Winston Churchill at the onset of the Cold War, tried to convey to an American audience what was at stake for the United States and the United Kingdom in the clash he foresaw between the Soviet totalitarian, Communist system and the Anglo-American representative democracy. In his speech he coined the phrase “Iron Curtain” and tried to rally war weary people to rise against the new threat.
“We must,” he said, “never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man…free speech, democracy and the rule of law. These are the title deeds of freedom.”
Seventy years later, Americans may need to be reminded of those principles and the need to protect them in order to secure the signal advantages they offer future generations. Today, Americans are experiencing a presidential election unlike any other in their lifetimes. It has brought to public attention frightening attitudes and behavior that have been present in pockets of the wider population, but have not been seen previously in a presidential election.
As a result, millions of Americans in 2016 are confused, shocked or excited and hyper-emotional, even thrilled at what their political system has produced. Many just want it to end. All these feelings are understandable, but are not what will strengthen and preserve Churchill’s “great principles of freedom”.
Is this election symptomatic of deeper Constitutional problems? Perhaps.
In times of turmoil, it is often helpful to step back from the melee, and look to the past for context. Given democracy is at issue, the following brief review of its history may provide a deeper understanding of when and why it flourished and when and why it faltered or failed. Against this background, it should be possible to decide in Part II (“Weighing America’s Democracy on History’s Scale”) whether America’s constitutional democracy is in trouble.
The following paragraphs describe how democracy has fared since it was first introduced in 500 B.C
Athens (5th to 3rd Centuries BC)
The 5th Century BC Athenians decided to try direct, not representative, democracy. This is theoretically the “purest” form and denotes a system whereby all qualified voters decide important issues and resolve serious problems they are facing. Thus, it is an excellent place to start an historic survey, one that illustrates very well how human emotions and preferences affect good political intentions.
The population of the Athenian City-State (Attica) in 500 BC, was about 300,000. The legal qualifications to vote were: (1) male, (2) over 18 and (3) son of native born Athenian parents. Slaves were property and were not included in the population total. Resident aliens were counted, but could not vote. Those who met these requirements never numbered more than 17% of the population, but when they addressed civil and military matters their votes affected the lives of the other 83%. Exclusion among voters started early.
Another Attican City-State, Sparta, chose a much different theory of governance – totalitarian rule over a completely militarized society. Sparta eventually conquered Athens.
Roman Republic (5th to 2nd Centuries BC)
The common Roman citizens (plebes) launched in 5 BC a program of passive disobedience against hereditary tribal leaders to gain the right to elect their own tribunes or representatives. However, as practiced, this was communal, not individual democracy.
All tribes voted on a common slate of candidates and each tribe had its own trusted “counter” to whom members would whisper their choice. Each tribe’s total vote for each candidate was delivered to the chief magistrate and added to that of the other tribes. The outcomes determined who the tribunes of the plebes would be.
Tribal identity was gained or allotted at birth. By the 3rd Century BC there were 35 tribes and a secret written ballot had been introduced to replace the whisper vote.
In the 1st Century AD, the representative democracy fell prey to family ambitions seeking and competing for ultimate power. Thus, Rome became an empire. Down through the succeeding centuries, different wealthy, prominent families provided the emperors, often after the violent and fatal dispatch of their predecessors.
Northern Scandinavia (4th – 6th Centuries)
The Germanic tribes that conquered the Western Roman Empire were interested in combat, riches, slaves and lastly, some form of Christianity. However, at approximately the same time, small, isolated Nordic tribes lived in the far Northern reaches of Europe.
Singly or by neighborhood (as tribes or small, unaffiliated communities), they introduced a very early parliamentary concept, called a Thing. It was a gathering of all free men who listened to legal experts and then decided whether to reaffirm or change existing laws. The Things were legislative, not political. When several communities or tribes met together, it was called an all-thing. The Norwegian parliament today is called the Stor-ting (big meeting).
As the tribes/communities became bigger and ventured further afield to loot, pillage and plunder, their war leaders gained the title of “yarl” and something of a subordinate nobility evolved with a chieftain-king. The Vikings violent interaction with the early Britons resulted in “Jarl” being incorporated much later into English as the British aristocratic title Earl.
Northern Italy (11th – 15th Century)
Hundreds of years passed before, in the 11th Century, urban trade centers emerged as part of a European commercial network and prospered. The merchant families and skilled craftsmen were proud and independent-minded people. As they gained more leisure, they took stock of their geographic position and concluded that two great feudal powers – Imperial Germany to the North and the Papal States to the South – were threats.
They became concerned that eventually these super powers would impinge on their political and economic freedom and formed Medieval Communes as a protective governing system. Again, their large populations eventually forced recognition of the inherent inefficiency of all citizens meeting to make decisions, and opted for a representative democracy. Only adult males were allowed to vote for their “consuls,” echoing the Roman Republic, by then only a very distant memory.
These communes grew in wealth and ambition and began to extend their borders to incorporate lands beyond their towns and cities. The Empire and the Papacy tolerated the taking of what technically was theirs, because they didn’t want to waste scarce resources on such small scale infringements. Therefore, they recognized these enlarged political entities giving them public legitimacy.
By the 13th Century, the communes had become city-states and again prominent families began to feud with each other, sometimes violently, to rise above the others. Eventually, the original representative democracy gave way to a dwindling number of families selecting the consuls. They had become oligarchies.
By the 14th and early 15th Centuries, one dominant family emerged in the city-states and at different times became hereditary rulers as dukes. The most famous of these were the De Medici of Florence and the Visconti of Milan. Florence’s communal democracy, though, lasted the longest, until 1532. These city-states by the 16th and 17th Centuries had become more or less absolute monarchies.
Flanders (12th – 15th Centuries)
Northwest of Milan and Florence, were other urban trading centers, also members of the European commercial network. The region was called Flanders and these cities included Ghent, Bruges and Arras. They, like their Italian counterparts, grew large and wealthy. However, they enjoyed a historic political advantage over Milan, Florence, etc. They had a long tradition reaching back to the Frankish Empire (9th Century) of municipal self-government.
Their citizens, called burghers organized into guilds (unions); in Ghent, for instance, there were three: (1) merchants, (2) weavers and (3) fullers. Depending on their relative importance, the guilds selected different numbers of city magistrates who together formed a city council (usually 13 members).
By the early 15th Century, their democratic instincts led the burghers to convert magistrates’ terms in office from life to a specific number of years. Over time, the Councils became trusted and respected by the electorate and were given more authority and independence. However, once again, ambition and competition among the major families replaced popular election of magistrates by guilds with selection by a few families. They had become urban oligarchies.
These cities and their burghers and magistrates were energized politically by a single strategic goal: to avoid coming under the suzerainty of the Count of Flanders, the most powerful regional noble.
The result of this long-term political objective was consistent low-profile policies, to include, rejecting expansion into lands with sworn fealty to the count. Because of this more sensible approach, coupled with their history of municipal governance, the Flemish burghers never became the subjects of a totalitarian ruler.
Switzerland (1294 – Present)
The Swiss have always been an independent and non-hierarchical, democratic-minded people whose history is replete with usually successful (mountains helped) resistance to outside invaders and foreign occupation. Napoleon was a temporary exception.
These personal traits were strongest among those who lived in the most rural and isolated areas of the country. Unlike the more aristocratic-minded urban centers, here the ancient tradition of governance was communal.
In 1296, the residents of six very rural and heavily forested cantons decided they would replicate their image of Athenian direct democracy. These quite small communities formed what came to be called Landsgemeinde (rural communities) to which every adult male could walk, assemble, discuss and vote.
Amazingly, in 2016, this is still the form of government in two cantons and at the sub-cantonal (county) level, in all of Switzerland. It is the sole global survivor of direct democracy.
Historic Lessons Learned and Cautions Found:
In five of the six cases examined democracies eventually gave way to oligarchies or dictatorships. Thus, there are three inescapable conclusions and cautions to be drawn from democracy’s several millennia experiences:
1. Human ambition and thirst for more power and greater wealth has defeated democratic systems – direct or representative – repeatedly.
2. Representative/direct democracy is not a natural human organizational default because it requires people to relinquish to others, often strangers, some authority over themselves.
3. Democracy cannot be assumed as a given and requires active monitoring and defense.
There are four other less significant, still useful, observations to be made:
1. Democracy through history appears to survive longest in smaller, self-sufficient communities.
2. Democratic republics are by their nature looser, less coherent, less decisive, slower, and can appear, at times, dysfunctional. Result – citizen dissatisfaction / grievance can rise.
3. Public disorder, complaints, unpredictability can stimulate public feelings of fear, anger, and desperation usually aimed at the rulers. In 2016 it’s the political “establishment.”
4. Strong, self-confident, domineering figures through history have captured popular emotions and loyalty by portraying themselves as the sympathetic savior. And became kings.