The Basics of American Government 3E

Chapter 1: Theories of Democracy and Types of Government

Read or download the textbook here.


by Ross C. Alexander

John Locke's Second Treatises of GovernmentWhat is democracy? How does it differ from other political structures and systems that have existed over the past two millennia? In this chapter, we will address these foundational questions, in addition to others, to provide a solid framework for the remainder of the book. By examining those thinkers, philosophers, and scholars who have had an impact upon the American political system, we can define democracy in the American sense and contrast it to other systems throughout time and today. To accomplish this end, this chapter will offer an in-depth examination of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government to determine its effect upon the American brand of democracy.

Question: What is Democracy?


  • Democracy is difficult to define and has been interpreted in both positive and negative ways. 
  • Aristotle, The Politics
    • Government by the individual: Kingship vs. Tyranny
    • Government by the few: Aristocracy vs. Oligarchy
    • Government by the many: Polity vs. Democracy
  • CIA World Fact Book definition of Democracy
    • ‘‘a form of government in which the supreme power is retained by the people, but which is usually exercised indirectly through a system of representation and delegated authority periodically renewed’’
  • Aristotle, The Politics
  • Dangers of Democracy
    • Mob Rule, Chaos, and Disorder
    • Quality of Citizens
Aristotle tutoring Alexander, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris


Chapter 1: Theories of Democracy and Types of Government

I. Common Components of a Definition of Democracy
A. Competition
B. Accountability to the public
C. Election of Representatives
D. Respect for the law
E. Equal opportunity
F. Encouragement and respect for debate
G. Involving people in political decisions
II. What is a Republic?
A. Indirect democracy
B. A representative democracy whereby eligible voters (the electorate) choose representatives to carry out their wishes in the government
III. Other Systems of Government
A. Monarchies
1. Single sovereign
2. Power transfer based on heredity
3. Established laws and rights
B. Absolute monarchy
1. Single sovereign
2. No defined laws or rights
C. Marxism
1. Based on the writings of Karl Marx
2. Working classes would set up a classless society
3. Goods and services shared by all members of society
D. Communism
1. Marxism under the guidance of an authoritarian ruling party
E. Totalitarianism
1. The state controls all aspects of life
2. Dissent is punished by ruling elite
F. Dictatorship
1. A totalitarian government where one person or small group exercises absolute power
G. Theocracy
1. No separation of church and state
2. The church controls the government
H. 20th Century Socialism
1. State provides many services such as universal health care and public education
2. State controls the economy and means of production
3. Citizens enjoy freedoms and rights of democratic republics such as freedom of speech, press, and religion
4. Taxes are much higher in socialist states than in capitalist nations.
IV. Anarchy
A. No government exists
B. Chaos reigns
V. Democracy in the United States – Separating Myth from Reality
A. Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835 & 1840
1. Do Americans have a unique political culture or common set of values shared by all?
2. Alexis de Tocqueville argues Americans share common qualities which influence our political system
B. Political Equality – "One Person, One Vote"
1. Cornerstone of the American political system
2. Some may influence the political system more than others due to power, money, or access
C. Equality of Opportunity – "Do we all have equal opportunity to succeed?"
D. Majority Rule Democracy
1. Do the majority of citizens voting in elections determine government?
2. Can the individual shape the American political system?
3. Can the individual change government at the national level? State level? Local level?
E. Pluralism
1. Pluralism is the notion that groups have a profound impact on the political system
2. Groups gain influence through lobbying, campaign donations and special benefits given to political officials
3. There are negative outcomes but also positive ones including advocating for social and educational groups
4. The goal is to have lawmakers enact laws and regulations that benefit members of their group
5. Interest groups play a critical role in the American political system

American Political Values

John Locke, Public Domain. John Locke was an English Political Philosopher who believed that men were born free (in a state of nature) and possessed inherent, inalienable rights that could not be arbitrarily removed by the government assumed that the rights of man were bestowed not by the monarch, but by their creator (God). Locke believed that government exists to preserve man’s life, liberty (freedom), and property citizens consent to be governed man and government enter into a contract of sorts, each with duties, responsibilities, and obligations. Locke’s ideas were very influential the writing of the Declaration of Independence.


The following video discusses the influence of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke as the basis for social contract theory.

Test Your Knowledge

Think you understand theories of democracy and types of government? Use the flashcards below to test your knowledge!



For Further Reading

Please see Chapter 1 References on page 12 of the textbook for primary sources and readings.

The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau [political philosophy].
Rousseau theorized that no political authority rules by divine right. Everyone in any given society is subjected to the same rule of law. To live in any society means that one agrees, then, to be governed within it.