Publication Date

September 1, 2016

Perspectives Section

From the President


  • World

Nelson Mandela casts his vote in South Africa’s first free, nationwide elections, in 1994.

Like many others, I have maintained an article of faith that the people should govern. But in reading about democracy from high school through graduate school—in the history of the United States, Europe, and West Africa under French colonial rule—I often found my ideals challenged. My outlook on democracy now favors what I would call a historian’s approach: to seek out broad generalizations about it but to be satisfied with nuances and more modest conclusions.

The “story of democracy” is often told as beginning in Europe, but major complications should be added to this tale. Switzerland and Venice long maintained republican if not democratic forms of government; the Netherlands was a republic from 1580 to 1795 but has been a monarchy ever since. Democratic impulses emerged elsewhere as well: in the mid-19th century, there were more constitutional and formally democratic governments in the Americas than in Europe. After 1850, constitutional monarchy and representative government spread rapidly in Europe. European colonies in Asia and Africa, however, were ruled auto­cratically, in that citizenship rights were extended only to a tiny number of inhabitants in each territory. In a curious exception, the government of India, modified in 1919 but still under full control of the ­governor-general, was a member of the League of Nations and many international organizations from 1919 on.

At the national level, two main models of democratic government arose: a presidential form in the Americas (led by a strong executive) and a parliamentary form in Europe (led by the legislature). Individual nations worldwide have shifted among these systems. Monarchy and democracy have overlapped in curious fashion. A number of monarchies have shifted from formal monopolies of power under hereditary rulers to electoral systems in which the monarch is a ceremonial head of state. When Norway became independent from Sweden in 1905, it gained at once a king and an elected legislature with a prime minister. Greece and Belgium each became states with kings and parliaments in the 19th century. Spain, Portugal, and France had long disputes in which kings came and went; only Spain retains its king. Thailand created its first prime minister and parliament in 1932. Elizabeth II is head of state in 16 separate nations.

While the national level provides one story, attention to local government enables one to trace the story of democracy much further back in time and to many additional regions. Local bodies in many parts of the world were inclusive and orderly. They included the well-known town meetings of early New England, the cabildos or town councils of Spanish America, and the panchayats of South Asia, representative councils led by senior village notables. Governments among pastoral peoples of Asia and Africa were often conducted by clan and lineage structures; in sub-Saharan Africa, many people lived in small monarchies governed by king and council. In the 20th century, expanding national administrations incorporated local governments, sometimes eliminating local democracies.

Further, democracy refers to more than processes of government within political units—whether nations, colonies, or localities. There is a definite international dimension to democracy and to debates about it: that is, democracy among polities as well as democracy within polities. Those in the West labeled the Cold War a struggle of “democracy vs. communism”; the same struggle was “people’s democracy vs. capitalism” in the East. As great powers, Britain and (especially) the United States crafted foreign policy to spread democratic forms of government that were often associated with bringing “development” to countries by building a stronger “middle class.”

The issue of democracy extends logically to the workings of international organizations and the place of great and small powers within them. The United Nations was founded in 1945 with a balance of powers between the Security Council and the General Assembly. The Security Council includes 10 rotating members and 5 permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—the main winners in World War II. Any of these “big five” can veto action of the council with a negative vote. The General Assembly includes all UN members (currently 193), each with one vote. Differences among the major powers often block the Security Council from action; the General Assembly, through a coalition of smaller and weaker nations, has been able to pass resolutions distasteful to the major powers. Thus, at a global level, the question often arises as to whether decisions should be made by the most powerful (as with the Security Council but also with the World Trade Organization and the World Bank) or by a consensus of the broadest number of participants (as with the General Assembly). This question of global democracy has parallels to questions of democracy at the national and local levels.

Beyond democracy and formal politics, there also arise problems of democracy and informal politics. Occasionally, large groups of people join to express grievances and to demand change that goes beyond normal legislative procedures. Such social movements have called for civil rights; for recognition of national rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, and indigenous rights; for support for temperance; and, recently, for restrictions on immigration as well as movements both for and against rights to abortion. Commonly, social movements arise among people with a relative lack of wealth and power, who feel marginalized by the normal operation of government. At the extreme, social movements can lead to revolutionary change and the overthrow of governments, as with the deposing of the shah in Iran in 1979 and the “people power” movement that displaced Ferdinand Marcos from power in the Philippines in 1986. Calls for the recognition of “human rights” grew in frequency and influence from the 19th century to the 1948 declaration of the United Nations (an effort led by Eleanor Roosevelt), yielding effective nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International in the 1970s.

Finally, concepts of fairness and inclusiveness at all levels of society carry the idea of democracy beyond the strictly governmental. Debates about discrimination by race, ethnicity, and religion are often framed in terms of democratic values. Dramatic changes in popular culture in recent generations have had a democratic effect, as artists and spectators have come to cross lines of nationality, race, and religion. The outpouring of affection at the recent death of boxer Muhammad Ali is clearly a statement about popular culture, and maybe about democracy.

Is the world more democratic today than it was two or three centuries ago? At the local level, the answer is not obvious. Certainly, the forms of government have changed, and local communities are tied more tightly to national communities through schools, taxation, and regulation. Many national communities have gained independence from empires and other nations—though there are still communities in Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere that strongly demand national independence. Recognition of citizenship is now extended to previously marginalized minority groups, including aboriginals in Australia and Roma in Europe. On the other hand, in every country, the proportion of voters in national elections is as low as 40 percent and rarely above 80 percent; large populations of convicts and ex-convicts are denied voting rights and essentially lose their citizenship. In addition, the political struggles of our time generate millions of refugees, driven from their homes to lands of settlement where they lack any formal rights. On balance, it seems that both the formal institutions of democracy and the informal appreciation of human equality have advanced considerably in the past few centuries. But it is never as simple as that. Each new and complex set of issues divides opinion and undercuts consensus, while each new shift in power and wealth reopens the question of how humans may best make their common decisions.

Patrick Manning is president of the AHA.


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Patrick Manning
Patrick Manning

University of Pittsburgh