In his 1863 Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people." These words have come to mean different things to different people and have sparked debate over whether the U.S. government really responds to the will of its citizens.

Four theories of democracy have taken shape over time, each addressing the questions of who holds power and influences public policy. The Traditional Theory of Democracy promotes majority rule without violating minority rights, maintaining the willingness to compromise, and recognizing the worth and dignity of all people.

Under the Traditional Theory, everyone has the right to participate in government. This participation can occur either by direct or representative vote. In a direct vote, the people approve public policy themselves. This situation works well on a small scale, as in a town meeting. In a representative vote, a group of elected officials acts on behalf of their constituents. This type of vote is used at the state and national levels to determine public policy. For voting to be effective at any level, people need access to information, so they can make informed decisions.

The Pluralist Theory of Democracy holds that people with common interests form organized groups to promote their causes and influence the political agenda. This theory maintains that no single group, industry, or government agency dominates politics. It also asserts that a healthy competition exists in the development of the policy agenda and in the selection of the policy makers. Examples of special interest groups that represent the needs and agendas of the public include the National Education Association (NEA), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). The cohesion of the people results in compromise so that opposing views are represented in the eventual public policy.

The Elite Theory of Democracy maintains that the majority of political power and influence is held by a small number of individuals, groups, and industries. People who support this theory argue that government policies disproportionately favor the elite over everyone else. For example, the oil industry and many others have been known to funnel millions of dollars into political campaigns for the candidates who support lenient pollution standards. President Eisenhower in his farewell address warned against the possible problems created by the "military-industrial complex," which is symbolic of the elitism in government.

The fourth theory is called Hyperpluralism. Similar to the Pluralist Theory, Hyperpluralism suggests that people who share interests form groups to advance their causes. Like the Elite Theory, it suggests that some groups wield too much power and influence on the government. For example, when a group does not like a policy passed by Congress, it can take its cause to court. Several important court decisions have been reached in civil rights and environmental cases thanks to the efforts of strong special interest groups. However, hyperpluralists argue that taking cases to court can undermine the political system by pitting the judicial process against the legislative process. Ultimately, the result of Hyperpluralism would be the total gridlock of government; that is, too many groups vying for power but lacking the cohesion necessary to force compromise. The factionalism that Madison and Hamilton warned about in Federalist Papers #10 and #51 come into play in this scenario.

Although quite different, all four theories of democracy share a common idea: people, either as individuals or groups, can make a difference in government. Involvement is the key to effecting change and making sure the government responds to its citizens.

Copyright 2006 The Regents of the University of California and Monterey Institute for Technology and Education