Why do Democracy's Beginnings Matter?


It is important to understand why we should care about the early beginnings of Democracy.  First, Democracy is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain over time. We can see this in the present and going back to Democracy’s earliest days. It has never been easy, in some ways there has never been a golden age of Democracy, just an ongoing struggle over many millennia.  The root of democracy and of tyranny is the same - our species’ struggle with, and attraction to, power. Tyrannies seek to gain and consolidate power and Democracies seek to disperse and reign in power. Thus, the challenges facing Democracy today are not new or unusual - just a part of an ongoing contestation about power, not something to despair about or see as extraordinary.  Second, I believe we can learn from the ideas and struggles of the past to help us in the present. There are many cautionary tales and outcomes both useful and discouraging.  I will try to sketch these out in future posts. As a starting point, when looked at from the long sweep of history, there is a consistent theme:  while the historical thread of democracy has at times worn thin and even broken entirely, quite remarkably, whenever democracy reemerges it typically becomes stronger and more inclusive than in prior periods.  That is, who is considered a citizen expands, the meaning and reach of justice expands, voting rights expand, and democratic institutions become more comprehensive.  It is as if the setbacks, however tragic and damaging, create the conditions for a richer and fuller democracy.  Certainly, this cannot be taken for granted nor will it occur on its own - it is only through human agency that democracy seems to rise from the ashes.

At certain points in time, one of the biggest threats to Democracy comes from taking it for granted and assuming that all will see that of course it is the best way for humans to organize their societies.  I believe we are in one of those times now and in fact have been for many decades, perhaps longer. Resisting complacency where democracy exists and seeing clearly that not all countries will easily choose to become democracies, may be one of the most important sources of the growth and defense of Democracies around the world.  This is particularly important at the present time and in fact has been for the past decade or so.  

The most comprehensive review of the state of democracy globally is carried out by Freedom House (www.freedomhouse.org). From their publication, “Freedom in the World 2017”: 

 “A total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, compared with 36 that registered gains. This marked the 11th consecutive year in which declines outnumbered improvements. While in past years the declines in freedom were generally concentrated among autocracies and dictatorships that simply went from bad to worse, in 2016 it was established democracies - countries rated Free in the reports ranking system - that dominated the list of country suffering setbacks. In fact, Free countries accounted for a larger share of the countries with declines then at anytime in the past decade, and nearly 1/4 of the countries registering declines in 2016 were in Europe.” 

The current global picture (195 Countries):

Free Countries: 45% encompassing 39% of the world’s population.

Partly Free Countries: 30% encompassing 25% of the world’s population.

Not free countries: 25% encompassing 36% of the world’s population.

Democracy has been “ a fleeting phenomenon in the history of government and has lain outside the experience of the vast majority of the peoples of the world down the ages. It originated and flourished in Athens for almost 2 centuries 2,500 years ago, about the same time that a closely related form, republicanism, began to evolve in Rome. But by the birth of Christ both democracy and republicanism had disappeared root and branch from human experience, and for the following 1700 years or more survived only in the history books and in the reflections of the intelligentsia. The rebirth of democratic ideals and systems which began in the middle of the 17th-century, was slow and halting, and fully developed liberal democracy, as we know it, has had a very short history indeed.” (Democracy’s Beginning, the Athenian Story, Thomas Mitchell, p.2)  

Yes, certainly short, but what we now call Democracy would very likely shock and perhaps dismay Solon, Cleisthenes, Pericles, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Rousseau, Payne, Jefferson, and Madison, among others who pushed the idea and practice of democracy forward in their time.  Somehow, against all odds, democracy has been aspirational and expansionary. There is no magic to this - simply the hard work and risk-taking of many people driven by resistance to power, a desire for freedom, and an urge to have a voice that matters.