When we think of justice and the rights of individuals, we tend to think of the wonderful system that is democracy. A long-lasting tradition going as far back as two millennia, democracy, a combination of demos (δεμος), the people, and kratos (κρατος), the state, is seen as the pinnacle of political success, giving power not to the rich or the corrupt, but to the masses. In response to the injustices and enormities enacted by tyrannical rulers, we created a revolutionary government, a government sure to be in the people’s best interests, a government that listened to and acted upon the words of the common, a government seemingly perfect. As we examine the history of and reception of democracy throughout its lifetime, however, we may just find the opposite, lurking behind the curtains of history.
Our story begins in the Archaic age of Greece. The city-state (polis) acted as the main vehicle for Greek civilization. Where democracy begins is in Athens. Around the year 621 B.C.E a man named Draco was elected as lawgiver. His laws, which were harsh, giving name to the adjective ‘Draconian,’ deemed any crime punishable by death. Many of the Greeks found this to be outrageous and downright preposterous, but then again no real laws had theretofore been instated. For the time being, his laws would have to do: that was until the farmer Solon took up Draco’s position circa 594 B.C.E. Like an ancient Marx, Solon acted in favor of the working class,–the farmers in this case–removing all present and future debts owed. Solon also reformed many of Athens’s trade rights on olive oil in addition to the allowance of immigration. Society was then divided into four groups. While only a reserve few had the right to participate in the council of 400 men, all members of the classes could take part in the assembly. Unfortunately, while Solon’s reforms greatly benefitted the farmers and gave them equal rights, it cannot be said that the wealthier folk were too happy about the changes. Shortly thereafter, the tyrant Peisistratus took over in 560 B.C.E, kindly keeping Solon’s system in check, graciously hosting great festivals, and respectfully redistributing land to the wealthy. Peisistratus was not up to standards apparently since he was overthrown by the Athenians and replaced forthwith by aristocrat Cleisthenes. Like Solon before him, Cleisthenes began his work dividing the polis into multiple provinces. The council was revised to hold 500, and each province had 50 representatives. An annual poll would ban bad characters for ten years, an act known as ostracism.
The underdog, the David, the unlikely hero, democracy was created in a time of desperateness, a woeful longing for representation and liberty for all. Democracy, at first glance, looked and still looks to be the, arguably, the greatest system devised; after all, what could go wrong? In truth, many of the Greeks detested democracy. It can even be said that in the wake of democracy, Plato and Aristotle created the concept of political theory and, more specifically, political philosophy. Plato’s magnum opus The Republic (more than just a book on his political ideas) examines the idea of justice, which happens also to include an analysis of democracy. Comparing the state to the soul, Plato identifies three main components: reason, honor, and desire. Plato relates democracy to the last. Democracy manifested as Plato’s desire (epithumia, επιθυμία) and analogous to Freud’s Id, is characterized by indulgence and recklessness. In fact, if you were to ask Plato to rank the types of government, it would go like this: aristocracy, A+; timocracy (honorable), B+; oligarchy, C; democracy, D-; and tyranny, F-. That is correct, Plato said democracy was the second worst government behind tyranny, which should say something. It should be said, though, that Plato was very biased, considering his idol, Socrates, was executed at the hands of the democrats. Plato goes as far as to say democracy is, “The worst of all lawful governments, and the best of all lawless ones,” and is, “in every respect weak and unable to do either great good or any good evil.” Aristotle, who took some pity on the democratic system, had this to say: “[Democracy] A government in the hands of low birth, no property, and unskilled labor.” These opinions are not unfounded, as the idea of giving such extraordinary power to ordinary people is frightening. Plato placed democracy above tyranny because it could easily resort to such an extreme rather easily. The practice of demagoguery, too, was a major problem in Greece, one that if abused by the wrong person, could have catastrophic consequences. This idea of popular sovereignty was even compared to a mob in some cases. Referring to Plato and Aristotle may not be the most effective, insofar as their thoughts are outdated, so I shall quote some recent complaints, too: John Winthrop, famous pilgrim, called democracy “the meanest and worst form of government”; Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said it “[A] government of bullies tempered by editors”; critic George Bernard Shaw wrote, “It [democracy] substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few”; and journalist H.L. Mencken referred to it as “The art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.”
When we think of America, we tend to think of democracy; it is what we are famous for! After overthrowing their British oppressors, the revolutionaries came together and made the United States of America a glorious legacy of democracy, an aspect of our culture that would live on forever, right? Wrong. For those of who you believe America is a democracy, I would like to disabuse you of that misconception. Our government is a constitutional republic; yes, a republic, not a democracy. But surely, you argue, the Founding Fathers had democracy in mind when they first wrote the Constitution. Wrong again. Nowhere in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, or Bill of Rights is the word ‘democracy’ mentioned, the reason being that first, the Founding Fathers themselves were suspicious of and distrusting of democracy; second, they were inspired by the English philosopher Locke, the Swiss philosopher Rousseau, and the French philosophe Montesquieu. Why would a democratic government–a system centered around the people–have separation of powers among the judicial, legislative, and executive branches? Because it is not a democracy. Why would a democratic government, which revolves around the people’s direct representation, require an Electoral College? Because it is not a democracy.
In conclusion, democracy, after a rocky history, is not as it is advertised. No government is perfect, no particular ideology is applicable to all situations, and democracy, though it often thought to be amazing in theory, it, like communism, exists purely in thought. Democracy does serve as a reminder of humanity’s ingenuity and ability adapt to challenges. The neverending quest for justice has not been solved by democracy, and it shan’t for a long time.
For further information: The Great Courses: The Foundations of Western Civilization by Thomas F.X. Noble (2002)
The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought by Mortimer J. Adler (1992)
The Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World,ed. John Roberts (2005)
Lies You Learned at School by Michael Powell (2012)
The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb (2000)
The Politics Book by Nicholas Comfort (2005)