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Rethinking democracy

The Decline and Rise of Democracy. A Global History from Antiquity to Today, Let the People Rule. How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge
DEMOCRACY / The Greeks do not have the patent on the idea of ​​«democracy». And are referendums a necessity to get democracy back on track?


When slavery became common in North America, the society that would soon become the United States was one of the most democratic societies in the world. It sounds like once absurd nonsense, but try to follow the thought to the end: 72 percent. male residents of American Massachusetts had the right to vote, but only 3 percent. of the people of British democracy.

At that time, the colonies were small and sparsely populated, and there was no strong central administration. For the settlers, it was a simple matter to break up and move west if they were not satisfied with the conditions, and therefore the political leadership chose to involve large sections of the population to strengthen the sense of belonging. When we reached 1772, when the United States became independent, it was actually 72 percent. of all male residents of the state Massachusetts, who had the right to vote, and thus co-influence. In comparison, only 3 per cent had of the people of the highly acclaimed British democracy at the time.

At the same time, the young nation was suffering from chronic labor shortages, and this stood in the way of economic growth and stability, which were considered crucial to building a modern democracy. So to strengthen this part of the development, they introduced slaveryet. This, of course, is at odds with our view of democracy, but that was not the case at the time.

Ubomír Kotrha (Republic of Slovakia). Demo-Dictation. See Libex.Eu

Medieval Italian city-states

David Stasavage, a professor of political science at New York University, has in The Decline and Rise of Democracy rethought democracy and the rise of democracy, and thus he also comes up with a new and original explanation of how the whole democratic thought has apparently run off track. Just look at a Donald Trump, who is constantly gambling with the principles of democracy, and the current American crisis, which in this view is a direct extension of the introduction of slavery – in the name of democracy.

We often boast that we have taken our democratic tradition in ancient Greece, but that is not how things are connected at all, according to Stasavage. When the first infancy of modern democracy appeared in the Middle Agess Italian city-states, there were still a few hundred years until Aristotle was translated into Latin. The democratic beginnings of the Middle Ages arose not on the basis of beautiful ideals, but of something as earthy as sheer necessity. The city-states were small and weak, and the local princes did not have the means to keep a standing army – or a strong central administration – to keep it all together. They were forced to delegate power and decisions, and while this was not a trace democratically by modern standards, it was nevertheless a beginning. That with the beautiful heritage of antiquity came about as a later post-rationalization.

The French Sun King is a textbook example of a regent who had just violated this rule of thumb. He believed himself safe, but had no strong military to keep the population in check, and so the French Revolution came in 1789. At that time, the French economy was on the same level as Tanzania today, and therefore the revolution had to be democratic. with the delegation of decisions. A military coup with a strong central state behind it could not be considered.

De Greeke city-states with their democratic tradition should not be neglected, nor should Aristotle be belittled. But the Greeks do not have a patent on the idea. Democracy has emerged in many places throughout history, and usually on its own and local terms.

When the first Europeans arrived North America and began to colonize the country, they met Huronthe Indians, and they had aligned themselves with a local democracy that was far above the then European standard. Here a chief could be deposed if his leadership was not satisfactory, and the women always had the last word. The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cuts had the same aha experience when in 1519 he arrived in the capital of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan. He described local democracy as an advanced version of the Venetian.

Classical local democracy

In the end, growth and prosperity became the worst enemy of democracy, and that is the problem we live with today. In the beginning, the Americans elected their representatives in Washington once a year, and they all had a mandate, as well as a duty to report back to the political hinterland. But as the economy grew and the administration became more complex, this system was abandoned. The elected representatives were given greater freedom, and little by little what Stasavage calls "periodic democracy" emerged. It is the state of the day where the electorate really only has influence every four years. Or to put it another way: once a Donald Trump has been elected, voters have very little chance of objecting to him before there are elections next time.

In this way, democracy has ended up being deficient, and this is due, according to another author, to a gaping lack of classical local democracy. It's John Matsusaka from the University of Southern California, and he's using his new book Let the People Rule to take a closer look at how direct democracy can meet the populist challenge.

In his eyes sat Trump in fact, the finger on the sore spot when, up until the 2016 presidential election, he went on the attack on “The Swamp,” that is, the elite in Washington. But it was still clean populism, because his alternative did not offer the real local democracy that is needed. Local democracy in the modern world is for example referendums, and such a one the United States as a nation has never had. This is the case elsewhere in the world. Europe, of course, and even autocratic Vietnam have conducted successful referendums.

How can direct democracy meet the populist challenge?

However, one should not blindly trust such lifeline. Matsusaka sees Brexit as a shining example of how populism prevailed and asked citizens to take a stand on a case without being able to see the consequences.

A diagnosis

Together, the two books make a diagnosis. One gets the sublime thoughts about the nature of democracy a little down to earth, and the other puts the finger on some current challenges. None of them come with easy-to-buy solutions, but set a lot of thoughts in motion. However, Matsusaka suggests that the reassessment of society, which must necessarily be the result of Covid-19, should also set in motion the idea of ​​how democracy can get back on track.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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