal of Democracy. 2(3): 75-88