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An overview of the terms defined on this page:

Enlightenment Ideology Administration of justice
Checks and Balances Legislative Representative government
Executive Legitimacy / Legitimation Petition for a referendum
Federalism Parliamentary government Referendum
Social contract Parliamentarianism People's sovereignty
Legislative initiative Pluralism  
Separation of powers Presidential democracy  

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Is a term used to describe the trends in thought in Europe during the 18th century prior to the French Revolution. It is characterized by a faith that human reason is the decisive source of all knowledge, the guiding principle of human action and a measure of all values. In 1784 Kant defined enlightenment in his publication, "What is enlightenment?" as being "a person's way out of mental immaturity of his own making". Proponents of enlightenment regarded reasoned thinking and action based on reason as being a guarantee for continued human progress in controlling natural forces, and a belief that it would lead to a just society. Economic and social advancement of the middle classes characterizes the social history behind the enlightenment movement. Enlightenment also promoted the efforts of this group to achieve emancipation. Enlightenment prepared the intellectual path for the French Revolution. Enlightenment's historical roots can be found in humanism, in the reformation and in the rationalistic philosophical systems of the 16th and 17th centuries (Spinoza, Descartes).    
The Age of Enlightenment crossed both Europe and the Atlantic to North America. The Age of Enlightenment has its beginnings in the Netherlands and in England where philosophers and teachers of constitutional law like H. Grotius, T. Hobbes and J. Locke developed a concept of an innate natural law (see Main Subject Group of Human Rights: Advanced subject of natural law, a natural religion, a social contract and a concept of innate human rights. In doing so they questioned the position and claim of both the monarchy and church of being the highest decision-making authorities on issues such as morality in science, literature, art and education.
Enlightenment's greatest intellectual, social and political impact was felt in France. Among its strongest advocates were Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot, Holbach and d'Alembert. As far as theories on state and society were concerned, Montesquieu, drawing on English examples, developed his theory on the separation of powers, in which the power of the executive, legislative and judiciary would be divided and brought together under a constitutional monarchy. Voltaire also held on firmly to the ideal of an enlightened monarchy and demanded political rights for the propertied classes only. In contrast, Rousseau supported the idea of people's with equality for all citizens. From this came his demand for a republic.
This thinking in France about civil rights during the French enlightenment period coupled with the theory's demand for human rights greatly influenced the leaders of the American independence movement (T. Jefferson, T. Paine) well beyond the shores of France. Indeed, these ideas were introduced into the Declaration of Independence, the "Virginia Bill of Rights" and into the American constitution. Moreover, in turn, these also had an effect on the French Revolution (see Main Subject Group of Human Rights: Documents).

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Checks and Balances

Checks and balances, especially in the presidential democracy of the USA, form an underlying constitutional principle. This principle states that state powers should be approximately equal in strength (in a separation of powers system). This, in turn, provides checks and balances on those exercising power and so prevents misuse of state power.

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(from lat. executio = carry out, execute): the portion of state power that is formed by the government and administration. It is called executive power because, based on the principle of separation of powers needed to form a constitutional state, it has the job of initiating and/or executing fundamental political decisions taken by the legislative (the law-making part of state power). To this end, it is the government that is tasked with making political decisions and providing state leadership within the scope of the constitution and based on law; the job of the administration is to transform these decisions into political reality.

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(Latin foedus, "alliance"): Is a union of several states with a shared government. The individual states within the alliance are largely responsible for their own administration. A differentiation is made between a confederation of states and a federal state. All federal ideas share one common principle: To uphold the independence of each and every one of its members while at the same time requiring each state to provide as many services as it is able for the good of public welfare (principle of subsidiarity). (...) The theory of federalism was founded by Montesquieu and Proudhon in France.

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Social contract

Is an agreement among people in a society about the way in which they will live and organize society; it has often been construed in debate (Augustinus, Thomas von Aquin) as a purely theoretical base for explaining and justifying society and the state, especially in the teachings of natural law. According to this, the social nature of man eventually leads to unity of a nation and a consensus among society as to the way it should be organized and run. Based on his assumption that human nature was intent on reciprocal destruction, Hobbes, writing in "Leviathan", only presented one side of the argument, namely that of society being held together by submitting to the state. In contrast, Pufendorf, developed both sides of the social contract idea (also Montesquieu), until, at last, Rousseau, distinguishing between public will and particular will, arrived at a formula based on public will that stated that each individual is actually obeying him/herself when he/she abides by the state law, which was set with his/her consent; this transfer of an individual's rights to the state based on natural law results in these rights being returned to the individual in the form of civil rights.

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Legislative initiative

Is the introduction of a bill before parliament coupled with the requirement for the proposed bill to be discussed and agreed upon by parliament. In most cases, only the monarch had the right to invoke a legislative initiative in the constitutional monarchies of the 19th century; in a presidential democracy only members of parliament have this right and in a parliamentary democracy only members of parliament and the government.

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Separation of powers

Separation of powers means the breaking down of state power into legislative, executive and judicial bodies coupled with the requirement that their functions be carried out independently and may not be united under unitary control. This basic principle was proclaimed by J. Locke ("Two treatises on government" 1690) and especially by C. de Montesquieu ("De l'esprit des lois" 1748) in their fight against the absolutist state and is still regarded as the foundation of the modern state. This principle is based on the premise that by dividing power between government, parliament, the civil service and an independent judiciary the administration of state power will be held in balance by interdependent checks (power balance) thus protecting citizens against random interference and intervention by the state. Federalism is often an element in the separation of powers today. This principle of separating powers is not found in dictatorships. In such systems legislative and executive power is usually controlled by one person and the independence of the judiciary limited or abolished.

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(Greek., collection of ideas): A body of concepts about political and social reality or the development of society with a claim to universal validity. Ideology can almost become a substitute religion (for example the belief in progress) or even, as in the case of Marxism and Leninism, can develop into a universal world, becoming an explanation for history and the future, and almost a religious belief in salvation. In General: The integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program.

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(French = having the power or performing the function of legislating): The part of state power that is responsible for making laws (legislative power). The legislative is also responsible for setting law, or rather drawing up and adopting new laws, for making alterations to existing laws, as well as for supplementing and abolishing laws. In a constitutional state based on the principle of separation of powers, the legislative is performed by parliament; it is the legislator and it makes laws according to the basic political decisions taken by the executive, which is also responsible for implementing them. Since the legislative is chosen in elections by the people and is thus subject to the will of the people, it is regarded as the highest form of state power.

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Legitimacy / Legitimation

(lat. legitimus = rightful): Is the legality of state power. The structure and exercising of state power is legitimate, if the idea of law and justice, including the ethical values and standards that underlie these, coincide with those present in the society, over which the state exercises power, and are generally recognized by this society as being universal. 

All forms of state power require legitimacy/legitimation. If the state is to be run properly, with at least a minimum amount of consent from its citizens, and if government is to survive, it requires legitimacy/legitimation. The alternative is the use of physical or psychological force or even terror to enforce the will of the state. In a democracy, state power is legitimate when (a) power is given by the people and is exercised with the agreement of the majority of the people, this means when the holder of state power has been elected directly or indirectly by the people in free elections for a limited period only and when a system for control is in place; (b) when state power is exercised corresponding to the principles stated in the constitution, especially those of legality, separation of powers and the validity of basic rights.

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Parliamentary government

Parliamentary government is a form of representative government and parliamentarianism. It is characterized by the following characteristics: 1. Close ties between government executive and parliament legislative; 2. A compatibility between government and members of parliament; this means that the prime minister and ministers of state are usually from the party making up the parliamentary majority; 3. Political responsibility of government to parliament, which can be revoked in a vote of no-confidence; 4. The right of government to dissolve parliament and call new elections. As far as the main criteria of parliamentary accountability is concerned, a vote of no-confidence may be tabled against the government, against the head of government or an individual minister either as a motion of censure, as a rejection of a law to which the government has attached a vote of confidence or to reject a vote of confidence. If the government is not backed in a vote of no-confidence, it must stand down. In such a case, the government continues to serve as an acting government until a new government supported by a parliamentary majority is elected.

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A constitutional system in which a parliament elected by the people influences and controls the political will of the state. It is the duty of parliament to make laws (legislative). Parliamentarianism is a term which encompasses different forms of government including the presidential democracy (as in the USA) and the parliamentary democracy (as in the UK and Germany).

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Western democratic identity regards pluralism as the way in which western democratic society is structured. To this end, it is assumed that society is made up of a multitude of different political, economic, religious, ethnic and other interest groups that all compete amongst each other for political and public influence. At the core of pluralistic theory is the assumption that this competitive fight for influence will not be fought out in an unruly manner using all means, but rather will take the form of a constructive process based on compromise with the aim of reaching a satisfactory outcome for all. Nevertheless, it is not assumed that this is a natural process, completely capable of controlling itself and which will ultimately lead to an ideal form of harmony, but rather that the state is responsible for identifying weaknesses in the process and intervening in a regulatory way (by supporting particularly weak groups, for example).

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Presidential democracy

A presidential democracy is a republican form of government that grants the president as head of state decisive political powers. In Western Europe, where constitutional forms of government have their roots in constitutionalism, the head of state has a representative role only (following the dethronement of the monarchy). In systems of government such as the one in the USA, on the other hand, the constitution grants the president (head of state) far-reaching powers, but in return sets a relatively short period in office. The president of the USA is head of state and head of government, commander in-chief and has power over foreign affairs. The president of the US is independent of parliament (not a parliamentary democracy) and does not form the government in a real sense, but instead appoints undersecretaries as advisors, who he/she may also dismiss. France developed another system under Charles de Gaulle (constitution from 1958), especially concerning plebiscite decisions (also under Napoléon I. and Napoléon III.) In both the US and in France, parliament is forced into the background and the executive is, for the most part, in possession of law-making power.

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Administration of justice

In a constitutional state based on the principle of separation of powers, administration of justice is the responsibility of the courts, which are independent and whose decisions must be based only on law (...); courts administer justice within a legally regulated jurisdiction.

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Representative government

In contrast to a plebiscite form of government, a representative government is a form of democratic government in which the politically active citizen generally or exclusively plays a part in forming the political will. Representative government is based on the basic assumption that political action is only possible for a multitude of people when individuals (representatives or members of parliament) "are instructed and given the power to take action together for their clients while at the same obligating their clients through their collective decisions" (K. Loewenstein). A representative government is supported by bodies that (according to theory) make political decisions in the name of the people but without a binding contract from the people (free mandate). (...) A distinction is made between those representative forms of government in which politically active citizens take part in the decision-making process purely through the election of representatives to the differing state bodies, and those forms of representative government that encompass a certain plebiscite element, in which those entitled to vote can influence law making through referenda (for example Switzerland).

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Petition for a referendum

Is the petitioning for a referendum on and/or for a particular law or state decision. These laws or state decisions may be taken by parliament or in a referendum. Petitions for a referendum are encompassed in many constitutions. In order for the intention of a referendum to become law, a set majority of the electorate must vote in favor of the proposal within a certain time.

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A referendum is a decision taken by the people (the electorate) rather than parliament on a particular proposed law.

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People's sovereignty

According to the principle of people's sovereignty all state power comes from the people. This means that all power exercised by the state has to be legitimized by the people. The principle of people's sovereignty does not demand that citizens take part directly in all decisions of state (as in a referendum). It does, however, demand that all those exercising state power hold office as a result of the will of the people; this means the election of representatives either indirectly (e.g. members of parliament) or directly (e.g. in a parliamentary democracy or civil servants appointed by it).

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[Taken from: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung: Parlamentarische Demokratie 1, Informationen zur politischen Bildung Nr. 227, 1993 und Bertelsmann Discovery Lexikon 1997]

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This online service on the subject of political education was developed by agora-wissen, the Stuttgart-based Gesellschaft für Wissensvermittlung über neue Medien und politische Bildung (GbR) (Partnership for the Exchange of Information Using New Media and Political Education). Please contact us with your questions or comments. Translation from German into English by twigg's Übersetzung deutsch-englisch.