The word democracy has many meanings, but in the modern world its use signifies that the ultimate authority in political affairs rightfully belongs to people. The term characteristically evokes positive emotive responses among those who utter it as well as those who hear it. There was a time when democrat was a term of abuse. Today its connotations are honourable.
Whereas in centuries past-indeed up to World War I-there were principled opponents of democratic political rule, today it is only the rare intellectual who expresses opposition to it. “We are all democrats now” fairly summarizes the semantic allegiance of politicians and statesmen throughout the world. Dictators, absolute rulers, even hereditary monarchs use the democratic idiom to characterize their regimes and their aspirations. A result has been a proliferation in the meanings of democracy. There are organic democracies, guided democracies, new, high, and socialist democracies.
In view of the variety of contexts in which the term democracy is used, the only way to distinguish between arbitrary definitions and customary ones is to observe under what circumstances positive or negative judgements are made concening the absence or presence of democratic institutions. For example, if a Communist classified the Soviet Union, Red China, or Cuba under Fidel Castro as socialist democracies and denied that Spain under Gen. Francisco Franco had an organic deocracy, the reasons he listed for denying the democratic nature of the Spanish state would, in fact, apply also to the Communist states he called democratic. The converse is also true. Members of the Spanish Falange have characterized Spein as a democracy in some sense and scornfully rejected the view that the Communist countries are democraticies in any sense. But the reasons they have given for refusing to describe Communist countries as democratic largely invalidate their ascription of a democratic character to Spain.
Adapted from Encyclopedia Americana