Defining Democracy

This resource was part of our Election 2020 collection, designed to help you teach about voting rights, media literacy, and civic participation, in remote and in-person settings.

Essential Questions

  • What is democracy?
  • How are democracy and community related?


We live in a time of great tension and conflict in democracies around the world. Elections in 2016 and 2017—in England, the United States, France, and Germany—have both revealed and exacerbated deep divisions within these societies, raising fundamental questions about the strength and fragility of democracy. In this lesson, we start to help students understand these challenges by examining the idea of democracy itself. 
As we seek to define democracy, we might also consider the relationship between a democratic government and the freedom and liberty we expect it to provide. In a speech given in 1944 by federal judge Learned Hand to 150,000 newly naturalized citizens in New York’s Central Park, Hand remarked:

I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.1

Like Judge Hand, political scientists today view democracy as a multidimensional concept and look at more than a country’s leaders, laws, and constitution to assess its health. They also study a variety of other factors, such as a society’s culture and institutions, both of which are created by the people and shaped by history. Culture includes a society’s “moral universe,” its unwritten rules of right and wrong, of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Those unwritten rules can influence the choices of leaders, especially when breaking the rules will offend enough citizens to cost the leader public support. Institutions include courts, political parties, government bureaucracies, schools, unions, professional organizations, industries, and other organizations through which large groups of individuals collectively influence the lives and opinions of citizens and the choices of leaders.

In this lesson, we will help students think about the definition of democracy and then consider how it might relate to the communities and culture in which they live and participate. In later lessons, we'll look more closely at what strengthens and weakens democracy.


  • 1 : Learned Hand, Spirit of Liberty: Papers and Addresses of Learned Hand, ed. Irving Dilliard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952).



  1. Create a Working Definition of Democracy
    • Begin by asking students to brainstorm words or phrases they associate with the word democracy. What comes to mind when they hear the word democracy? Students can record their ideas in their notebooks.
    • Next, pass out the reading What Is Democracy?. Read each quotation aloud (or ask students to do so). Then give students a few minutes to reflect on the quotations on their own, adding to their brainstorming from the previous step. Ask: What new information and ideas do these quotations give you about what democracy can be?
    • Ask students to share their brainstormed lists with each other in pairs. Encourage them to borrow ideas from each other, or to refine their ideas based on what they learn from their classmates. Then have students share some of their ideas aloud. Write these ideas on the board to create a class brainstorming list.
    • Because democracy is both a concrete form of government and a societal aspiration, it is important for students to know that they are trying to define something that is hard to define. Instead of trying to create one definition for democracy, lead students through the following steps:

      a. How does the dictionary define democracy?
      b. What is one example of democracy?
      c. What is one example of something that is not democracy?
      d. What image or symbol might we use to represent democracy?
  2. Explore the Relationship between Democracy and Community

    • By now, students will have some understanding of the definition of democracy. But what’s the connection between democracy and our lives today? The next readings and questions will help students link the two. Begin by asking students to brainstorm again in their notebooks, this time about the word community.
    • Next, pass out the reading Democracy and Community. Read aloud Suzanne Goldsmith’s definition of community, and ask students to add to their brainstorming based on any new ideas they learned from Goldsmith.
    • Finally, lead a class discussion about the relationship between community and democracy, using the connection questions in the reading Democracy and Community to guide the discussion.

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