Democracy Then and Now


While wars today are fought in the name of democracy as if democracy were a moral ideal as well as an easily identifiable government style, it is not and never has been that black and white. Democracy—when all citizens of a society vote on all issues and each vote is considered equally important as all others—was invented by the Greeks who lived in small city-states called poleis. Contact with the wide world was slower. Life lacked modern conveniences. Voting machines were primitive, at best.

But the people—the ones who put the demo- in democracy—were intimately involved in decisions that affected them and would be appalled that bills to be voted on now require reading through thousand-page tomes. They might be even more aghast that people actually vote on those bills without doing the reading.

What Do We Call Democracy?

The world was stunned in 2008 when George W. Bush was first named the winner of the U.S. presidential race, even though more U.S. voters had cast ballots for former vice-president Al Gore. In 2016 Donald Trump beat out Hillary Clinton in the electoral college but only obtained a minority of the public votes. How could the U.S. call itself a democracy, yet not select its officials on the basis of majority rule?

Part of the answer is that the U.S. was never established as a pure democracy, but instead as a republic where voters elect representatives and electors, who make those decisions. Whether there has ever been anything close to a pure and total democracy anywhere at any time is debatable. There has certainly never been universal suffrage: in ancient Athens, only male citizens were allowed to vote. That left out well more than half the population. In that respect, at least, modern democracies is far more inclusive than ancient Greece.

Athenian Democracy

Democracy is from the Greek: demos means more or less "the people," cracy derives from kratos which means "strength or rule," so democracy = rule by the people. In the 5th century BCE, the Athenian democracy was made up of a set of assemblies and courts staffed by people with very short terms (some as short s a day)—over one-third of all citizens over the age of 18 served at least one year-long term over the course of their lives.

Unlike our modern enormous, spread-out, and diverse countries today, ancient Greece was a handful of small related city-states. The Athenian Greek governmental system was designed to resolve problems within those communities. The following are roughly chronological problems and solutions that led to what we think of as Greek democracy:

  1. The Four Tribes of Athens: Society was divided into two social classes, the upper of which sat with the king in council for major problems. The ancient tribal kings were too weak financially and the uniform material simplicity of life enforced the idea that all tribesmen had rights.
  2. Conflict Between Farmers and Aristocrats: With the rise of the hoplite (the Greek infantry made up of non-equestrian, non-aristocrats), ordinary citizens of Athens could become valued members of society if they had enough wealth to provide themselves the body armor needed to fight in the phalanx.
  3. Draco, the Draconian Law-Giver: The privileged few in Athens had been making all the decisions for long enough. By 621 BCE the rest of the Athenians were no longer willing to accept arbitrary, oral rules of "those who lay down the law" and judges. Draco was appointed to write down the laws: and when they were written down the public recognized how harsh they were.
  4. Solon's Constitution: Solon (630–560 BCE) redefined citizenship so as to create the foundations of democracy. Before Solon, the aristocrats had a monopoly on the government by virtue of their birth. Solon replaced the hereditary aristocracy with four social classes based on wealth.
  5. Cleisthenes and the 10 Tribes of Athens: When Cleisthenes (570–508 BCE) became a chief magistrate, he had to face the problems Solon had created 50 years earlier through his compromising democratic reforms. Foremost among them was the allegiance of citizens to their clans. In order to break such loyalties, Cleisthenes divided the 140–200 demes (natural divisions of Attica and the basis of the word "democracy") into three regions: the city of Athens, the inland farms, and the coastal villages. Each deme had a local assembly and a mayor, and all of them reported up to a popular assembly. Cleisthenes is credited with instituting moderate democracy.

The Challenge: Is Democracy an Efficient System of Government?

In ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, not only were children denied the vote (an exception we still consider acceptable), but so were women, foreigners, and slaves. People of power or influence weren't concerned with the rights of such non-citizens. What mattered was whether or not the unusual system was any good. Was it working for itself or for the community? Would it be better to have an intelligent, virtuous, benevolent ruling class or a society dominated by a mob seeking material comfort for itself?

In contrast with the law-based democracy of the Athenians, monarchy/tyranny (rule by one) and aristocracy/oligarchy (rule by the few) were practiced by neighboring Hellenes and Persians. All eyes turned to the Athenian experiment, and few liked what they saw.

Beneficiaries of Democracy Endorse It

Some of the philosophers, orators, and historians of the day supported the idea of one-man, one-vote while others were neutral to unfavorable. Then as now, whoever benefits from a given system tends to support it. The historian Herodotus wrote a debate of the proponents of the three governmental types (monarchy, oligarchy, democracy); but others were more willing to take sides.

  • Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was a fan of oligarchy, saying that government was best conducted by people with the leisure to practice it.
  • Thucydides (460–400 BCE) supported democracy as long as there was an adept leader at the helm—such as Pericles—but otherwise he thought it could be dangerous.
  • Plato (429–348 BCE) felt that although it was nearly impossible to impart political wisdom, everyone, no matter what his trade or level of poverty could participate in democracy. 
  • Aeschines (389–314 BCE) said that government works best if it is ruled by law, not ruled by people. 
  • Pseudo-Xenophon (431–354 BCE) said that good democracy leads to bad legislation, and good legislation is the forced imposition of will by the more intelligent. 

Sources and Further Reading

  • Goldhill, Simon, and Robin Osborne (eds). "Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy." Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Raaflaub, Kurt A., Josiah Ober, and Robert Wallace. "Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece." Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2007.
  • Rhodes, P. J. "Athenian Democracy." Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Roper, Brian S. "The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation." Pluto Press, 2013.