Stuff You Should Know: Democracy

By: Josh R.

Our own United States government is a self-proclaimed “democracy,” but what is a democracy, and does it really exist in a “pure form”?

     The word “democracy” comes from the ancient Greek “demokratia,” meaning rule of the people (demos=people; kratos=rule of). A democracy in the loosest sense of the word is a government run by the people. However, can that government actually function? Usually when a government is “run by the people,” it is either not really that democratic, or else it just seems to fall apart.

A democracy is an alternative to a system in which an entire nation of thousands to millions of citizens is controlled by one or a very small group of people. This governmental shortcoming is best pointed out in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense: “Small islands not capable of protecting themselves are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.” This language is criticizing the idea of so few attempting to govern so many; therefore, without making that much of a stretch, it is clear that it is equally as ridiculous for one person, or even a small group of people to try to govern thousands, or millions, of people. This is where democracy comes in to play.

Democracies are a great way for a lot of citizens to share the political burden, have a say in their own government, and successfully represent many different interests, regions, and people in the various locales of a nation; moreover, no one person can represent a nation in its entirety, good or bad. However, democracy isn’t perfect either, especially when trying to understand and manage “ideal” democracies.

Perfect examples of “ideal” democracies proving to be less than “ideal” include ancient Athens, the fabled Roman Republic, and the short-lived French democracy at the turn of the 19th century. Despite the fact that the word “democracy” comes from ancient Greek, Athenians didn’t necessarily live up to the democratic standards we credit them with nowadays. Athenian democracy was fairly democratic in most ways, but in some cases human nature overpowered the democratic system. When a council of Grecian commoners gathered to debate and decide on an issue, the issue was presented by an elected speaker. If the speaker or any other politician became too powerful, he would be ostracized from Athenian democracy. This usually worked okay, in all but one notable example: Pericles.

Pericles was an eloquent spokesman who was so persuasive that he could convince the Athenian people to vote for anything. Pericles became so influential that he was too powerful to ostracize, even as his power grew. By not ousting Pericles, Athens had made what would prove to be a dangerous pattern for subsequent democracies. The Athenian government never fully recovered from the Pericles’ (arguably unintentional) seizing of the government.

The Roman Republic and the very brief post-revolution French government were both plagued by the Grecian pattern of one man holding too much power over the democracy. One example is a Roman rule stating that the senate could elect a single leader of Rome in times of crisis. Unfortunately, the Roman senate had no way of forcing the consuls to step down after the crisis had blown over and the intended one-year limit was up on the seat. For example, Julius Caesar got a few of his friends (Pompey and Crassus) together to form a “triumverate,” and Caesar swiftly overthrew the Roman government and became a “king in everything but name.” The French democracy fell in a similar way. The post-revolution provisional government drafted a constitution and elected their first democratic leader, Napoleon Bonaparte. We all know how that went: Napoleon overthrew his nation’s democratic government when he seized too much personal power.

The crucial failing of even the most pure and idealistic democracies occurs when an unusually powerful and charismatic individual grabs power from and subsequently destabilizes the government. A democracy may not even exist in its purest form, because to a degree it cannot; moreover, it may be impossible to maintain, for the freedom and representation that defines a democracy can be manipulated by powerful individuals to overthrow a seemingly ideal government. A dictatorship fails when the power is too consolidated; however, when the people have too much power, it is easily abused.

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