What is a democratic state? There are two ways to talk about it.
In one telling it is a set of institutions that, through the mechanism of regular elections, manages the task of governing a polity with its consent. It is legitimate because its citizenry consent to be governed while providing multiple inputs into the governing process, be it merely as voters or as direct actors (running for office as a politician or participating in what we colloquially term “civil society”). This tale sees the democratic habits of citizens as being of utmost importance.
In another telling, a democratic state is nothing more than a system that was explicitly founded on democratic principles. The Dutch political theorist Luuk van Middelaar succinctly summarized this perspective as follows:
A ballot box cannot establish itself, so one day someone must boldly claim to speak ‘on behalf of’ a people, a country. This is the case for the EU, a latecomer, as it was for England, in the mists of time, or for the founders of the United States. Eventually, arbitrariness, bluff and power struggles at the moment of inception are washed away by Whig historians to create a portrait of a great nation with venerable institutions.
In this telling, the institutionalized habits of democracy flow out of a (necessarily) undemocratic act of founding. The initial bargain needs to be broadly acceptable to all concerned. From that point on, democratic practice coalesces into institutions, and we tell ourselves that these institutions are themselves at the root of our democratic societies, even if that was not strictly true at the inception.