History Of Democracy Research Paper

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In a democracy, political authority is based on the will of the people. From its origins in ancient Greece, democracy has been what the British philosopher W. B. Gallie called an ‘essentially contested concept,’ that is, a concept whose meaning is permanently open to debate. (Gallie 1955–6) The history of democracy is the history of these debates, debates between democrats and their opponents and, no less vigorously and persistently, among the advocates of different sorts of democracy. Three overlapping sets of issues have dominated disagreements about democratic theory and practice. First and most obviously is the question of whom to include in the demos. If democracy means government by the people, who are the people? Everyone? All Adults? All male adults? All male adults with property or education? Second is the matter of democracy’s prerequisites. What rules, institutions, and values are necessary for democracy to succeed? Are correct procedures sufficient to ensure democratic government or does genuine democracy require a particular kind of society or culture? Is there one road to democracy or many? And finally, there is the issue of what might be called democracy’s institutional scope. Is democracy primarily a political system of self-government or is it equally important, or equally necessary, in other aspects of life, such as the family, the workplace, and the schoolroom? In order for there to be a ‘true’ democracy must its principles and aspirations be realized throughout the social order?

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1. Classical Models

The openness and complexity of democracy’s history were already apparent in the fifth and fourth centuries BC when a number of Greek-speaking city states scattered across the eastern Mediterranean adopted various forms of popular self-government. From the beginning, there was an ambiguity in the meaning of demos which reflected the Greeks’ uneasiness about democratic government. For democracy’s admirers, the people’s will confirmed legitimacy: decrees passed by popular assemblies often began with the words, ‘the demos has decided.’ But for democracy’s critics, the people were the mob, unreliable and easily swayed by passion and self-interest. This is why Plato, in his famous attack on democracy in the eighth book of The Republic, argues that the excesses of democracy will inevitably lead to tyranny.

The ancient city’s distinctive blend of religion and politics, the small scale of its public life, the superiority of the spoken over the written word in its political deliberations, and its emphasis on military service and war, reflected a distinctive set of historical conditions that would never be repeated. Nevertheless, the Greek experience continued to play a role in Europe’s political imagination. Pericles’s eloquent defense of Athenian democracy, recorded (or perhaps composed) by Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian War, was persistently cited as a statement of democratic virtue, just as Plato’s and Aristotle’s criticisms of democracy were used to underscore its dangers. Like the elements of classical buildings, which architects adapted over and over again to serve their own purposes, Greek ideas about democracy were repeatedly borrowed by European thinkers, who often imbedded them in structures quite distant from their original meaning and purpose.

There is no institutional continuity between ancient Greece and modern politics. The democratic practices that Pericles praised and Plato decried did not survive the destruction of the polis by internal discord and foreign enemies. To be sure, the Roman state based its legitimacy on the popular will: its armies fought in the name of ‘The Senate and People of Rome.’ But after the fall of the republic, first the substance and then the form of popular sovereignty disappeared from European history for almost a millennium. When they reappeared in the late middle ages, republican institutions were limited to relatively small entities, usually city states, in which political power was in the hands of a narrow, exclusive elite. There were also a few self-governing rural communities in medieval and early modern Europe, but they were small and scattered. None of these polities thought of itself as a democracy. The concept, revived with the rest of the Greek legacy in the late middle ages, was a matter for political theory and scholarly debates, not the everyday con-duct of public affairs.

2. The Age Of Democratic Revolution

The history of modern democratic practice begins with a series of political revolutions in the final decades of the eighteenth century. But before erupting into the realm of practical politics, democratic ideals were nourished by three currents of enlightenment thought: first was a new concept of the individual, whose identity was defined by his (and for a few, also her) own talents and desires, rather than his place in the social order; second was a new concept of equality, which accorded to each person (definitions of which varied greatly) the same rights and responsibilities; and finally there was a new concept of social and intellectual activity, which imagined a sphere of free competition among people, commodities, and ideas. Many, perhaps most, of the thinkers who formulated these ideas did not think of themselves as democrats; some of them expressly condemned democratic institutions in terms that Plato would have recognized. Nevertheless, enlightenment notions of individualism, equality, and society helped to undermine the ideological foundations of the old regime and to open the way for democracy’s long and circuitous march to political power.

Among enlightenment political theorists the most significant for the history of democracy was Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas inspired the revolutionaries’ assaults on the old regime and at the same time reflected democracy’s deepest ambiguities. Rousseau is correctly regarded as a spokesman for individual liberty and, no less accurately, as the advocate of the individual’s subordination to the ‘general will.’ He attempted to reconcile these two convictions with a program of education that aimed at freeing individuals from the corruptions of existing society and a program of political reform that was supposed to create institutions appropriate for the products of this education. The result would be a genuinely free society in which individuals want to choose what is best for them and for their community. Because this vision of total harmony between individual desire and social imperatives set a standard that no government could match, among Rousseau’s legacies was the temptation to force people to be free, that is, to use political power to shape their desires to match the alleged needs of the community.

The first step from democratic theory to democratic practice was taken on the far fringes of the European world, in North America, where the struggle for independence from colonial rule was carried out in the name of ‘the people’s’ natural and inalienable right to self-government. Of course the new American democracy was qualified in a number of important ways: the demos excluded women, African-American slaves, and, in some places, men without sufficient property. Nevertheless, the creation of a republic in the new world established a regime whose institutions and legitimacy depended on the people’s will.

The democratic experiment in America aroused widespread interest and some enthusiasm, but no imitators among enlightened Europeans. But when revolution engulfed France, Europe’s greatest power and the recognized center of fashion and culture, its wider significance could not be ignored. In the summer of 1789, the French National Assembly solemnly proclaimed ‘the rights of man and the citizen,’ which promised social equality and political liberty. Sovereignty was now firmly rooted in the popular will: ‘No body and no individual may exercise authority which does not emanate directly from the nation.’ But who spoke for the nation? At each stage of the revolution there was a different answer to this question as power moved from the nation’s elected representatives, to the mobilized people of Paris, to the Committee of Public Safety, to an elite of propertied men intent on restoring order, until it finally came to rest in the hands of an heroic young general, Napoleon Bonaparte. As the revolution moved from moderation to terror to reaction to military dictatorship to imperial monarchy, each successive regime invoked the nation, each claimed to rule in the people’s name. Beyond France’s borders, the revolution’s friends and enemies shared one essential conviction: once the forces of democratic government had been unleashed, the world would never be the same.

For more than a century after the revolution was defeated, its historical memory lived on, a common source of inspiration and anxiety. People drew from the revolution’s grand narrative the lessons appropriate for their political hopes and fears. To a democrat like Jules Michelet, the revolution was the truest expression of France’s commitment to liberty, the most glorious chapter in the ‘people’s’ struggle to realize their historical destiny. Reactionaries like Hippolyte Taine drew a different message from the revolution’s course: popular sovereignty, he argued, will always lead first to anarchy, then despotism. But the revolution’s most astute analyst was neither a democrat nor a reactionary: Alexis de Tocqueville saw it as part of a larger historical process through which the ideals and institutions of old-regime Europe were destroyed by the forces of social and political democracy that were deeply woven into the fabric of modern life. Like many of democracy’s critics, Tocqueville feared it could easily lead to dictatorship; only in America was there a chance that democracy’s true promise could be fulfilled (Tocqueville 1988).

3. The Nineteenth Century

In 1815, many Europeans hoped or feared that democracy had been defeated forever. The monarchical principle seemed triumphant; republican institutions survived in Switzerland and a precarious handful of city states. Although monarchy remained the most common form of government in Europe for another century ( France after 1870 was the most important exception), almost everywhere representative institutions gradually began to play an important role in public life. The right to vote, always the most obvious marker of democracy’s progress, was granted to an increasing number of European males in the course of the century; political parties, interest groups, trade unions, and a variety of newspapers and other publications provided an infrastructure that supported political participation. By 1900, therefore, the distinction between monarchical and democratic governments, which conservative statesmen had struggled to maintain, was hopelessly blurred.

Every political movement had to come to terms with democratic pressures. During the first half of the century, most European liberals, who were the direct heirs of the Enlightenment’s ideals of individualism, equality, and freedom, were suspicious of the masses—all the more so after the collapse of the French republic into terror and dictatorship. But in the course of the century, the left wing of the liberal movement was reconciled to democracy, supported universal suffrage (for men) and tried, with varying degrees of success, to win their share of the newly enfranchised voters. Conservatives, who had begun the century as democracy’s most consistent enemies, were also unable to resist being pulled into the orbit of democratic politics. Following the example of the Emperor Napoleon III, who had consolidated his position with popular plebiscites after being elected president of France in 1848, conservative statesmen such as Bismarck in Germany and Disraeli in England, set out to use democratic means in support of conservative ends. No less remarkable than these ‘Tory democrats’ were the defenders of the Roman Catholic church, another of democracy’s former enemies, who turned to electoral politics to defend their religious interests against the intrusions of the secular state. Here too we find evidence of the inexorable expansion of democratic ideals and institutions.

Some nineteenth century democrats insisted that political reform was not enough; authentic self-government, they believed, required social revolution. Far and away the most influential version of this belief was formulated in the 1840s by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who argued that a proletarian revolution was required to establish a truly free and equal society. To Marx, Engels, and their more orthodox disciples, democratic politics was always a means to an end: parties, unions, elections had no value beyond helping the proletariat obtain the power they needed to transform society. In this transformed society, organized political activity would become superfluous because class conflict would disappear. But as so often happens, the socialist parties’ democratic means began to shape the ends for which they fought. Eventually the political organizations they built took on their own value, winning elections became an end in itself, democratic politics, a way of life. By the early twentieth century, the European labor movement, most prominently the Social Democratic Party in Germany, had become the most consistent and resolute defender of democratic reform.

In the nineteenth century, the most significant extension of democratic aspirations was not to the social order but rather to the national community. The French revolutionaries had insisted that because people did not belong to a ruler, they could not be traded back forth like pieces of property; nations, like individuals, had the sacred right to determine their own character and destiny. In the course of the century, self-determination came to mean the right of nations to have their own state, a fateful combination of democracy and sovereignty that made the national state the only legitimate way of organizing political space. In the middle decades of the century, Italians and Germans formed new nations; nationalities like the Polish and Irish struggled unsuccessfully to follow their example. In fact, nationality was an elastic and elusive quality, easy enough to invoke, but extra-ordinarily difficult to use as the foundation for a state. Even in the West, where strong states had had centuries to impose a kind of cultural homogeneity, ethnic minorities remained, while in the multinational empires of the East, the complexities of ethnic settlement meant that any potential nation state would have to contain substantial linguistic and religious minorities. Self-determination, the British political scientist Ivor Jennings remarked, ‘seemed reasonable enough: let the people decide. It was in fact ridiculous because the people cannot decide until someone decides who are the people’ (Anderson 1996, p. 40).

As difficult as the question of self-determination might be within Europe itself, its problems became even greater when applied to the rest of the world, much of which remained either directly or indirectly under European control. But if the Germans and Italians had a right to their own nation, if the Irish and the Polish could aspire to nationhood, what about the populations of India, Africa, and Asia? In the nineteenth century, even progressive Europeans would have responded that these peoples were not yet ready for independence because they were barbarous. John Stuart Mill, for instance, believed that ‘independence and nationality, so essential to the due growth and development of a people further advanced in improvement, are generally impediments’ to uncivilized peoples ( Mill 1859, p. 252). But by the early twentieth century, advocates of national independence had challenged European influence in the ancient empires of the Manchus and Ottomans, while the ideals of democratic self-determination slowly began to attract followers throughout the colonized world. The global movement against colonization, which would be central to the history of the twentieth century, had many sources and took various forms, but its origins and eventual triumph cannot be understood without the democratic tools that had been forged within Europe itself.

4. The Twentieth Century

The historical period that stretched from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 began with democracy’s defeat and ended with its apparently irresistible, if still notably in-complete spread throughout Europe. The period from 1914 to 1945 was characterized by a series of near fatal assaults on the integrity and viability of democratic institutions. There were moments during this dark epoch when thoughtful people could readily imagine that the ideals that had inspired Rousseau and the eighteenth-century revolutionaries, having been abandoned by their advocates and defeated by their enemies, would be consigned to history’s dustbin. Who in 1940 could have predicted that, at the century’s end, it would be democracy’s enemies who would everywhere be in disarray?

That the years after 1914 would be so full of peril for democracy was not immediately apparent. In fact, the First World War destroyed many of democracy’s most obdurate opponents, especially the Russian empire, which collapsed into revolution in 1917. Moreover, in most of Europe and America the war accelerated the extension of voting rights to women, an issue that had become increasingly contentious after the turn of the century. Finally, the war ended with the victory of the Western powers, allied since 1917 with the USA, whose president, Woodrow Wilson, proclaimed that the purpose of the war was to make ‘a world safe for democracy.’ Wilson’s League of Nations, a keystone of the treaties signed in the spring of 1919, was designed to create a society of democratic states, in which self-government at home would nurture good-will abroad and thus purge the world of the twin evils of tyranny and aggression.

The Wilsonian peace was supposed to be the fulfillment of the belief, held in the eighteenth century by men like Immanuel Kant and in the nineteenth by the followers of Jeremy Bentham, that democracy and peace inevitably went together. ‘There are properly no other criminals than the heads of nations,’ Bentham had declared, ‘the subjects are always honest’ (Hinsley 1963, p. 86). Always a triumph of hope over experience, this belief was especially illusory in the years after 1919, when, having been brutalized by the war and frustrated by its outcome, the peoples of Europe were not necessarily peace-loving, while their elected leaders—including those in the USA—were not pre-pared to cooperate in a common defense of democratic institutions.

In retrospect, therefore, it is clear that two other events in the spring of 1919 were more significant for democracy’s immediate future than Wilson’s treaties. In March, Benito Mussolini formed his first fascist organization, an inchoate band of the alienated and discontented, which, within three years, was able to take advantage of Italy’s postwar crisis and become the basis for a new government. In one state after another, parliamentary democracy collapsed in the twenties and thirties, and nowhere more consequently than in Germany, where Mussolini’s admirer, Adolf Hitler, created a dynamic regime based on race, radical nationalism, and anticommunism. Mussolini’s fascism and Hitler’s National Socialism were at once the enemies and the perversions of democratic politics. Both of them blended dictatorial practice with the trappings of participatory politics—a mass party, rallies and demonstrations, and plebiscites.

A few weeks after Mussolini formed his fascist organization in Milan, Lenin established the Third International in Moscow. Lenin’s hopes for world revolution, still very much alive in 1919, were soon disappointed. Contrary to Marxist theory and his own expectations, Lenin was faced with the need to build a socialist society in Russia. This required the violent repression of dissent by the revolutionary regime and then, under Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, the ruthless use of state power to create a new social order from above. Tens of millions died in the doomed attempt to turn the USSR into a workers’ paradise. Like fascism, which claimed to rule on behalf of the nation, Soviet Communism was a perversion of nineteenth century democratic aspirations which sought to conceal a brutal tyranny behind a facade of cynical democratic rhetoric and empty participatory practice. That so many intelligent people outside of the USSR were drawn to communism in the 1920s and 1930s was a symptom of the political malaise that afflicted democratic regimes everywhere in Europe and America.

The second global war of the twentieth century ended in 1945 with the defeat of the fascist powers. The interwar political spectrum, in which democratic regimes had faced enemies from both the left and the right, was now dramatically simplified; radical right-wing parties were discredited, outlawed, and, in some places, vigorously repressed. Almost all of the regimes that emerged from the war’s wreckage declared them-selves to be democratic. In the East, ‘people’s democracies’ were formed under the auspices of the USSR and, with the exception of Yugoslavia and Albania, with the assistance of Soviet armies of occupation; in the West, parliamentary regimes were allied with and, to varying degrees, influenced by the USA. This bipolar division of the continent lasted until 1989, when the creation of a reformist regime in the USSR opened the way for democratic movements throughout Eastern Europe. With remarkable speed and, except in Romania, without violence, the communist regimes were driven from power and new, authentically democratic governments were elected to take their place. With the collapse, first of the Soviet imperium and then of the USSR itself, a new era in the history of democracy—with a new set of problems and possibilities—clearly began.

Among the casualties of the Second World War was European colonialism. The principle of national self-determination, proclaimed by Wilson at the end of the First World War and reaffirmed by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the beginning of the second, was not applied to the non-European world without great delay and difficulty. Obviously Japan lost its overseas possessions when it lost the war. While neither Britain nor France, who were on the winning side in 1918 and 1945, wanted to abandon their colonies, they lacked both the ability and the will to maintain them in the face of indigenous resistance, the hostility of both the USA and the USSR, and the reluctance of their own peoples to support a vigorous defense of their empires. Sometimes peacefully, some-times after violent wars of liberation, Europe’s former colonies achieved independence; by the 1980s virtually no residue of direct imperial rule remained. Although the struggle against colonialism was carried out in the name of national self-determination, it proved to be extremely difficult to plant democratic institutions in the new states. With a few notable exceptions, most significantly India, the world’s largest democracy, most of Europe’s former colonies, especially in Africa, fell under authoritarian regimes, often based on the power of the military. For many of the world’s population, therefore, the promise of democracy remained unfulfilled.

5. Conclusion

Despite democracy’s disappointing record in much of Africa and Asia, there are more functioning democracies in the world at the beginning of the twenty first century than at any other time in history. Furthermore, alternative sources of political authority have apparently disappeared; even dictatorial regimes usually feel obliged to exercise power in the people’s name. Elections, even when they are manifestly fraudulent, have become the essential rituals through which authority is legitimized.

Although the alternatives to democracy have largely disappeared, at least in theory, debates about democracy’s meaning continue. Some of these debates are new versions of old contests about the composition of the demos, the procedures best suited to guarantee democratic representations, the social and cultural preconditions of popular rule, and the proper scope of democratic politics. Some of the contemporary de-bates over democracy’s meaning reflect new sources of conflict, such as the question of how—or whether— ethnic minorities should be shielded from the impact of majority rule? Others concern the extension of democratic principles into families, schools, religious institutions, healthcare systems.

These debates, as painful and occasionally destructive as they sometimes are, reflect the continued vitality of the democratic tradition. A more serious danger to democracy is a growing skepticism about whether democratic institutions can solve the most significant problems people face in their everyday existence. To the rich, democracy sometimes seems superfluous, an unnecessary distraction from the challenges and opportunities of private life. In the USA, for instance, less half of those eligible turn out to vote in national elections. To the poor, democracy can seem irrelevant, a woefully inadequate antidote to the poisonous power of poverty, violence, and political corruption. Over the past two centuries, the democratic vision has survived defeat and outlived its historic enemies; if it is to survive and flourish in the new century, it must recapture—and in some places, attain for the first time—its hold on ordinary men and women’s political imagination.


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