We think we know what it is and what it means. But when we start probing more systematically into the answer a number of issues arise.
For instance, a simple answer from armchair theorizing is any situation where elections are held periodically and power is peacefully transferred from one regime or administration to another. A complex answer available in the academic literature is that one can identify in the large political science literature on the subject, Coppedge et al (2011), at least six conceptions of democracy: electoral, liberal, majoritarian, participatory, deliberative and egalitarian. http://people.bu.edu/jgerring/documents/MeasuringDemocracy.pdf
The first answer is too simple. For several decades Mexico had periodic elections every six years but the same party always won. Hence it is customary to insist that the elections be free and fair, which also means competitive so that different parties have a reasonable chance to alternate in holding power. For example, two highly regarded political economists, D. Acemoglu and J. Robinson, in their book on Dictatorship and Democracy (2006) put forth the following answer borrowed from Schumpeter ( p.42) “…the institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.”. This is a commonly accepted view of what we mean by electoral democracy.
The second answer is too complex as it contains a few more conceptions of democracy, each with its own definition, than most people would want to know about. Since the last four conceptions are essentially differentiations of the first two in one direction or another, we will concentrate on the first two. The electoral democracy conception is already available in the previous paragraph while the liberal democracy one is familiar in vague ways to potential readers of this posting. Nonetheless, it is useful to make it precise by relying on its characterization in a recent book, Democracy (2007), by C. Tilly, a distinguished political scientist who writes “…a regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected and mutually binding consultations.” (p.13). He later adds “…roughly speaking political rights correspond to broad, equal and mutually binding consultations, whereas civil liberties refer especially to protection.” (p.45).
Why do we care about which one of these two conceptions of democracy is adopted by anyone? It affects how one views different societies. For instance, the electoral democracy perspective implies that Singapore is not a democracy because of the lack of competition in its elections whereas Venezuela under Chavez is a democracy, or at least was during Chavez’ initial terms of office. The liberal democracy perspective provides a far more nuanced view of both countries. In addition, it also suggests that, in principle, societies can progress in the political rights dimension while regressing in the civil liberties one or vice versa. The view one adopts also affects one’s perception of history along the same lines. From a practical perspective there are also substantial differences. For example, an approach based on liberal democracy implies policies toward democracy promotion besides the holding of ‘free and fair’ or competitive elections. Finally, one important reason to care about the relevant conception is a potential connection between democracy and development. Is it possible that there is a connection under one view and not under the other? We will address this issue in subsequent postings.