“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest.” — Winston Churchill
I’ve always thought it a bit strange that people laughingly accept Churchill’s quip, and yet, there is little evidence that efforts to change democracy are in the works. Democracy has always been exclusive. The time for change has come.
From the beginning in Greece more than two millennia ago, democracy has been exclusive. The Greek city states granted exclusive rights to a very few citizens. At the time of the Magna Carta (1215) a few barons were extended privileges. By the 17th and 18th centuries democracy had evolved. A simple definition of democracy emerged. It included direct democracy and representative democracy. The latter prevailed whereby elected representatives were to express the needs and aspirations of their constituents to the government.
During the 20th and 21st centuries representative democracy continued, but, the political parties, particularly elites of the parties, have come to dominate the policy formation process. The elected representatives have become messengers who deliver policy to their constituents. Representative democracy anticipates a bottom-up process. The political party elites turned the process on its head resulting in a top-down process. Thus, democracy is in trouble and surgical repair is required. Autocracy waits, not necessarily patiently, on the horizon.
The Axial Age – the beginning – c. 500 BCE
“The Axial Age (also called Axis Age) is the period when, roughly at the same time around most of the inhabited world, the great intellectual, philosophical, and religious systems that came to shape subsequent human society and culture emerged—with the ancient Greek philosophers, Indian metaphysicians and logicians (who articulated the great traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism), Persian Zoroastrianism, the Hebrew Prophets, the “Hundred Schools” (most notably Confucianism and Daoism) of ancient China….These are only some of the representative Axial traditions that emerged and took root during that time. The phrase originated with the German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers, who noted that during this period there was a shift—or a turn, as if on an axis—away from more predominantly localized concerns and toward transcendence”. https://www.britannica.com/list/the-axial-age-5-fast-facts
Democracy Evolved & Evolution Continues
Democracy is a form of government in which the people have the right to choose their governing legislation. Who people are and how authority is shared among them are core issues for democratic theory. Generally, there are two types of democracy: direct and representative. In direct democracy, the people directly deliberate and decide on legislation. In a representative democracy, the people elect representatives to deliberate on the views of their constituents and represent them during policy formation by the government. A few milestone examples follow:
Greek City States – c. 500BCE
Athenian Democracy is the first form of democracy known. Principles followed at that time are evident in democracy as practised today. It was Direct Democracy, but exclusive: adult men citizens, not slaves, were required to participate. Each year 500 citizens were selected to participate in the government for a year. They controlled the government and created policy and laws which were presented to the voting citizens. Clearly very direct democracy, and very exclusive.
Roman Empire – c. 450 BCE
During the 5th century BCE, a commission was tasked with proposing a form of government suitable to the patricians and the plebeians. A model was presented and adopted, but the patricians were not as generous as the Greeks in applying the laws evenly. The Roman upper classes had no sense of individual freedom; thus, application of the laws was applied unevenly and favoured the patricians. While a democratic model was in place, democracy was very exclusive and not recognizable as democracy in practice. (It occurs to me that Trump Democracy would likely be similar to the Roman version).
English Magna Carta – c. 1200
“In 1066, William the Conqueror introduced what, in later centuries, became referred to as a feudal system, by which he sought the advice of a council of tenants-in-chief (landowners) and ecclesiastics before making laws. In 1215, the tenants-in-chief secured the Magna Carta from King John. It established that the king may not levy or collect any taxes (except the feudal taxes to which they were hitherto accustomed), save with the consent of his royal council, which gradually developed into a parliament”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliament_of_England
Some 5 centuries after the Magna Carta, following many twists, turns, ups, downs, and the passing of the Treaty of Union in 1707, a new Parliament of Great Britain, based in the former home of the English parliament, came into being. The Parliament of Great Britain later became the Parliament of the United Kingdom in 1801 when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed through the Act of Union, 1800.
From 1215, the tug-o-war between the monarchy and parliament went on for centuries. Throughout the period the governing model gradually moved in favour of parliament and Great Britain evolved into a constitutional monarchy. The bicameral government, the House of Lords and the House of Commons, have since governed Great Britain.
American Constitution – c. 18th century
Interestingly, the Americans, as did the British, evidently based their democratic quest on the style of the Roman Empire – i.e., initially the elites benefitted relative to the populace. It may be reasonable to suggest the United States did not suffer the pains of establishing a democracy based on centuries long experience. Rather, the US leapfrogged from colonial rule to constitutional democracy over a relatively short time span. There was no existing system to replace. This shortcut greatly benefitted the framers of the constitution of the United States but does not take away from the importance of the United States model of democracy. Of course, amendments and other fixes were required along the way, but a very workable model for governing a nation resulted and is a model often used by democratizing nations to produce their own democracy.
Today – 20th & 21st centuries
Notwithstanding the inclusive intent of representative democracy, democracy has remained very exclusive. On two counts the multi-party political model of governing has brought democracy to its knees because of continuing exclusivity:
1. Labeling – Like wolves in the forest, the political parties have marked their territory and assumed a label that indicates their view of the way a nation should be governed. They are left, or right, or liberal, or populist, or socialistic, or capitalistic, or a combination thereof such as left leaning liberal, and etc. The process of marking their territory, then, suggests a limit on interests that does not extend into another party territory, lest they encounter great snarling and foot-stamping. In short, the party positions are exclusive, and the resulting polarization of thought prevents a balanced governing outcome, that would favour the populace, and promotes exclusivity that favours the base of the party in power.
2. Party elitism – It seems political parties are more interested in being elected/re-elected than they are in governing a nation. To further this need, the party elites, a few elite party members, decide the actions that must be taken to achieve their goal at the ballot box. Rather than coalescing the thoughts from the voters, the elites decide what policy statements will assist their electioneering goals, while attracting votes to their party label. The elected representatives are effectively removed from the process, except for the expectation they will deliver, to their constituents, the policy message of the party as defined by the elites. Again, the populace is not being represented by the representatives they elect but rather are persuaded to vote for a party, not a representative.
In each of the above cases, party politics seem to be the platform for polarization and division; and the voice of the people, a requisite characteristic of a democracy, is blowing in the wind as representative Exclusive Democracy goes off the rails to possibly crash to extinction.
Ironically, it seems a case can be made to suggest exclusive democracy is completing a circle that started with the exclusive model created by Greek city states. A short-circuit in that two and a half millennia circular path is required.
Move to Inclusive Democracy – power to the people, not the elites. The people must stand-up and be counted. Within the context of the Common Good, individualism has a vital role to play in the survival of democracy.
Next in Democracy: Inclusive Democracy Defined
Next in Along the Path: Autocracy is NOT Acceptable