Democracy: Past History
While the 500 B.C. Athens system of government was likely one of the first recorded democracies, other smaller organizations whereby societies sought council from groups other than a single ruler existed; in Mesopotomia and Indai, for example, around the same time, forms of democracy which were similar existed. However, these often involved a small group of “elders” or “assemblymen” or “nobility” who were really not necessarily representing all the people, but rather more an oligarchy or a partial democracy. In some contradistinction, the Shakyas or Buddha’s people, included both rich and poor in assembly.
In Sparta, where oligarchs existed in a dual-king role which split power, advisors (both old and young who elected the older advisors) existed. They had power to oversee actions of the king and other officials, yet because even the poor could be elected, they could be bribed. Lycurgus of Sparta made the first written constitution called the Great Rhetra – where Spartans had self-designated “equal status among individuals, had a comprehensive public educational system, and over time the growth of Sparta in its solidarity (and conquests, resulting in wealth) led to conflict with Athens which weakened Sparta despite prevailing – only to be annihilated thereafter, in about 371 BC.
Athens had a similar system as Sparta, in that it had a constitution that dictated that all could have a vote (via Ecclesia or Assembly) – from 7 B.C. However, as with any absolute executive power, it was abused, and a subsequent system was put into place by Ecclesia, which gave equal rights again to citizens (called “insomnia”). Here, the word democracy (or rule by the people) was used. Leaders like Pericles made progress in allowing the “poorest of the poor” to vote.
Subsequently, Socrates, then Plato, and then Aristotle, formulated the philosophy of democracy (rule of the many) vs. the few (oligarchy or aristocracy) or the one (tyranny or monarchy). Their own system of democracy would be challenged several times, with consideration given to the successful system of Sparta at times by even Plato.
Rome, while a republic initially, resembled the Spartan “democracy” eventually – and then was overthrown by Julius Ceasar, only to be again transformed into more of an oligarchy after his assassination.
Forms of democracy existed Iceland, Sweden, Ireland, medieval Italy, Basque Country, and democratic parliaments in England and Scotland (with the Magna Carta limiting the authority of power – with a method of protecting individual rights, including by petition), and Oman. Even Native Americans of the 1000-1450 time period had a system similar, which some suggest led to the present-day U.S. system of democracy.
Democracy: Present Status
The “present day democracy” considers periods from 1500 to present, with early adoption of some similar forms by Poland, and then spreading in the early 1600s to the New World which would become the United States. Interestingly, in England at the end of the 16th century, the “Bill of Rights” that did not allow royalism to prevail over other government, allowed free speech and requirement for regular elections in Parliament.
The United States had the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, the Constitution ratified in 1788, and its Congress structure (of the Senate and The House of Representatives). With the U.S. Bill of Rights ratified in 1791, the “First Party System” was implemented, with democracy being able to distinguish itself from anarchy. Interestingly, right to vote underwent equality being promoted racially in France in 1794, yet was revoked by Napoleon in 1802. The Slavery Abolition Acts in the early 1800s helped across numerous countries, with African Americans able to vote in South Africa in 1853, whereas in the U.S. it wasn’t until 1870 that the same happened. However, vote to women (i.e. universal suffrage) was first given by New Zealand, in 1893. The Middle East’s first parliamentary system came about in 1905.
In the 20th century, three “waves of democracy” were noted: aftermath of World War I, “decolonization,” and the fall of Communism. Even more contributed to voting in the democracy following the “Indian Citizenship Act of 1924,” allowing Native Americans to vote.
Post-World War II led to many of our modern-day democracies, including Japan (1946), Israel (1948), India, and other of the other formerly held British colonies. In the U.S., the Civil Rights Act (15th Amendement-enforcing) and the minimum voting age being reduced to 18 years (26th Amendment) led to increased numbers of voters for the U.S. democracy.
Newer countries to join democratic forms of government include the previous Communist states breaking away from the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s, most notably and recently in the news being Ukraine.
62% of the world’s 192 nations were democracies with “universal suffrage” as of 2000, per Freedom House. Also, during the 21st century, the Tunisia effect (a.k.a. the “Arab Spring”) has led to a wave of democracies (or at least protests which have the potential to lead to democracies).
Addressing “what’s gone wrong with democracy”: The recent events in Ukraine, Middle East, Africa, and other parts of the world have shone a spotlight on what has succeeded or not succeeded, as well as considerations of alternatives, for what portends to be the future of democracy. In a recent article from the Economist (www.economist.com), for example, the question is not as much whether the aspirations of the people for a better, less corrupt, and potentially less impoverished regime is warranted – but the pattern is one of standing up to a dictator-like figure, protesting in a main square with thousands, suffering some retribution from the existing regime, using the power of the press to overcome such dictatorial regime loyalists, and then celebrate. However, the story continues… as the newly elected leader does not often succeed very much… leading to chaos, and often times vulnerability filled by a pre-revolutionary dictator-type again. Also, as discussed by the article, a particular set of circumstances led to showing a weakness of democracy and the strength of Communism in the year 2008 – when the crisis of banks led to what was interpreted by some as “too big to fail leading to bailouts,” the Communist regime did not falter much, if at all; China holds a significant amount of U.S. debt, moreover – does that mean its government, as evaluated by financial terms, is more stable? Certainly, as of early 2015, Russia’s economic status might offer a counter-example of how Communism (also) cannot succeed so much, but there is the mitigating war factor with the Ukraine et al. Finally, the Arab Spring’s welcome into democracy only to result in a regime in shambles and having the military intervene showed what may be good and not-so-good about democracy.
Hence, the government of the future must overcome these key issues to find a way to succeed. Perhaps the reconciling answer in all of this lies, as the Economist points out further, in the words of the fourth U.S. President, James Madison: “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”