Tried and Tested: the Evolution of Democracy
Democracy, one of the most popular type of government in the world, has a wonderful history as it evolved from the experiments of Rome and Athens to the being the preferred government of the world. No other type of government so far has given such stability and provided for such peace in the history of the civilised world.
Abraham Lincoln rightly described Democracy as, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” (J.A. Langley, Washington Post). The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes it as, “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections”.
Democracy as a government ideology is based on the political values of Liberty, Equality and Justice (P. Naitthani, 2019). It is not only a government type but also a way of life for the people as not only are they the ones living under the government, but the reason it exits and functions in the first place.
Democracy thrives on five principles without which the very nature of this government is in question. Equality, rule of law, sovereignty of the citizens, respect for human life and the liberty of an individual all are the cogs behind the machine of democracy.
But why has it worked? According to Plato, in the Republic, the best government would be led by a minority of the most highly qualified persons—an aristocracy of “philosopher-kings.” (R.A Dahl, 2018). But democracy seems to have persevered. Plato argued that people are ‘ignorant’ and ‘stubborn’ and that no government run by the populous would succeed. But then again why do democracies like the USA and India exist and even thrive for decades?
To understand this one must look at the historic beginnings of democracy as to understand what we are now we must know how we got there in the first place. We must understand the successes of the Athenian democracies and Roman republics to understand the reason why these governments still exist today and why democracies are also some of the most successful countries in the world.
One of the main questions we will try to answer is what are the differences between the ancient democracies and ours and why did they collapse while ours prevail. We will also try to understand why democracies were the feasible alternative for so many countries to adopt, with many countries becoming democratic in nature after independence. We will also understand the problems modern democracies face.
Another topic we will discuss is what could be the possible future of democracy not only in the context of the countries but also in context of it as a type of government. We will try to understand what the future holds for democracy and what changes we could expect to see in the form of government.
Democracy in the Prehistory
Athens is often touted as the worlds first known democracy (V. Eaton; oldest.org). however, recent findings show democracies may have evolved much before the break through at Athens. Ancient civilisations may have pioneered the concepts of popular governments and many ancient Indian states had already developed the democratic for of government and primitive republics (U. Singh, 2008).
Some scholars also believe that prehistoric man may have developed the concept of democracy from the beginning of civilisation itself. Agrarian society may develop democratic tendencies to help each individual benefit from laws made. However, these were not true democracies. They were what one may call ‘quasi-democracies’. These primitive governments had elements of democracies but did not have all of a democracies defining ideals and values.
The first true democracies came much later in the form of the Roman Republic and Greece.
Democracy blooms in the Mediterranean
In 508 BCE the Athenian democracy was established. D?mokrati? was born. It meant ‘people’s rule’. It was a direct democracy in which the citizens of the Greek city states could themselves participate in the decision making processes of the government and could vote on the various topics and issues of the Ancient Greek world (J.Adows, Enotes). Athens was the first of the great Greek city states to establish such a system. It could be called and experiment in democracy, one which today all democracies look back to as their ancestor.
However, being such a first it inherently had many flaws. In Athens only men who held property and had military training could vote. Foreigners, women, slaves and those not old enough to meet the requirements did not have an opportunity to cast their vote or let their opinions be heard. Therefore one can say that the state was controlled by a select few almost like an oligarchy. Almost that is. All participating members were however given equal chances and opportunities. The positions were selected through a system of lottery. Also in the Boule the 500 individuals ruled together unlike that of modern presidents (C.W Blackwell, 2003)
The impact of Athens on world Glover meant functioning and on modern democracies cannot be overstated. While eventually it did get replaced by an oligarchy, the ideas lived on and led to the basis of democracies all over the world. It was the democracy that helped save it from Persian invaders and helped preserve the learnings and teachings of this great civilisation for future generations.
From 509 BCE to 27 BCE, one of the greatest examples of a successful democratic government was in power. The Roman Republic, the powerhouse behind one of the greatest empires of all history was actually an indirect democracy.
In 509 BCE, the romans overthrew the Etruscans, who had conquered much of northern Rome. With these conquerers gone, the romans established an elected representative government, where these elected representatives would govern the city-state on behalf of the populous. This system is seen in use even today in most democracies, as most are indirect democracies with the power to make decisions lying with representatives and not directly with the citizens (R.A Dahl, 2018)
Unlike their Greek brethren, citizenship was granted to both men and women. However, women were not allowed to vote. Even in the men, especially during the early days there were different classes and voting rights given to them were quite different. The plebeians were the lower caste and couldn’t vote on major happenings. Only the patricians could influence the government (ushistory.org, 2019).
However, times changed and the plebeians gained a lot of power and influence over the government and influence a lot of decisions. Eventually even the slaves who had gotten citizenship were also given the opportunity to vote and expertise their power, but this was only in the later stages of the republic.
The system worked with a class divide. The patricians made up the senate which elected two consuls or heads. They made all the decisions in the government. Later the plebeians could elect the tribunes who could veto the decisions of the senate and consuls (S. Appleton; NGS, 2018)
Rome was the first state to use the concepts of indirect democracy so successfully and for such a long period of time. Many modern democracies such as the USA and India all take ideas from this great ancient civilisation. They were even the first to introduce reservations in the election process, a concept which constitution planners in India have integrated into the democracy icon setup of India. Just like Athens the Roman Republic had a profound impact on future democracies.
Democracy in the Middle Ages
After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 BCE, the concepts of democracy and republics were almost lost. Almost. In the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire, many Italian city-states came into power and exercised power through the form of republics. These republics also retained the basic philosophy of the original idea, but down-sized it drastically.
It was havens such as these which prevailed and existed while the rest of Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages and was ripe with rampant feudalism and powerful lords and kings.
The first and most historical move to re-invigorating the concept of democracy came in 1215 with the signing (rather stamping) of the Magna Carta. There were many editions of this document that were re-written in 1216, 1217 and 1218 respectively, but none came close to importance of the one declared in 1215. This Great charter, revolutionised the monarchy and laws of England and by extension on the world. The American Revolution’s battle-cry “No taxation without representation”, traces its heritage all the way back to the Magna Carta (Bureau of International Information Programs, 2019).
The Magna Carta made way for the formation of parliament and of a constitutional monarchy, which characterises the United Kingdom’s government today. The charter guaranteed the rights of the people and promised to relieve them of oppression from feudal lords. Though much of this were just that promises, they helped push the world to develop democracy as a government to ensure the rights of the people and to help the citizens not only participate in the decision making process but also safe-guard their interests from those who hold power.