We hear a great deal about division and decline these days. It all sounds very dire, but what are we actually talking about? When Eurocentric people pontificate about democracy, we do well to take a long look at what is actually being said. Democracy is a good idea, but in practice things haven’t gone as well as we might at first suppose.
Take the much touted ancient Greek attempts for example. Demos in Greek meant “common people.” What the Greeks discovered is that rule by the majority has at least two very difficult challenges:
- democracy is terribly inefficient and is arguably unworkable when a country is facing a crisis, and
2. rule by the majority often takes away the rights of the minority.
It was, for example, a legal, democratic vote that condemned the philosopher Socrates to execution. (Though, in fact, Socrates was a harsh critic of democracy.)
The Greeks never found a way out of these conundrums, except through the periodic rule of tyrants.
Now, think a moment about our governmental buildings here in the US. How many of them are faux-Greek or faux-Roman architecture?
They allude to a past that did not occur.
In addition to the buildings, the founders of the US are often depicted as Romans in togas, alluding to the supposed democracy of pre-imperial Rome.
The Romans did for a time practice representative democracy, the sort practiced in the US. However, as is the case with Greece, the Roman experiment failed. Walking around Rome today, you still see public works with the letters SPQR on them: “The Senate and People of Rome.” But who were “the people”? We still use the terms “patrician” and “plebeian,” roughly with their original meanings, and those words tell us how it really was.
The divisions between rich and poor were absolute. Law even forbad patricians and plebeians from marrying each other.
We also do well to remember that something between a quarter to nearly half of the people in ancient Rome were enslaved. They had no rights at all. Women of whatever class didn’t fare much better.
When we talk about democracies and republics, these were the models in the minds of many of the founders of the US. Ancient Greece and ancient Rome sounded good to them, because the Europe of the 1770s was worse.
(The positive models for government were the practices of natives. But the founders of the US didn’t admit to emulating those.)
Here in the US after the revolution, a sharp divide very quickly became apparent between those who wished to perpetuate the rule of the elite and those who wished to see a broader citizenship — still limited to white men, however.
So, back to the question: What is it we mean by the abstraction “democracy”?
Take a quick peek at where so-called democracy has flourished. First to consider: the successful democracies we can name usually have small geographic areas and small populations. Switzerland and Costa Rica come to mind.
Whether it be Rome before Julius Caesar, late-Victorian England, or the post-World War Two US, the larger democracies and republics follow a pattern: Territorial expansion. Abundant natural resources. Military dominance. Trade dominance. A well-educated professional elite that rules, despite the pretense to democracy.
And their success comes to an end with glaring inequality and political strife.
There’s lots of angst and noise at the moment. Despite being a Humanist, I do agree with some of our Christian friends that the solution is a spiritual one. Not the spiritual one that imagines every knee bowing to Christ, but rather the spiritual one in which humility and compassion rule the day.