Democracy the Institution of Democracy - Origins


The Institution of Democracy - Origins and Dynamics

What is democracy? What is democracy expected to bring to a culture or a nation? When were the ideals that today citizens embrace as "freedom" initially launched as democracy? What political rights and restrictions are based on democratic principles and how do minority cultures interact with majority cultures in a democratic nation? These questions are all pertinent to the study of law in society, and they will all be addressed and evaluated through scholarly research in this paper.

Introduction to Democracy and its Beginnings

Arend Lijphart's books, articles, lectures and theories are all considered valuable when a discussion of democracy as a philosophy is initiated among alert scholars and researchers. In his book the Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands, Lijphart explains that a "democracy" is simply a system of government "in which the people have the opportunity to select their own leaders." But a "stable democracy" is a democracy in which eventual problems, "tensions and conflicts" are not allowed to "pile up"; a stable democracy is one in which the system has sufficient capabilities to "meet the demands placed upon it... [and this] requires more the maintenance of a stable order" (Lijphart 71).

The stable democracy is one that allows for - and even embraces - "peaceful change" Lijphart writes (72). He uses Holland as a classic case of a stable democracy in his book, asserting that since the year 1848 there have not been any open rebellions, or civil wars, or any violence against the government - and that the only "major liberalization" of the Dutch constitution (which took place in 1848) was not the result of any revolutionary activities (72). While indeed there have been cabinet crises in Holland - periods in which "the major parties are engaged in intense efforts of basic policy-making" (Lijphart 76).

In some instances nationalism can create chaos in a country, such as the extreme nationalism - promoted by the fanatical Hitler - in Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s. But Lijphart explains that nationalism in Holland has had a positive effect on the government; he asserts that "consensus" in the Netherlands has been a "vitally important element" in keeping peace among elected officials and bureaucrats in government. To wit, he is suggesting that albeit Holland has various "blocs" that have their own interests and of course those "special interests" or conservative or liberal blocs - as a matter of course - attempt to promote their agendas vigorously. But the difference in Holland can be seen in the fact that the "desire to preserve the existing system" trumps the desire for blocks to promote narrow agendas.

And what makes this consensus kind of democracy flow and rise to challenges so successfully in the Netherlands? Lijphart (79) asserts that nationalism is keeping Dutch political infighting at a minimum - and Lijphart's concept of nationalism in this context is "...the feeling of belonging to a common nation as well as to one's own block" (Lijphart 79). Along with nationalism - and side-by-side with nationalism - is patriotism, Lijphart explains on page 82. He is not alluding to the kind of "patriotism" used to drive a wedge between blocs of people - such as George W. Bush did with reference to Iraq (e.g., if you don't support the president in this war you're unpatriotic) - but rather Lijphart refers to national symbols of patriotism that draw diverse Dutch blocs together in pride. The flag, the national anthem along with the K.L.M. (Royal Dutch Airlines) and the House of Orange are all patriotic symbols revered in Holland. But also seen as a patriotic symbol in Holland is the "massive project of land reclamation" (including dikes) that has cost the taxpayer enormously but shows the "never quit" determination of the people in Holland.

Origins of Democracy / Evaluation of Democracy - Athenian Democracy

An essay by Ellen Meiksins Wood ("Democracy: An Idea of Ambiguous Ancestry") in the book Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy reviews the concept of Athenian democracy. Wood starts by reminding readers on page 60 that women and slaves were not able to participate and quotes Aristotle's definition: "The proper application of... 'democracy' is to a constitution in which the free-born and poor control the government - being at the same time a majority."

Wood rejects the common belief that Athens was the great example of democracy, since the majority (women, slaves, "resident aliens") did not "enjoy" the fruits of citizenship. By any reasonable measure a democracy should include women, but that said it is a fact that in the United States democracy women did not have the right to vote until 1940, so passing harsh judgment on ancient Athens is unfair. Meanwhile, in ancient Athens, a poor person that did not own property was not excluded from "full political rights" (Wood, 60), which suggests a reasonable serving of democratic principles at a time in history when dictators, kings, and tyrants controlled other nations.

The Athenian concept of democracy, according to Wood (67), meant that the citizen was "masterless, a servant to no mortal man," and by turning "peasants into citizens" Athenian democracy succeeded in "breaking down the age-old opposition between rulers and producers" (Wood 67). The Athenian village became the "constitutive unit of the state" and by doing so peasants became citizens, Wood continues on page 72. Instead of villages - and hence the peasants in those villages - being isolated from the official state power structure in the city, as things played out in other ancient societies, the typical ancient Athenian village peasant held membership in a "deme," which was a geographic unit "generally based" on villages in the countryside.

The democratic political structure, in other words, allowed the village to be incorporated into the state. The "economic corollary" springing from this aspect of ancient Athenian democracy, Wood explains (72), embraced " exceptional degree of freedom for the peasant from extra-economic exactions in the form of rent or tax." Wood goes to some lengths during her essay to juxtapose ancient Athenian form of emerging democracy with what freedoms the medieval peasant was allowed to enjoy in England. For example, unlike peasants in ancient Athenian villages, that medieval peasant in England "remained firmly excluded from the state" (Wood 72). And moreover, that medieval peasant in England had no access to the state in the sense that the state was "the exclusive preserve of feudal lords" (Wood 73).

By the fact of their political participation in the assembly, in the streets, and in the courts, the Athenian peasant citizen was able to avoid being exploited economically, Wood continues; and the "granting of citizenship to peasants and craftsmen" had "substantial consequences for class relations" (Wood 77-76). The only thing Athenians could have done to make democracy complete would have been to extend civil rights to women and slaves.

Kurt a. Raaflaub has published an essay offering additional insights on the ancient democratic society in Athens; according to Raaflaub, professor of classics and history at Brown University, Athenian democracy "in several respects" offered to every citizen the social and political opportunities "...previously open only to the noble and wealthy." And by Raaflaub's reasoning, the peasant community - as a result of the openness of the society - "adopted many of the views and attitudes of the social elite" (Raaflaub 126). Therefore, democracy in Ancient Greece not only "democratized' the aristocracy but 'aristocratized'" the little guy, the peasant, the leather craftsman and the cobbler (Raaflaub 126). In other words, by the very fact that peasant-level citizens could vote and participate in political discussions, it brought everyone in the Athenian culture into the same melting pot.

This form of a democratic society in ancient Athens allowed that all citizens had a duty and a shared responsibility "for the security of the community," Raaflaub writes. And hence, everyone claimed - "and were institutionally enabled to claim" - an equal part in all the "activities, hardships, privileges, and honors connected with political life and full citizen status" (Raaflaub 126). Those above-mentioned positive involvements within the ancient Greek culture were to be enjoyed by everyone except slaves and women. But there were obligations that came along with full political suffrage and participation, and they had to do with service in the military.

Toward the conclusion of the fifth century, naval warfare had grown to become a substantial part of life in Athenian society, which is to say "much larger numbers of citizens were engaged for much longer periods of time" (Raaflaub 126). Being a citizen meant serving in a naval fleet, and while wars were not fought "all the time" but the "danger of war" was "permanent" (Raaflaub 127). Indeed, the essayist quotes Plato on page 127: "What most men call 'peace' is really only a fiction (onoma), and in cold fact all states are by nature (kata physin) fighting an undeclared war against every other state." While every male citizen was required to serveā€¦