Athenian democracy carries connotations of masses of men gathering around a central figure who controlled the discussions of the men, who would deliberate and discuss the course of action to be undertaken. However, this image of democracy where everybody does have a voice is far from our modern day perception of democracy. For one thing, women and slaves had no say, and it was only the fact that the Greek men had little work to do as their slaves worked for them, that they had time to convene and discuss. The Greeks did not appear to reach the idea of having representatives of themselves either.
The original Greek word, ‘deokratia’ was a purely descriptive term. It was a term concocted for the growing political machinery of government that evolved out of Athens to the many other city states of Greece. Plato and Aristotle both wrote of democracy, democracy is used to describe what we would call today as ‘mob rule’. If the great city state of Athens was a state today, the UN would undoubtedly condemn it as being an oppressive regime, which silences opposition to democracy and alternate political thinking, just at the ancient city state’s authorities did to Socrates. For one thing, Athenian democracy required vast armies of slaves to do the work of the men as they discussed and deliberated. Without them, the Athenians would not have the time or the leisure to invest into improving the lives of the Athenian people and public affairs. Of course, women weren’t even classed as citizens so they had no say. This meant, the ‘ruled by the people’ notion promoted by the Athenians was merely just rule by a fraction of the population, perhaps just fifteen percent of the people. The people did not choose their ‘leaders’ and public officials, instead lots resembling the current system for convening a jury was used. The Athenian system of course could only work is the proportion of the people who were eligible to make the decisions was small.
Aristotle said that the city would never grow to those proportions which would limit the effectiveness of this new idea. It never occurred to the Greeks to elect official representatives to carry out political activities whilst the men were able to work. They perceived parliamentary democracy as dangerous to progress, fearing it would lean towards and oligarchy, rule by a select group of elite people. They feared it could lead to tyranny and dictatorships, something their new political system was attempting to prevent.
The early Romans thought of their state as ‘a thing of the people’. The Romans perceived their republic as a delicate balance between the elites debating policy in the senate and the masses of people. Cicero said that ‘power lies with the people authority with the senate’ but this meant that the Roman leaders lived in a constant fear of an people’s uprising, should they become unhappy with the work and actions of the senate. But, with Julius Caesar, and his ambition for Rome, came tyranny and the collapse of democracy. Democracy, a new idea, which offered hope to common people of having a voice and to choose their own laws, faded quickly from the mind-set of the Europeans for some 1500 years.
However, it’s negligent to say that democracy did not achieve some form of progress during the medieval period. Europe became a cauldron of power struggles and lucrative deals for power. The monarchy of the states of medieval Europe wanted absolute rule over their subjects, and were constantly in a struggle with aristocratic backers. The bishops and barons of Europe wanted to share the power of the monarchy in return for raising taxes and the king armies. The Kings, for the meantime, were able to hold out in the gargantuan power struggle that had befriended the states inner political workings. Monarchs such as Louis XIV of France and Peter the Great of Russia were the result of a monarchy in absolute power shouting over the whispers of reformation of the political systems that had last 1500 years since the fall of democracy. However, in England, the aristocracy gained the upper hand. The Magna Carta, a contract signed by King John in 1215 limited the right of the king over his barons and knights, and to a certain extent, his power over the common people. An argument can be made that this document was the corner stone for the revitalisation of democracy in Europe, the Civil War nearly 400 years later. At the time of the Civil War, parliament has broadened its power to members of the minor gentry, such as Oliver Cromwell, who declared war on Charles I because of his belief of the absolute power of the monarchy.
Parliament won, and the monarchy in England was abolished, and the political spectrum of England, as well of the rest of world was transformed. When the monarchy was restored, 11 years later with the death of Cromwell, it returned with very few powers and hardly any political influence. Parliament had usurped the position of the monarchy and become the rulers of the state. In retrospect, we can see that those events were democratic, except that democracy was not part of political discourse at the time. However, there was one fundamental democratic idea at the heart of the movement that sprung from England in the 17th century. This idea, that men-and still only men-should have total control over who governs them. It was 100 years before the attitudes implicit the English Civil War were ready to be spoken out loud, and when such time came, it was the New World which was prepared to bring the ancient idea democracy onto the new political stage.
For the years leading up to the Revolutionary Wars, politicians across the thirteen colonies were fundamentally against British rule. The governors of course supported their leaders in London, as they had put them into power, but it was the people who were beginning to question why the British had this authority. It was a common item that opened the gates to the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. The fact of the matter was that Americans were unhappy that they paid taxes to a govern thousands of miles away, a government in which they had no say. This feeling of political power for the people gripped America, which led to British defeat in the Revolutionary Wars. The American Declaration of Independence, a resounding and defiant statement of democratic intent rang out throughout the world, a principle that has never been bettered;
‘We hold these Truths to be self-evident; that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed be their Creator with certain undeniable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their power from the consent of the Governed…’
Of course, the revolutionary feeling was not confined to the New World. The freedoms sought by the American revolutionaries were also sought by their counterparts in Europe. In 1789, the people of France, with the slogan ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ overthrew its absolute monarchy. They beheaded their king, just as the English had done hundred years previously, and instituted a republic, which the Americans had done. The monarchy had begun to become synonymous with oppression and an air of incompatibly with freedom followed them. To the people of Europe, a leader chosen by the will of the people, chosen for the people, was more democratic than that of the person who’s birth had given them power. Republics began to rise throughout the 18th and 19th century which modelled their version of democracy on the Roman republic many years before, especially if they had become a republic at the downfall of the monarchy, just as the Romans had. In America, the upper house became the ‘senate’ and it’s elected members, the ‘senators’ deliberated and instituted the will of the people. This paid homage to the system used in Ancient Rome.
Over the next 100 years, countries began to develop a deeper understanding of the democratic ideal. In Britain for example, parliament was a flexible institution that adapted quickly to changing social spectrums, such as the Industrial Revolution. A series of reform acts brought the vote to the working class men, and in 1918, women over 30 had been granted the vote, and final electoral equality gained in 1928.
In America, slavery made a mockery of the constitutions ‘all Men are born equal’. Like in Britain, America reformed and after the Civil War, abolished that blemish, although it was a decade before full equality began to emerge. However, in many parts of the world, democracy did not win through.
In parts of the world where there was no liberal tradition and no institutional infrastructure, democracy did not become a reality. In Russia, the absolute monarchy clung onto power into the 20th century, when it was replaced by ‘a dictatorship of the proletariat’, a Marxist concept adapted by Lenin. In the 1930s, the democratic ideal was attacked by Adolph Hitler in Germany. The war against Nazism was a confrontation between democracy, which diplomatically stretched to include the Soviet Union, and its enemies. The victory of the pro-democracy states was incontrovertible evidence of democracy’s inherent superiority. As the Cold War drew to an emphatic end in the late 1980s, many of the Eastern European states left by a shrinking anti democracy feeling across the world, states that had formally opposed the democratic ideals of the west, rushed to join the new ages of political freedom. They knew that democracy gave people the power to select their leader, but also the power to change their leaders. Winston Churchill said that ‘democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried’
It’s clear to see how democracy came to such prominence. It rose through the unstoppable force of the people longing for self-determination and freedom which had previously been restricted to the elite few. However, it’s questionable whether the democratic ideals of the revolutionaries have actually been met. In truth, the American system does allow the candidate with a less than majority to gain power through the Electoral College, and in the UK, the leader is not elected by the people, but by the people of the constituency of the selected MP. Democracy’s rise to superiority has spanned two millennia, and it’s unlikely that the evolution of the system is over. Questions will be raised over the effectiveness of it, and absolute power will be restored, for how long is unknown, but eventually cries for democracy will ring out amongst the people and the cycle will restart, taking new forms, with the same drama that rocketed it to the top first time round.