History Of Democracy

Normally it is agreed that the ancient Greeks invented some time in the 6th century BC the political system known as democracy, and that democracy means all (adult) members of a society having an equal say - through votes - in the political decision-making process. (Today in the West we don't vote on specific issues, but rather we have a 'representative democracy' where we vote to choose people who will take decisions on our behalf.) But there is some evidence to suggest that democracy - in the sense of most or all adults in a society subject to certain restrictions and requirements were consulted on what decisions they believed should be taken and arrived at - existed long before the 6th century BC in other parts of the world, and it seems reasonable to assume that in close-knit small groups such as primitive tribes, for example, there would be a general consultation of adult (probably male) tribal members so as to reach a consensus on matters of importance. In larger, city-based societies, and especially in individual nations, tyrannies, monarchies, oligarchies and aristocracies have all prevailed at certain times (and indeed still do).

Early Non-Greek Democracy

Complex societies in early Egypt and the Near East (e.g. Mesopotamia/Babylonia) seem likely contenders for where democracy in a form we might recognize may have been practiced. Here, however, we should be aware that voting and opinion-giving would be restricted to men, and probably to men of a certain class, caste or status, and/or of a certain degree of wealth or property-ownership. It is simply a fact that the bulk of societies have until quite recent times been male-dominated, so even in our relatively recently introduced Western democracies, voting was initially restricted often only to men, and even then it may have been restricted even further by those men having to meet certain class or property-possession requirements.

In the early Sumerian period a king like Gilgamesh - as revealed in The Epic Of Gilgamesh - was not as autocratic a ruler as later rulers would become, and in the various city-states decisions were arrived at by a council of elders consulting with a further council made up of younger men. Ultimate power rested with the councils, and the king had to consult the councils on national matters such as whether to go to war.

This might be seen as a form of limited democracy and a precursor to the more extensive form of democracy we think of and take for granted today.

In the independent republics of India perhaps even as early as the 6th century BC a form of democracy may have been practiced in the republics in which the ruler, or raja, formed a consultative, deliberative assembly that was open to all free men so that opinions, suggestion and information could be presented and decisions could be arrived at. The assembly had the ultimate say in what was decided with regard to administrative, legal and financial matters. It also appointed the raja, although possibly only from a certain family or families, although in some places any man could be appointed. This consulting of citizens again has a feel to it that we might say is broadly democratic.

Early Greek Democracy

Returning to ancient Greece, early on it was divided into city states - there were something like 1,500 cities in total - which were oligarchies, and the most significant city state was Sparta. However, wealth was disapproved of here as being used as a social differentiator, and the way Sparta was governed was by having two kings (so as to hinder one king from trying to abrogate too much power or influence), a council of elders (on which the kings sat), people to oversee the kings and other government officials, and an assembly of Spartan citizens. Therefore there is clearly some democratic identity to this system of governance. Members of the council of elders had to be aged over 60, and although supposedly anyone over that age could stand to be appointed to the council, in practice the members were chosen from rich and aristocratic families. It was the elders who could put forward proposals for consideration by the assembly. The assembly itself, open to anyone over the age of 30, had the privilege of electing the elders and the overseers of the kings and government officials, and voting on proposals. The overseers perhaps played the most significant role as, outside the time when assemblies were being held, they were responsible for the executive functions of the state. They could only be elected for one year (by the citizens) and could not be re-elected again after that.

This system of governance was created by Lycurgus in the 7th century BC. He created a list of rules for how government should be structured and operate, so perhaps this can be seen as the forerunner of other later societies' written constitutions. The idea was to create a disciplined system which enabled there to be, if not wealth-equality, then at least social and legal equality. All Spartans, for example, were educated in the same public educational system. In addition, unusually, Spartan women were treated like men, and had, for example, the same rights to education, inheritance and property ownership that men had. Overall, Spartans had limited freedom in the sense that they were obliged to serve the state, but on the other hand they had the freedom to criticize the kings and even depose and exile them. However, overall it was the council of elders that effectively held the most power as, once elected, they stayed on the council for the remainder of their lives, and, as they were selected in practice from amongst the rich and high-status, you could argue that this system ultimately was at least as much oligarchic-aristocratic as it was democratic.

Conflict arose between Sparta and Athens with those two states' increasing wealth and power, arising from their successful engagement in the Persian Wars and the increasing resources it gave them. Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War but was so weakened that it was subsequently defeated and destroyed as a significant power, first by Thebes at The Battle Of Leuctra in 371 BC and then by Philip II Of Macedon.

The creation of democracy in Athens in the 6th century BC seems to have arisen as a backlash against dominance and exploitation by the ruling aristocracy in the 7th century BC. In the conflict between rich and poor, citizens turned to Solon to arbitrate. He was a nobleman, a poet and a philosopher, but he was not particularly wealthy. So as to attempt to satisfy both poor and rich, Solon divided citizens up into four classes according to property ownership and gave them differing duties and rights. Like Lycurgus in Sparta, he wrote down how government should be composed and how it should function. All citizens could vote in Athens's assembly, elect government officials, make laws and issue decrees, and hear legal appeals. Everyone except those from the lowest property class could stand to be elected to a body which prepared matters for the assembly to deal with, and which acted in a similar fashion to the overseers in Sparta. The highest government posts were only open to those from the top two property classes. When these government officials retired they became members of what was essentially a council of elders, although in this case there was not the 60-year age requirement. They could then continue to oversee the assembly.

Solon constituted this form of government in 594 BC. One of the reforms it also introduced was the banning of the previous century's aristocratic practice of Athenians enslaving other Athenians. (It was nonetheless still possible to have slaves from elsewhere.) It also awarded political privileges on the basis of how productively a person used their wealth, rather than on the basis of high birth.

The chief position in the government was that of Archon, and the aristocracy desired this position which gave the holder a degree of practical power and great influence. By getting into this post (3 times), Peisistratus was able to become tyrant of Athens, and after his death his two sons Hippias and Hipparchus followed on and took control of the position too.

After this tyrannical period was over near the end of the 6th century BC, Cleisthenes proposed reforms to the assembly and they were adopted. The populace was divided into ten tribes so as to try to make them act from tribal-political loyalties rather than family ones. The notion of equality was also extended by including more people in voting and government. It was at this time that the Greek word equivalent to our word democracy - meaning people-power, or rule by the people - came into being to describe the new form of government. After the victorious Persian Wars, the poorest class of people, who had fought in the wars, demanded a greater say in the running of their city-state. Moving into the decade of the 460's BC, Ephialtes and Pericles radically reformed government, limiting the power of the council of elders, allowing Athenians without wealth to take up public office, and thereby effectively moving the balance of power into the hands of poorer people. Class and wealth were no longer as significant as merit, and even a poor person could 'get on' in life if they proved able to serve the state, and its citizens, well.

People proposed for public office were awarded posts by random allotment so as to remove the chance of securing it by means of corruption, and people could not hold a post for more than one period. This was so that they did not build up a power base by staying in a post for a long time.

In the law courts, decisions were arrived at not by judges but by juries, and these juries were drawn randomly each day from a body of citizens that was selected randomly each year. This “people's court” could pass judgment on anyone in government.

In the government assembly and on juries, majority decision carried the day.

Citizens had to participate in Athenian political life, and if this participation affected their normal work or business, they could be compensated. The only post-holders who were elected rather than chosen by lot were the generals - one from each tribe - where military knowledge and experience were of over-riding importance, and the treasurers - again, one from each tribe - who had to be rich enough to be able to pay back any money that they might be found to have misappropriated.

In many ways the Athenian democratic system of this time, being more direct, is more democratic than the representative democratic system we have in the West today.

Aristotle put forward the notion that personal liberty is essential to democracy, and if you cannot be governed by no one, then you should govern and be governed in turn. Another feature of democracy for him was that because decisions are made by the majority, and because the poor are more numerous than the rich, it was the poor that consequently had political power. It was this latter factor ultimately that probably most contributed to the eventual decline of Athenian democracy after a period of about two hundred years. The wrong people, or the wrong sort of people, began to be regarded as holding power. Also the constant turnover or movement of people in government under the Athenian system began to be viewed less favorably when compared to the more stable system in Sparta.

Semi-Democracy (As In Early Sparta) In The Roman Republic

The last Roman king was deposed by aristocrats in 510 BC. The patricians - the aristocrats - then ruled and maintained power in what is known as the Roman Republic, but resisted pressure from the plebeians - the rest of the population - to share more power with them. Eventually in 454 BC the Senate - the ruling body - sent a delegation to Greece to examine the forms of government there. In 451 BC ten men were appointed to create a new governmental and legal code and they were given supreme power in Rome for a period of two years. They changed the laws so that they consisted of just 12 tables, and these were displayed in public for everyone to see. In the 4th century BC, plebeians were allowed to stand for and be appointed to government posts.

As far as the political structure was concerned, just as in the Spartan system there were two kings, so in the system of the Roman Republic there were two consuls. Then there was the Senate, drawn from the aristocracy. Then there were assemblies drawn from the plebeians. The consul was the ultimate arbiter, but in effect the Senate held the power because it decided foreign policy and ran the Republic's civil administration, and therefore controlled where the Republic's resources would be deployed and what its money would be spent on. To be a Senator you had not only to be of noble birth, but also to hold land that was worth at least a certain amount of money.

However, it was the plebeians in the assemblies who had the final say on various matters, such as declarations of war and peace, the carrying out of capital punishment, and whether new laws got approved. Yet they lacked power because they could not initiate their own proposals, nor suggest amending proposals put before them, and their assembly was valid only if it had been ordered to assemble by a magistrate. So the power really remained with the Senate and therefore with the wealthy and the high-born.

Over the next few centuries the Senate was occasionally overthrown by various generals on the pretext of some grievance against themselves or the soldiery or poor people, until in 27 BC the general Octavian, in a staged move with the Senate, offered to step down but was refused and was declared emperor with the name Augustus. This was the end of the Roman republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire was essentially despotic. This worked well when the emperor was capable and had some consideration for the people. When the opposite was the case, it made for failure, decline, and general dissatisfaction.

From then until recent times, generally any notions of democracy have been very restricted. Kings would have governments, made up of rich nobles, that advised them. Ordinary people could present a grievance or a petition to the king or someone else in a position of power or influence, but the ordinary people themselves had no power. The elite might be able to vote on various matters, but democracy in the sense of allowing all or most or many ordinary people (and this almost always meant men) to have a say in affairs of state didn't really reappear until quite recently, historically speaking. Power and money and status were generally hereditary. It might happen that on a very localized level a consensus would be reached by, say, the landowners in an area voting on some matter, or that members of a particular group - say, a trade guild - would vote to decide matters, but there was no democracy as we know it in nations or city states. Medieval Venice and Florence, for example, were essentially oligarchies. In Poland in the 1500's, the nobility - only about 10% of the population, if that - could vote for who would be king. But mass representation really only makes an appearance in the 18th century AD.

In 1792 Republican France first introduced universal male suffrage without any property-ownership requirements (it was revoked in 1795), and they have managed to keep it continuously in that country since 1848. The Swiss too have had it since that year. Germany has had it from 1871.

New Zealand introduced universal male and female suffrage in 1893. In France women could not vote until 1945, in Italy not until 1946, in Belgium only from 1948, and in Switzerland from 1971 (in federal elections … in cantonal elections the process of letting women vote wasn't completed until 1990). Finland was the second country to allow it in 1906.

In America, the 15th Amendment of 1870 let adult males of any race or skin color vote. This included those who had formerly been slaves. The vote was given to women in 1920 in the 19th Amendment.

In modern times the tendency has been for voting to be extended and for restrictions to be removed limiting those who are eligible. So in the past you might not have been allowed to vote if you did not own property, or you were of a certain religion, or a certain caste, or you were in prison, and so on. In South Africa during the apartheid era, non-whites could not vote until 1994. Today there are still exclusions placed on some people preventing them from voting. For example, most US states place some restrictions on felons being able to vote. Many US states used to disallow non-taxpayers or people on public benefits from voting.

In 1932, Brazil introduced universal suffrage for all adult men and women, having previously not allowed women, homeless men, priests, the military and illiterates to vote.

In Bahrain, universal male suffrage was introduced in 1973, but then parliament was dissolved and suspended for the best part of 30 years.

Kuwait has had universal suffrage for males over the age of 21 since 1962, with the exception of those in the armed forces and those who have been naturalized citizens for less than 30 years. Women who meet the age and citizenship requirements have been allowed to vote since 2005 … at separate polling stations from the men.

Non-Adult Voting

These days the idea of democracy has even been extended to some schools where the students are allowed to vote on matters of school governance.

The Age At Which People Can Vote

Before the Second World War the age at which people could vote was often set at 21, although as we have seen, it could be as high as 30. Generally these days it tends to be 18 in most places. A suggestion was put before the Council Of Europe in 2009 that for European countries it should be dropped to 16. In the 1990's some states in Germany lowered the voting age to 16 for municipal elections. Austria followed suit, and in 2007 passed legislation allowing people to vote at 16 in all elections. Brazil did this in 1988. Britain has a voting age of 18, but the Crown dependencies of the Isle Of Man, Jersey and Guernsey have a voting age of 16. This is the youngest voting age in any country. The highest minimum voting age is 21.

Representative Democracy

Representative democracy, or indirect democracy, is where the populace do not put forward, and vote on, issues - which is direct democracy - but instead vote into power people who will decide what issues to vote on and how to vote on them. Western democracies are like this. The drawback is that it means the populace has no effective power other than at election times. Another drawback seems to be that representative democracies appear inclined to grow in size, and to grow their associated bureaucracies, their financial demands on the public, their expenditure (including the personal expenditure of the representatives), and the scale and extent of the government's responsibilities and activities. The advantage is that this system allows the populace to avoid the time-demands and thought-demands of having to consider what should be debated on and voted on, and how they would then decide to vote.

Constitutions can be drawn up in an attempt to limit the activities of representatives, but such limitations can often be ignored or side-stepped those in power.


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