Many modern countries would consider their democratic systems a point of pride, something that sets them apart from their ancestors and the tyrannies that they often lived under. Indeed, democracy is something to be proud of. The right of citizens to have a say in the rules that maintain peace and prosperity among them is one of the most important freedoms that a system of government can provide.
All of that said, there’s no such thing as a perfect democracy. The individual liberties that are written into many nations’ constitutions are still not universally enjoyed. Governments continue to change, hopefully for the better, but that change tends to be gradual and uncertain. As much as new technologies and ideas can give us hope for the future, the problems of the present keep staring us in the face.
By understanding the history of democracy throughout the world, and how it has changed over the millennia that it can be said to have existed, we might have a better chance of seeing how the tools we have available to us right now can help shape more effective democratic institutions in the future.
The First Democracies
The hunting and gathering lifestyles of some of the earliest humans are studied via what those humans left behind, like pottery, paintings, and the remnants of villages, but also by studying similarly structured societies that exist today. Though the material circumstances of hunter-gatherer people in Africa and elsewhere have often changed with the availability of modern conveniences, scholars believe that the actual social structure of certain groups has been mostly unchanged.
These groups are tightly knit, usually blood related, and small, consisting of only 50 to 100 people. They’ve been described as “tribal,” but don’t rely on chiefs or authoritarian leaders. In essence, these groups are democracies in which every individual has a voice, though certain group members, especially more respected or experienced ones, tend to hold more sway.
This form of democracy is almost certainly as old as humanity itself. It would have been the standard method of decision making until people formed cities large enough to necessitate a centralized political power.
Greece and Rome
Perhaps the most well known historical democracy belonged to Athens. Arguments have been made that urban democratic societies existed first in Mesopotamia, around the Indian subcontinent, and in other Greek city states, but the Athenian democracy was the model that was most directly carried forward by future democratic states.
Athens’ democracy was a direct one, but not an equal one. Members of government were chosen by lot, essentially at random, from the pool of eligible candidates, and never served consecutively in the same position. There were no representatives, people’s voices were heard directly. That said, only free Athenian men who had completed military training were able to vote, though, so only about 20% of people actually had a say in government.
The Athenian system was only able to operate as simply as it did, without representatives, because the voting population of Athens was small enough to allow everyone to participate in person. In Rome, the same system wouldn’t have been able to function.
In the Roman system we see one designed to combine democratic rule with monarchic rule, and a system which boasted the benefits and suffered the disadvantages of both methods. The common people were represented by the assemblies, which most closely resembled the Athenian democracy which had come before. The assemblies were the Roman legislative branch. Individual Romans cast ballots in order to pass laws.
The assemblies’ power was checked by the other branches of roman government. The consuls, a pair of monarchs, presided over all government, and commanded armies. The senate, composed of a Roman aristocracy, had the power to issue decrees and manage foreign policy. Though the assemblies held important abilities within the Roman system, their power was strictly limited, as was their right to open debate.
Most modern democracies share more in common with the mixed roman model than the Athenian model, and most suffer from some of the same shortcomings. A power balance in favor of the wealthy, educated, and powerful is nearly universal, but the issue of providing the people with true power while maintaining stability isn’t an easy one to solve. Some of the best known and earliest democracies that still operate today belong to the United States and United Kingdoms, and both are undeniably flawed.
The representative democracy used in the United States takes the power to invent laws out of the people’s hands, but allows them to elect those who do, making United States citizens less involved in government than their Roman counterparts, but perhaps allowing their interests to be better represented.
In the UK, the government is divided into the house of lords and of commons, both representative bodies, but with an undeniable similarity to the Roman senate and assemblies. The house of lords, as well as the presence of a monarchy, have their roots in British tradition and history, reflecting the need to maintain a familiar order to keep the peace during the transition to democracy.
Though both the US and UK offer their citizens the right to participate in government, both countries have excluded certain groups from the governing process. Gerrymandering and similar tactics have been used to suppress votes in America, and throughout history both the UK and US have been reluctant to offer the same rights to their imperial territories as they provide citizens on the mainland.
Democracy Going Forward
What we tend to think of as modern democracies can range from very new to very old. Some of the earliest of the bunch have a few hundred years on the most recent, but many of them rely on the same concepts of representative rule, checks and balances, and term limits on powerful positions. None of these ideas are particularly new, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Democracy has evolved slowly up to this point.
With the new tools being made available through computer technology and the internet, however, that evolution might start to speed up. Barriers to direct democracy can be steep. Collecting ballots from over one hundred million people is hard enough when it only needs to be done once a year, and it would be unsustainable if every citizen needed to vote traditionally on every piece of legislation. With computers, though, votes could be cast and collected instantly from anywhere with a WiFi connection. AI could count and process votes in a fraction of the time that it would take a team of hundreds to process standard ballots. Technologies like blockchain could be used to double check every vote, helping to ensure security.
Maybe even more important than the technology that could make large scale democracy operate more smoothly would be that which could help engage people more directly with the local government bodies that have the most direct influence on their lives. Institutions like the public comment period have existed for decades as a method for collecting specific feedback on government works, but new technology has made them more relevant to democracy than ever. Public comment software can empower citizens to have their voices heard beyond just yes / no votes by giving their governments the tools to efficiently collect and process more long-form feedback. Similar software might even be applicable outside of a traditional public comment period, used to collect feedback on much larger scale changes.
With tools like public comment software, blockchain, and the countless advancements in communication that will no doubt follow them, we have an opportunity to make our democracies fairer and more accessible. The trick is putting it all together.