Lessons from all democracies

David Stasavage at Aeon: “Today, many people see democracy as under threat in a way that only a decade ago seemed unimaginable. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it seemed like democracy was the way of the future. But nowadays, the state of democracy looks very different; we hear about ‘backsliding’ and ‘decay’ and other descriptions of a sort of creeping authoritarianism. Some long-established democracies, such as the United States, are witnessing a violation of governmental norms once thought secure, and this has culminated in the recent insurrection at the US Capitol. If democracy is a torch that shines for a time before then burning out – think of Classical Athens and Renaissance city republics – it all feels as if we might be heading toward a new period of darkness. What can we do to reverse this apparent trend and support democracy?

First, we must dispense with the idea that democracy is like a torch that gets passed from one leading society to another. The core feature of democracy – that those who rule can do so only with the consent of the people – wasn’t invented in one place at one time: it evolved independently in a great many human societies.

Over several millennia and across multiple continents, early democracy was an institution in which rulers governed jointly with councils and assemblies of the people. From the Huron (who called themselves the Wendats) and the Iroquois (who called themselves the Haudenosaunee) in the Northeastern Woodlands of North America, to the republics of Ancient India, to examples of city governance in ancient Mesopotamia, these councils and assemblies were common. Classical Greece provided particularly important instances of this democratic practice, and it’s true that the Greeks gave us a language for thinking about democracy, including the word demokratia itself. But they didn’t invent the practice. If we want to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of our modern democracies, then early democratic societies from around the world provide important lessons.

The core feature of early democracy was that the people had power, even if multiparty elections (today, often thought to be a definitive feature of democracy) didn’t happen. The people, or at least some significant fraction of them, exercised this power in many different ways. In some cases, a ruler was chosen by a council or assembly, and was limited to being first among equals. In other instances, a ruler inherited their position, but faced constraints to seek consent from the people before taking actions both large and small. The alternative to early democracy was autocracy, a system where one person ruled on their own via bureaucratic subordinates whom they had recruited and remunerated. The word ‘autocracy’ is a bit of a misnomer here in that no one in this position ever truly ruled on their own, but it does signify a different way of organising political power.

Early democratic governance is clearly apparent in some ancient societies in Mesopotamia as well as in India. It flourished in a number of places in the Americas before European conquest, such as among the Huron and the Iroquois in the Northeastern Woodlands and in the ‘Republic of Tlaxcala’ that abutted the Triple Alliance, more commonly known as the Aztec Empire. It was also common in precolonial Africa. In all of these societies there were several defining features that tended to reinforce early democracy: small scale, a need for rulers to depend on the people for knowledge, and finally the ability of members of society to exit to other locales if they were unhappy with a ruler. These three features were not always present in the same measure, but collectively they helped to underpin early democracy….(More)”