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What is a Liberal Democracy?

L. S. Wynn
By L. S. Wynn
Updated May 23, 2024
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A liberal democracy is a form of representative democracy in which elected representatives who hold power are limited by a constitution that emphasizes protecting individual liberties, equality and the rights of minority groups. Among the many liberties that might be protected are freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of religion, the right to private property and privacy as well as equality before the law and due process under the rule of law. Such constitutional rights, also called liberal rights, are guaranteed through various controlled institutions and statutory laws. Additionally, the constitutions of most contemporary liberal democracies prohibits majoritarianism, which is rule by the will of majority, when it harms those in the minority.

Elected Representatives

All liberal democracies are representative democracies, or governments in which representatives are elected by the people through free and fair elections. Some might, however, be constitutional monarchies or federal republics rather than full democracies. In a constitutional monarchy, the figurative head of the government is often determined by heredity, but members of the legislature and other officials, such as a prime minister, are elected by the people. In a federal republic, the national government's power is somewhat limited, and power also is divided among regional governments.

Systems of Referenda

Some liberal democracies have additional systems of referenda — or public votes on proposed measures — to give citizens who are eligible to vote the possibility to overrule the decisions of the elected legislature or even to make decisions without giving the legislature a say. The political systems in other countries have referenda to a lesser degree. The use of referenda in a liberal democracy's political system could help prevent it from evolving into an oligarchy.

Criticisms

Many people would argue that a liberal democracy isn't democratic or liberal. They would argue that a liberal democracy does not respect the will of the people except when citizens are asked to vote for their representatives, and that liberty is restricted by the constitution or by precedent. Critics would argue that, by denying citizens the right to cast votes on all issues — especially serious matters such as going to war or constitutional amendments — a liberal democracy is a precursor of an oligarchy, or a government that is controlled by the elite few. Others would say that only a liberal democracy can guarantee the individual liberties of its citizens and prevent the development into a dictatorship. Unmoderated majority rule could, in their view, lead to the oppression of various minority groups.

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Discussion Comments
By anon290929 — On Sep 11, 2012

No matter how far to the right an American is, to the rest of the world, that person is still a liberal, because of our stance that all men are created equal, because of our belief that no person is above the law. For everyone who wants to say that America is not a Democracy but a Republic, look up what the terms mean before you open your mouth - a republic is a form of democracy.

Some Americans are uneducated and ignorant of the basic tenets of our society, especially when it comes to those things which should have been learned in high school and especially college and university.

By anon286938 — On Aug 23, 2012

Can multiculturalism coexist with a liberal democracy?

By anon276755 — On Jun 26, 2012

Who are the major proponents of liberal democracy?

By anon209605 — On Aug 27, 2011

could you please share with me the most important characteristics of a liberal democracy?

By anon182385 — On Jun 02, 2011

The article is not talking about Canada, 'pdl946', and just because you have never heard the term before does not make it incorrect.

A liberal democracy is based on the principles of fair and free elections, a competitive political process, and a capitalist market and it does not require a constitution.

Democracy is an essentially contested term and within it are many subsets, protective democracy, developmental democracy, classical democracy and liberal democracy.

By anon177229 — On May 17, 2011

democracy is a very general term for a political system which is organized in such a way that it enables people to influence or to make decisions through voting. liberal democracy is a particular type of democracy and is a society that is centered around a variety of other values. where democracy just by itself can be seen as majoritarian, a liberal democracy protects the minorities while still listening to the needs and desires of the majority and protecting those individual's rights as well.

By anon167619 — On Apr 13, 2011

what is the difference between liberal democracy and democracy in the case of, say USA and Canada?

By anon153959 — On Feb 18, 2011

Why do you think that liberal democracy is the best democracy?

By anon137808 — On Dec 29, 2010

"Liberal Democracy" is obviously a term recently invented by "social tinkerers" to give ascendancy to certain agendas.

In Canada, the "Tryanny of minorities" is a more accurate term to describe the system that now exists here.

That "democracy" means different things to different people is a typically 'left-wing' idea: vacuous and meaningless.

By anon128393 — On Nov 19, 2010

do you guys not realize that a republic can be a liberal democracy?

And while we are at it, the founding fathers did not want universal suffrage!

By anon128135 — On Nov 18, 2010

When we study politics in britain we learn about USA *and* UK. A liberal government is voted for and by the people. The idea is that it is free and therefore ruled by laws and regulations, i.e. like USA has a constitution.

The UK has no set constitution but laws and regulations on things like human rights, etc. A liberal democracy is run on the ideals of freedom for all and under political rule of elected parties and individuals voted by the people.

By anon104239 — On Aug 15, 2010

Liberal democracy?

No way! America is a republic -- always was always will be.

America is a republic! And playing around with words and phrases that many do not grasp is a liberal democracy trick! Remember, America is a republic of the people and for the people. One nation under god.

By anon80440 — On Apr 27, 2010

what are the problems of liberal democracy?

By anon53182 — On Nov 19, 2009

Liberal Democracy as it looks by today's vernacular would make you think a Liberal Democracy is a democracy run by liberals.

In fact, it is a system run by a people who are protected by a constitution that will restrict the powers of government in many arenas of public and private life.

This is the type of ideology most associated with personal liberties over collectivism. In societies where liberal democracy is firmly entrenched there is often a latent distrust of government and even to a further extent other forms of power like corporations.

Another thing very common among countries with this ideology is the divisions of power via legislative, executive and judicial. Some of these systems have presidential authorities, some are monarchies, and some are a hybrid of both.

Also, another common attribute is the implementation of a free market system for the economy. Seeing that the people's distrust of government prevents any good will towards government mandates. The demands of the people decide the prices of goods and services and steers the economy rather then the government trying to control all of it.

A liberal democracy can only stand if it has popular support from the people, which is why politicians must try in some regard to appease the needs of the people helping to ensure personal liberty and prevent the tyranny of government abuse.

The liberal democracies of the world are the leaders in human rights and the prosecution and outing of its violators. This is not an agenda seen by other types of ideologies.

By anon43375 — On Aug 28, 2009

I am confused. What is the exact difference between a libral and revolutionary democracy? What are the merits and demerits of each of them? Where and when, and under what conditions do we need to use either of the democracy type?

By anon39367 — On Aug 01, 2009

why is law so important in democratic liberal constitutional state?

By anon34443 — On Jun 22, 2009

Any illiberal democracy is one where you have procedural democracy in place (free and fair elections) but the institutions for protecting individual liberties are not. Thus, you can have a state, such as Russia, which has elections that are competitive and "free and fair" (meaning minimal instances of fraud, inter-party competition, universal suffrage) but deny the guarantee of civil liberties (speech, the press, religion, et cetera).

By anon33774 — On Jun 11, 2009

anon33742 said "Having people vote on issues they haven't studied is ludicrous. One example is a lynch mob, where the majority decides and takes action." I agree with his assessment that having the uninformed be charged with making decisions as ludicrous. But I totally disagree with a lynch mob as an example. True, there are usually about as uninformed as possible, but I have often considered them to be a minority group often reacting solely on false rumor and fear. Even when they go after the correct target, the methods employed are most often prohibited by legal society since by definition, lynching implies violation of civil rights. JKS.

By pdl946 — On Jun 11, 2009

I'm sorry. I'm 62 years old and an avid follower of civics and all things political. I'm also a prolific reader, and love to read everything in the field of government. I know we live in a republic, and quite frankly, I've never heard the term "liberal democracy". Maybe they're talking about California.

By anon33748 — On Jun 11, 2009

Our Founding Fathers created a republic, not a democracy. When the citizens elect representatives to vote for them, that is a republic, not a democracy.

By anon33742 — On Jun 11, 2009

"... and to the *republic* for which it stands..." How could this entire article be written without the key word "*republic*." The people elect representatives to study the issues and make informed decisions within the constraints of the constitution and laws. Having people vote on issues they haven't studied is ludicrous. One example is a lynch mob, where the majority decides and takes action. I fear with word games like "Liberal Democracy", as well as what our current elected officials are doing, we are headed for a very powerful, expensive, and ultimately tyrannical government.

By anon21643 — On Nov 19, 2008

what are the features of liberal democracy and illiberal democracy?

By anon17884 — On Sep 09, 2008

What is the difference between liberal democracy and democracy?

By anon10741 — On Apr 02, 2008

does Russia conform to the basic principles of liberal democracy?

By anon537 — On Apr 27, 2007

Does this mean that Liberal Democracy is also known as 'Constitutional Liberal Democracy'? I hope that it is... If it isn't then could you direct me to a sight that I could find helpful.... Thank You!

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