Site logo

The Worst Form of Government

The History of Democracy from Beginning to End

by Matthew White

Democracy is the worst form of Government - except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. WINSTON CHURCHILL, 1947


Whenever I tell someone that I’m writing a history of democracy, their immediate first question is “How did that jackass ever get elected?” Maybe not in so many words, but it’s definitely in the subtext of whatever they say next.

I’ll never be able to answer that question. Mostly because there are way too many jackasses out there and we just don’t have the time for me to explain every one of them. We’ll have to limit ourselves to a handful of really exceptional jackasses whose impacts have reverberated across the generations.

If you’re reading this, you probably live in a democracy – non-democracies are notoriously fussy about what they let you read – and it’s especially noteworthy that there are so many more of you nowadays than there were in the past. Forty years ago, democracy was losing the battle for humanity’s hearts and minds. Not only did most governments deliberately and shamelessly keep power away from their people, even the self-proclaimed international defenders of democracy were just as likely to support friendly dictators as unpredictable democracies in other countries. Nowadays, most countries at least pretend to have competitive elections, a free press and a respect for the opinions of citizens.

This book focuses on a simple question: which countries were democracies at any given time in history. Of course, one question leads to more: Where did they come from? Where did they go? How did they get there? What kinds of threats undermined their survival? Were they really democratic or just putting on a show? And are there any larger trends to the process? I have tried to touch on as many democratic transitions as I can find, even if only in a sentence or two. I hope that pulling more data together will make patterns more apparent.

To a certain extent, this book covers the opposite end of the spectrum from my previous book which was about the worst examples of human conflict; this book focuses instead on humans trying to work together.

Democracy usually makes for boring history. Patient negotiation of a compromise will never replace war as humankind’s favorite way to solve problems. Maybe that’s why I’m more interested in democracy at street level, especially in the rough edges of democracy, the borderlands between the free and the unfree and the events that drag societies back and forth across that border. I confess that philosophy is not my specialty, and this sentence will probably be only time I mention influential theoreticians such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Alexis de Tocqueville or Plato.

American political mythology often claims that war creates freedom. The Revolutionary War led to the Declaration of Independence; the Civil War freed the slaves; World War Two defended democracy from fascism; the Cold War destroyed Communism. Not only did every American freedom seem to come from war, but every modern war seemed to expand liberty somewhere. Within the narrow confines of America history, it’s sort of true. An oversimplification obviously, but a fair summary of the American experience in broad strokes. It has become an enduring undercurrent to all our discussions of wars, democracies and civil rights, and may be one of the reasons Americans are so quick to resort to war.

However, America isn’t the only democracy out there, and elsewhere in world history, war has less connection to democracy. This is something many Americans don’t understand about the rest of the world, and vice versa. In fact, the real historical connection between war and democracy seems to be that war shakes up the system and rolls the dice for the next phase of history. Sometime democracy rolls out, sometimes it doesn’t.

The belief that war is a necessary precursor to freedom creates a lens through which Americans view the rest of the world’s history. For example, Wikipedia’s article on The Decolonization of Africa (written collectively by countless English-speaking individuals, presumably most of them Americans) has a table of countries in which one of the six columns is labeled “Independence won through…” for listing anti-colonial struggles. The underlying assumption is that every country has had to fight to be free (note the use of the word "won", rather than, say, "achieved") and that this is one of the six most important pieces of information about the process. This however is a mostly empty category because independence was usually achieved by nothing as flashy as war. The table lists 55 countries, and 39 have nothing at all in this column. Moreover, of the 16 that list something in the category, 4 of the events are actually failed revolts from earlier in the colonial era, and 5 are civil wars that broke out after they had been set free; none of those really count as the proximate cause of independence.

In fact, I’ve found that the most common process for driving freedom forward seems to be loud, angry, obnoxious protests that threaten to explode into riots. Mocking the goofy street theater of protesters is always fun, and the traffic tie-ups they create are always frustrating, but those protesters will probably push democracy farther forward than the rest of us will by merely voting. The most potent weapon against tyranny isn’t guns; it’s patience and numbers mobilized as noisy mobs and non-cooperation. I often suspect that the only reason some people accept democracy is that the alternative is having riots in the streets. It never hurts to remind them of that.

To arms!Although warfare rarely establishes democracy directly, it often inspires the government into expanding the electorate. One thing that encourages rulers to share power with the people is the need to draft those people into the army. It’s no coincidence that the first two fully functioning modern democracies, the United States and Switzerland, relied on citizen militia to fight their early wars. So did the two most famous ancient democracies, Athens and Rome. In France universal suffrage and universal conscription came and went at similar points in the timeline; they arrived with the French Revolution, went away during the Bourbon Restoration and Second Empire and returned during the Third Republic. Meanwhile, Great Britain, safely isolated from the rest of Europe on an offshore island, relied instead on a small professional army for defense and colonial conquests, and they kept the vote limited to property owners longer than most modern countries; Britain didn’t enact universal suffrage until the First World War forced them to grab every warm body for the trenches.

Democracies at warAmong the crises that frequently hit democracies, I am especially interested in democracies that fight wars with each other. There’s a popular notion that democracies never do this, but you don’t fool me; I live in Richmond Virginia, which, if you’ll remember your history, was once the capital of a democracy that spent its entire existence fighting a war against another democracy. I therefore go into detail whenever something like that happens – the Kargil War, the Sicilian Expedition, the Spanish-American War, Operation Catapult and the occupation of the Ruhr, to name a few. I find it interesting to explore the kinds of problems that reasonable and cooperative people can’t work out by talking, even when the mechanisms for negotiation are in place. I’m also fascinated by civil wars inside democracies because, in theory, these shouldn’t happen in countries where every person gets a fair and equal voice in the government. Because war is usually the most important decision to be made by any government, examining how it happens gives a good glimpse into the mechanics of democratic decision making.

Summarizing the history of democracies can be maddeningly tricky because you can’t easily point to the one and only reason that something happened. Any national decision is the sum of thousands or even millions of individual decisions. An empire goes to war because the emperor wants – case closed. A democracy goes to war because one person is convinced by Sensible Argument A, another by Stupid Argument B, but a third person accepts Counterargument C and votes no; Individual D is bored and looking for adventure, while Individual E thinks he can make a lot of money if his side wins. Multiply by ten thousand. Which is the real reason?

If you summarize too quickly, you run the risk of making society seem too monolithic. For instance, the United States as a whole changed its mind about black people during the years 1945-1970, but summarizing that change too briefly can miss the important fact that millions of people supported equal rights long before that time and millions of others opposed them afterwards. It’s downright insulting to say, as many do, that “everyone” was a racist in, say, 1920.

You’d think democracy would be the enemy of Great Man History. Ideally, when decision-making is divided among the whole nation, no single person should stand out, but that’s not how the world works. Some individuals are born with the ability to climb to the top of whatever pyramid they land on. Unraveling the deeper meaning of this is far beyond the scope of this book, but I hope that at least I’ll give you some examples to think about.

One difficulty with discussing democracy is that some people want to contrast all real world examples against certain idealized forms.

For example, according to the classically educated Founding Fathers of the American republic, the citizens of a democracy exercise power directly, while the citizens of a republic delegate power to elected representatives. To them, democracy was a Greek word denoting a Greek style of governing, while republic was a Roman word denoting a Roman style of governing. Sticking to this distinction, some people only count the town halls of rural New England or the assembly of ancient Athens as real democracies. They insist therefore that the United States is not a democracy; it’s a republic.

Maybe that made sense in the 1700s, when government by the people was all theoretical anyway, but using those definitions nowadays means that a perfectly fine word like “democracy” is defined so narrowly that it applies to no working government whatsoever. All that is left is the word “republic”, which encompasses such diverse nations as the United States, France, China and Iran, and yet is still too narrow to include constitutional monarchies like Japan and Sweden. Under this set of definitions, there’s no noun that describes the governments of both Italy and Canada while excluding Kuwait and Cuba.

The FixerOther people consider “democracy” to be a kind of perfect political utopia, where every debate is polite, every vote is fair, and every decision is made in the bright light of day with only the good of the people in mind. In this true democracy, every citizen is well-informed and reasonable; no one person counts more than any other person, and the richest man is no more powerful than the poorest, so any country that falls short of this ideal cannot be called a democracy.

Good luck finding a match for that definition.

To me, a democracy is a state that gives everyone a voice – even if no one listens. A democratic government allows – even expects – all citizens to participate. The people argue and eventually follow the most popular course of action – not necessarily the best or the fairest course, only the most popular. Beyond that, some other vital characteristics of a true democracy are that crimes of the government can be publicly exposed; opponents can rally in public, and a critical mass of disgruntled citizens can replace the government without resorting to violence. I’m not saying any of this is completely safe or easy, but as long as the mechanism is in place and would work if people just put some effort into it, it’s a democracy.

I often cite to academic and international organizations that have made it their goal to track the spread or decline of democracy around the world. Freedom House has been issuing annual Freedom in the World scores since 1973, placing every country on a scale of 1 (free) to 7 (not). Polity IV maintains a database rating every country’s democratic practices, year-by-year since 1800 on a scale of -10 (autocratic) to 10 (democratic). Although I sometimes disagree with individual ratings, these assessments are widely respected and repeated throughout academia, so I come back to them over and over.

Just for the record, these are the first 8 countries to become democracies in eyes of Polity IV.

  • United States (1809)
  • France (1848)
  • Switzerland (1848)
  • Belgium (1853)
  • New Zealand (1857)
  • Greece (1864)
  • Colombia (1867)
  • Costa Rica (1875)

Whether they stayed that way is another matter. We’ll meet them in more detail as we get deeper into the book.

Power to the People

Sometimes we get so caught up praising democracy as a rare and precious jewel in a harsh and dangerous world that we forget that it is both practical and stable. If nothing else, democracy gives the people a chance to change society peacefully before they get frustrated and decide to change it violently. Any movement that becomes powerful enough to launch a coup or civil war is usually powerful enough to win elections or force a compromise before this happens. This has created some of the most stable societies in history.

Looking at modern history, there are only a handful of countries that have had an unbroken chain of legitimacy since 1900 -- Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States -- all democracies. Every other nation that has been independent throughout those years has seen at least one unconstitutional or illegal change in leadership.

In theory, it doesn't have to be this way. Single-party states, for example, are supposed to pick successors amicably, but none have managed to go a full century without collapsing. Absolute monarchies are supposed to pass from father to son to grandson across eternity, but none survived the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without surrendering power to liberal parliaments. The only absolute monarchies still around are less than a hundred years old. Even in the distant past, it would be difficult to find a monarchy that passed 100 years without a usurper, foreign invader or dynastic civil war throwing the succession into turmoil.

I estimate that on average, at any given time during the 20th century, 31% of the human population were living in fully democratic nations. That means that one out of every three people has been able to speak his or her mind with reasonable safety, and attempt to guide his or her nation's policy without fear of legal retaliation. Sure, 31% is still a minority, but the way some people talk, they make the free nations of the world sound like band of nomads huddled around a campfire in the desert -- a lonely light in the vast night. It's not that way at all.

Rule by consensus has been rather common all across history. Almost every stable society in history has made decisions by gathering everyone important and letting them talk it over. If we start describing every historical precedent to modern democracy, we’ll have a long journey ahead. Wikipedia, always a fun combination of common knowledge and pedantic overkill, describes the following proto-democratic institutions before the Eighteenth Century:

  • Mesopotamian city-states.
  • Athens and Sparta
  • The Roman Republic
  • The sanghas and ganas of India.
  • The collegia of ancient Rome.
  • Phoenician city-states like Tyre and Carthage
  • The German tribal system described by Tacitus in his Germania.
  • The general election of bishops by popular acclaim well into the 6th century AD.
  • The election of Bengali Emperor Gopala, in the 8th century.
  • Medieval guilds.
  • The Witan of Early Medieval England.
  • The Frankish custom of the Marzfeld.
  • The Althing of Iceland, founded in 930.
  • The Thing of all Swedes.
  • Tynwald on the Isle of Man, which began in 979.
  • The túatha system in early medieval Ireland.
  • The city-states of medieval Italy, such as Venice and Florence.
  • Similar city-states in Switzerland, Flanders and the Hanseatic league.
  • Popular assemblies in Slavic countries, especially in in the republics of Novgorod and Pskov.
  • The elizate system of the Basque Country.
  • The Iroquois Confederation.
  • The Aztecs’ supreme speaker.
  • The Nobles' Democracy in the Kingdom of Poland.

In fact, Wikipedia’s article on the History of Democracy churns out 7000 words before it even gets to the American and French Revolutions.  Then it either runs out of steam or believes these revolutions to be the climax of democracy because the article uses only 1700 words to describe everything that has happened since 1800.

Rather than writing another history of democracy that fizzles out before it even gets to real democracies, I’m just going to skim lightly over the beginnings. Most of the early examples listed above really don’t count as democracies because participation in government was often tied to wealth or ancestry, and the people’s assembly often had to share power with non-democratic institutions like the church or nobility. I’ll only zoom in on the ancient democracies that served as the most influential examples for later generations.

Site logo

Copyright © November 2016 by Matthew White