In Ancient Greece, democracy was exercised at least one a month, possibly even weekly. The people would cast plebiscitary votes in which every individual had the opportunity to express their opinion on an issue or a leader. Through this process, the people truly had the power over their government, and they got to use it regularly.
Over the course of about 200 years, the ancient Athenians saw at least three different versions of democracy, many ushered in by war. After one war, restrictions on which citizens were loosened significantly (though, it was still limited to “free and legitimate males,”), and another led to a dictatorship that quickly faded into a more stable form of democracy. However, toward the end of the fourth century BC, democracy as Greece had known it was overtaken by oligarchy.
Oligarchy, known as “the rule of a few rich citizens,” eventually came to color the modern world’s understanding of the word “democracy.” As government systems continued to change and evolve, scholars continued to use the Greek word “demokratia,” though what they were encountering was far from the democracy the word had once described. Instead, “demokratia” came to mean “not monarchy, and in practice rule by the rich or richer minority.” As the Christian revolution of 330BC progressed, the
monarchical structure was strengthened by theocracy (a system in which leaders rule in the name of god), and the meaning of the word democracy came to mean something similar to “mob rule.”
Eventually, after much ancient redefinition, America came to understand “democracy” in the literal sense
again, being “government by mass meeting.” However, our way of exercising it is vastly different from that of its creators in Greece. While mass meetings once occurred at least monthly, American citizens get much fewer opportunities to participate. Congressional elections take place every two years, as well as those for the House of Representatives. Senators serve six year terms, and the President of the United States is elected every four years. In this way, American democracy moves much slower than the Ancient Greeks ever intended it to.
According to a study by Bright Line Watch, many political science professors believe that the United
States is doing well democratically in that our right to free speech is protected, we have free and fair elections, and that there are judicial limits on executive power. However, other measures, such as no interference with the press and judicial independence by elected branches of government, came up short.
“It reinforces the story that the U.S. is a high-functioning democracy,” Brendan Nyhan, one of the contributing researchers, said of the study. “It’s not perfect, but it has stronger and more resilient institutions than other countries that have had democratic backsliding or turns toward authoritarianism.”
In many ways, it seems that in the traditional sense of the word, America is succeeding in being a democracy. Though it may appear differently than ancient Greek democracy did, experts rank America as a democratic nation. However, they say, a few missteps or ignored failings could cause it all to fall apart.
Issues of civic behavior in particular are key to protecting democracy. Behaviors such as graciously
accepting election results, accepting losses, and confirmation hearing are all examples of the unnamed
but foundational aspects of American democracy.
“They’re norms not in the Constitution but the kinds of practices that generate compromise, and if they go away things can unravel pretty quickly,” Nyhan told the New York Times.
Democracy has evolved countless times since its inception, and will continue to do so for as long as the
system exists. No matter what the technical definition or exact practices are, the spirit of democracy resides in the ability of the common people to direct the trajectory of their nation.
Sources: independent.co.uk, usa.gov, The New York Times