A democracy allows people to participate in government by having influence over what policies are made into laws. Direct democracy means that the public votes directly on initiatives that can become law as a result of that vote, but this becomes unwieldy as the population increases. In an indirect democracy, people use free elections to elect officials who vote on those initiatives on their behalf; the indirect approach is far more common on Earth, one example being the United States. Indirect is the one we’ll typically want to use. Having representatives running government frees the rest of the population for other things. The ability to elect and remove government officials also eliminates the need for revolution to cause change.
While democracies have existed in some form for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the last two hundred years that greater equality for citizens became the norm. Before that, there was often an elite class in control. Even in modern democracies, there are sometimes oligarchies or monarchs affecting affairs. This causes some ambiguity about the power structure, which is one reason world builders might want to avoid that.
Examples include the United States.
In a democracy, laws are supposed to apply to all people, but this isn’t always true. A democracy is a rule by the majority, which means minorities are sometimes overlooked, abused, and not offered equal protection. This is arguably truer in a newer democracy. In time, progress is typically made amid occasional setbacks so that an older democracy might offer more equal rights. Generally, greater freedom allows people to travel, learn skills and information, and have opportunities not available in something like a totalitarian regime.
Our characters can run into problems anyway. Someone with talent for magic might be prevented from training due to race, gender, or another issue. One character can be forbidden to carry a weapon while others can. If we don’t want to focus on such things in a story, it’s still a good way to give characters a sense of entitlement or bitterness about their life and opportunities. This can be the reason they’ve left home, to escape a lack of freedom. It can work in reverse, such as a female wizard allowed to be one in her home country only to arrive in another where it’s not allowed and she is jailed.
Human rights abuses tend to be smaller or almost non-existent, compared with authoritarian powers. Citizens have many laws on their side and courts through which to seek resolution of disputes. Freedom is central, including freedom of speech, political and religious views, and the press.
In theory, anyone can become a representative in congress, though money and influence often restrict this. In this way, a democracy can resemble an oligarchy, where a small group (the wealthy) are running government.
The Rise and Fall of Democracy
A democracy can arise from revolution and wars that overthrow or otherwise destroy previous governments. Religion and economics can also cause a sudden change. The Great Depression in the United States caused hardship around the globe. It also sullied the idea of democracy, leading many to believe it was a failure. The result was a rise, in other countries, of dictatorships. A decade later, when those countries lost World War II, another swing back toward democracy took place; this was partly a rejection of such regimes.
Epic fantasy fiction often includes stories where someone must save the world, usually from an evil dictator or kingdom. Should our heroes be victorious, we can choose to have a similar rise in democracy in the aftermath, if we continue using the world.
A democracy can fail when it’s not structured to prevent the balance of power from tipping too heavily. When a branch of government gains too much strength, it effectively stops being a democracy even if it doesn’t rebrand itself. Some groups may be prevented from having power, which can also lead to trouble and an overthrow.
There’s a tendency to take our current government for granted. In the United States, this complacency reveals itself in low voter turnout that sometimes surprises those in foreign countries who wish they had that right to vote. In countries with less stable government and fewer rights, the average person is more likely to care quite a bit about the current government because life under it isn’t fair, kind, or likely to change. They may dream of escape. Give them somewhere to dream of.
There are many different types of democracy, but we’ll only cover a few basics.
Direct democracy was discussed previously. So was indirect, which is commonly called “representative democracy,” and when the head of state is also elected, indirect is called a democratic republic. A republic may or may not have the word itself in its name, like “Republic of Nivera.” As with other government forms, the idea of a republic has changed over time, giving us some leeway to tweak details for our purposes. Republics eventually replaced absolute monarchies as the most common form of government on Earth.
Since a government representative is free to exercise his own judgment on how to “represent” the constituents who elected him, there’s room for abuse and resulting dissatisfaction that may lead to being ousted from office in favor of a new representative.
In parliamentary democracy, the people elect members to parliament (the legislature), who in turn elect a prime minister as head of government from among their ranks. This prime minister is chosen from the majority ruling party. The people cannot remove a prime minister, but parliament can remove him via a vote of no confidence. The people can vote members of parliament out of office at the next election.
By contrast, in a presidential democracy, people elect the president, who is head of state and (italics) government and appoints his own cabinet. The election date is set, but the term of office (how many years they can be president) may or may not be. The president cannot be easily removed, nor can he easily remove legislative members. If the president is in a different party than the legislature, they can block each other, causing stagnation.
Even in a representative democracy, there can be aspects of direct democracy when the public votes directly on referendums or initiatives. This is how individual measures are voted on by the public, causing a kind of hybrid democracy. The United States allows this, particularly at the state and local level, as each has some sovereignty over its own affairs.