History & Democracy

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If the modern understanding of democracy is ‘a torch that shines for a time before burning you’  – think of the great city state of Athens and Renaissance city republics – it feels as if the very social fabric that most democratic institutions are founded on are beginning to go through stress tests, but the question is are they strong enough to withstand the onslaught of social pressure.

To get an understanding of the current political trends, one must conceptualize democracy not as a shining torch that passes from one society to another but as a collection of the highest quality vases that develop independently and are then put on display for humanity to analyze and evolve on. The core feature of democracy – that those who rule can do so only with the consent of the people – has a rich history across time and geography, and is distinguished in each instance where it has developed. 

Over several millennia and across the globe, early democracy was an institution in which rulers governed jointly with councils and assemblies of the people. In fact, here in the Great North developed an experimental form of democracy by the Huron and the Iruquois in the Woodlands of Southeastern Canada. These councils and assemblies were also common in the republics of Ancient India, Mesopotamia, and across various city states.  Classical Greece provided particularly important instances of this thinking about democracy, and indeed even gave us the work ‘demokratia’ itself. But, just like the Founding Fathers of the United States, we must not content ourselves with only one example when many are available, and so early democratic societies from around the world will provide valuable insight into the historical development of democracy. 

The core feature of early democracy was that the people had power, even if multiparty elections (today, often thought to be a definitive feature of democracy) didn’t happen. The people, or at least some significant fraction of them, exercised this power in many different ways. In some cases, a ruler was chosen by a council or assembly, and was limited to being first among equals. In other instances, a ruler inherited their position, but faced constraints to seek consent from the people before taking actions both large and small. The alternative to early democracy was autocracy, a system where one person ruled on their own via bureaucratic subordinates whom they had recruited and remunerated.

Early democratic governance is clearly apparent in some ancient societies in Mesopotamia as well as in India. It flourished in a number of places in the Americas before European conquest, such as among the Huron and the Iroquois in the Northeastern Woodlands and in the ‘Republic of Tlaxcala’ that abutted the Triple Alliance, more commonly known as the Aztec Empire. It was also common in precolonial Africa. In all of these societies there were defining features that tended to reinforce early democracy: small scale, a need for rulers to depend on the people for knowledge, and finally the ability of members of society to exit to other locales if they were unhappy with a ruler. 

To understand the frailties of the modern democractic experience, a closer look at early democracy can assist us in understanding what we might need to do to return to the fundamentals of demokratia.

The first difference between early democracy and our democracies today is that this earlier form of rule was a small-scale phenomenon. In some cases, governance took place only at the level of a small community, as was the case with the Hidatsa, an Indigenous American group living on the banks of the upper Missouri River. When governance was local like this, councils tended to meet very frequently. In other instances, such as with the Mesopotamian Kingdom of Mari, a larger polity existed, but early democracy remained a local phenomenon practised through the assemblies of individual towns. These might meet to consider how taxes should be allotted. It was rarer to see an early democracy that had a larger-scale assembly that drew members from multiple locations as did the Huron confederacy.

Small scale had a critical implication for the nature of politics; in Classical Athens, among the Hidatsa and in the Kingdom of Mari, those who had the right to participate in politics tended to do so in a very direct and intensive way, particularly in local assemblies. In modern democracy, participation is very broad – often broader than in early democracy – but it’s also not deep; for most of us, it’s limited to voting in elections every few years, and in between these moments others make the decisions. One way to address the problem of scale is to delegate much more power to states, provinces and localities. Some form of federalism can help alleviate the alienation brought on by a combination of a large population with varying regional differences and a growing and dispassionate central government.

For example, Canadian federalism maintained a certain cohesiveness to its vast land and scattered population by devolving powers to each province and granting them special political privileges. 

Secondly, polarization seems to be eating democracy alive as more and more polls show that people across the globe are becoming more divided and tribal – potential side effects of the evolution of social media and large population growth leading to distrust of government.

Consider the example of the reforms implemented by Cleisthenes in Athens beginning in the year 508 BCE. In the decades prior to this date, the Athenians had developed a collective form of governance with a Council of 400, which was composed of 100 members from each of 4 historical tribes.  Seeking to change matters, upon assuming power in 508 BCE, Cleisthenes revamped Athenian society by doing away with the four traditional tribes and creating 10 new ones to replace them.

Aristotle later recounted a crucial element of Cleisthenes’ reform: he assigned individual local groups of people called ‘demes‘ by lot into each of the 10 new tribes, therefore ‘intermixing the members’ of the prior four tribes. Aristotle states further that Cleisthenes made sure that the new tribes weren’t geographically concentrated; instead, each had ‘deme‘ membership from the city, the coast and the interior of the Attic Peninsula.

 Importantly, the principle of Cleisthenes’ reform is far from unique; we have eloquent examples of people in other early democracies across multiple continents doing more or less the same thing. To see this, we can return to examples of the Huron and the Iroquois societies, each of which was divided – much like the Athenians – into separate tribes. This might seem like a system that would be ripe for intertribal conflict. But the Huron and the Iroquois had an ingenious system to fight against localism and polarisation.

They divided their society not only into tribes, composed of villages, but also into clans that cross-cut tribal divisions. So, if you were a member of the wolf clan in an individual village among the Cayuga tribe in the Iroquois confederacy, to take one example, then you had a natural affiliation with Cayuga members of that clan from other villages, and you also had a link to members of the wolf clan in other Iroquois tribes. The clear intent of this system was to better bind society together by mitigating polarization along tribal lines.

The lessons are clear: we will be best positioned to preserve our own democracies if we recognise that the history of democracy is much broader and deeper than is often presumed. People around the world, throughout history, have devised democratic institutions and practised democracy. We can learn from their experience to see where democracy today is weakest and get to working on solutions to strengthening it.

Thanks for reading!

Kareem Abdurazag


Writer | Culture & Humanities Blogger

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