Monday, January 10, 2022

The Evolution of Democracy

Annamaria on Monday


It isn’t pretty.


In the aftermath of the Trump administration and the January 6th attack on the US Capitol, many American moderate and left-leaning pundits have been calling for the “preservation of our democracy.” I am moved by these calls, but I don’t think “preservation” is the correct word.  


It seems to me that the two forces in conflict right now are arguing over whether the American democracy should continue to evolve or whether the less-than-100%-democratic system of the past will continue as is. Democracy has made enough strides in the last hundred years or so that a sizable faction in my country want to call a halt to its evolution. By way of explanation, let’s take a look at democracy so far. 


My brother Jeff Siger would gleefully announce at the outset that democracy was invented by the ancient Greeks. Quite right!


Until those ancient intellectuals came up with their brilliant idea, humans got along with more primitive modes of governance, some of which are still in use.  All favored the powerful –- physical power being the most primitive. Democracy, as the Greeks practiced it, gave the power of self-governance only to the most powerful people—the educated  overclass of men.  Groups that were underlings by definition—non-Greek men and all women were left out completely.

Smart as it was, the idea of democracy did not catch on.  Might Made Right for quite a long time in the rest of the world.  Cultures emerged that fostered one form of government or another (e.g. theocracy, aristocracy, oligarchy, monarchy). Powerful men stayed in control, made rules that were to their own advantage, and forced everybody to follow them. Major religions arose that taught the population about a supreme being who demanded worship and would punish disobedience.  According to them, God approved of the status quo.  And so the big kahunas kept control.  This was true, pretty much, worldwide.

As human society continued to develop and education of the lower classes became more prevalent, the unfair, undemocratic conditions began to chafe at ordinary people. To ward off revolt, some of those primitive forms of government made token changes. The Magna Carta in England being the shining example.


Of the many armed revolutions against unfair government that have happened between then and now, only the American revolution succeeded in installing democracy.  All the others began with that goal, but all devolved into bloodshed and/or dictatorships.

The founding fathers of the US of A went straight back to the Greek model. They declared that “All men are created equal.”  Their definition of “all men” excluded men who were not white and did not speak English, or maybe also French. And all women.  


But then democracy began to evolve.  Every step along the way toward expanding democracy to include “all people” has been a battle. It seems that the economic and social advantages enjoyed by the ruling class have to be pried from their hands.  Americans have accomplished this by mass protests, and one civil war.


Many countries in the last hundred years have successfully adopted stable forms of democracy. The ones where it seems to be calmly functioning are much smaller than the US, and far, far less diverse.


The question that the United States faces now, it seems to me, is “Can our democracy find a way to continue to evolve to include all people.”

We have no guarantees. Those who are benefited by limiting American democracy are fighting tooth and nail to stop progress. People who care about fairness are crying out to “preserve our democracy.“  So far, these calls have been ignored by the Republican party.  I think what we really need is to go to the next step in evolution. To continue on the path toward what the US has been reaching for all along.  To something that has never existed, anywhere on this planet. A fully functioning democracy in a multicultural, multiracial society. If we can do this, we might again be an example for the rest of the world, for when they become challenged by diversity, which is on the increase just about everywhere.


For me, this is a consummation devoutly to be desired.


  1. What you say, AmA, what you say. I've been having day-dreams for the past year, as I'm sure MANY others have, of how I would rewrite the U.S. constitution, "were I king." There are so many things that could be done to improve on the current imperfect design. Of course, EVERY design will be imperfect and will contain its own blind spots. But that's no reason not to strive.

    1. It doesn’t surprise me at all, EvKa, that you and I think alike on the subject. Blind spots are inevitable, I think. The founding fathers wanted to form a republic, rather than leaving the 13 colonies each form its own country. They feared squabbles among them turning into wars, as had happened so often between a lot of little countries crowded together in Europe. Their solution pretty much worked out for them, but caused a whole lot of unforeseen consequences. States’ rights, anybody?

  2. Great post! I think we do often become bogged down in detail, and as you point out, every country is different.
    Another issue is how far democracy extends in terms of governing. As you know, the Greek citizens (of, for example, Athens) voted on almost every issue separately and in person. While that's appealing, it doesn't really scale to the US! It caused paralysis in some situations in SA also after the democratic elections - there had been so little consultation before, that consultation became a mantra for almost everything that needed to be done. It took some time for the government to realize that wasn't going to work. And then, of course, along came Zuma and he made things work very well. For him.

  3. Dante has a special place in hell for self-serving public officials. For my part, I think they should all be tried at the Hague for crimes against humanity, especially when it comes to our present circumstances. Zuma enriched himself while citizens of his country were starving. Trump made fun of people who were wearing masks, while a deadly virus was circulating and killing people. If these are not crimes against humanity, I’m not certain how anyone could otherwise categorize them.

    I cannot imagine, in today’s ultra complicated world that requires specialty knowledge to understand a great number of important questions, that all decisions could ever be made by asking for a vote from millions of people. Thoughtless people, some here Italy and MANY back in the States, are calling their government dictatorial for insisting on vaccinations for people who want to go into public spaces. In the States, more than 30 million are refusing, like a bunch of anarchist, to accept the rules. Good grief! NO! BAD GRIEF!

    1. That's one (two?) of the aspects of my "new constitution" that I've thought about.

      One of the great weaknesses in the concept of 'democracy' seems to be the granting of voting rights to those who refuse to educated themselves about:
      1) The fundamental structure and functioning of society (i.e., what the constitution SAYS, how government is structured to work, how it actually works, etc.)
      2) The ways that people can be and are manipulated, and why.
      3) The use of reasoning to understand these things, in order to defeat self-serving manipulation and to form ones own true opinion.

      I've thought about that stuff for years, but the most recent few years have brought it to a boil (yes, in two definitions of the word...)

      One problem with putting limits on WHO can vote is that THAT could then be manipulated by Evil People. However, I believe it could be structured in such a way as to defeat those attempts, but a full explanation would be an unwieldy comment. :-) But my current thinking is that voting should be something that must be earned (much like naturalize citizenship), but that EVERYONE residing in the country for a minimum time period (5 years?) should be ELEGIBLE to vote, assuming they passed the other requirements. In other words, disconnect the right-to-vote from citizenship. You may have citizenship (via birth in country or usual 'naturalization' process) with or without the right to vote, and vice versa. Every child would be required to pass a 'citizenship' class, which would include much of the above, the the contents of these "citizenship classes" would be tightly specified in content and constitutionally required to be non-partisan.

      Anyway, term limits for all elected and appointed officials (12 years, period, terms 3 for pres, 2 for senators, 6 for house members, 1 for judges), complete redesign of the senate (apportioned by population, potentially crossing state lines), establishment of federal non-partisan commission to handle ALL congressional districting, ... the usual suspects.

      But I would also fundamentally modify the constitution to:
      1) Require BALANCE: for every Freedom there would also be Responsibilities.
      2) Require that every part of the constitution and every law must start with an INTENT section, and courts would be required to follow the INTENT of a law over the LETTER of the law, as a way to minimize loop-holes.
      3) Change the way judges are appointed and approved (or not).
      4) Modify the presidential pardon to place limits on it, by giving Congress or a Court the ability to veto pardons for reasons of cronyism or self-service.
      5) (This one's tricky, and requires a small book to fully explore and explain) Establish a "constitutional crime" for elected/appointed officials who do anything that even APPEARS to be corrupt. It's the old "with great power comes great responsibility" saw. Those who wish to hold office must walk very carefully and be held on a tight leash. Again, many, many words needed to fully explain the philosophy and mechanics.
      6) Include a "national initiative" mechanism that allows the (educated) voters to overcome the reticence of elected officials. Shouldn't be constructed to be EASY, but shouldn't be impossible either.

      And on and on...

    2. Everett, I would love all that reform and wish it were possible in the US. Unfortunately, the knuckleheads in Congress can’t even pass a bill that aids child care, voting rights, free pre-school, etc. From a political and governmental perspective, it looks like the US is devolving instead of improving. Te dire warnings about America’s loss of democracy are terrifyingly within the realm of the possible. If Mr. Orange returns, abject chaos will ensue, and it could happen.

    3. I agree, Kwei. But, first, one must dream, and hope to avoid the nightmares...

    4. I can’t tell you all how pleased I am that these words of mine have drawn out so much wonderful conversation. We are all singing in the same choir, as far as I can see. And there are dangers as Kwei has said. Now I’m going to bring up one of the worst sticking points. The Supreme Court. Right now it is packed with originalists, people who want to turn back the clock on evolution. Unlike the Republican party, voters can’t get rid of them. On the other hand, on our side, we have time, which will march on. People who are now in their teens are much more likely to sing our song, rather than the other side’s dirge. Those young people are my source of hope.
      The foot dragger’s are using acts of desperation to stop progress. They are getting bolder and bolder in their methods, but they can’t stop time.

    5. My thought is that, along with a 12-year term, the Supreme justices' terms would be staggered, with each President appointing a new justice in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th years of each 4-year presidential term. There would be 9 justices, as they are now, 1/3 of them replaced during the last three years of each presidential term.

      You can see why I've always enjoyed "speculative fiction." :-)

  4. Who was it who said, "Democracy is the worst form of government... with the exception of all other forms of government." ? I think what we may need is a benign dictatorship, but the definition of the word 'benign' may take some working out...

    1. As far as I can tell benign dictatorship doesn’t work all that well, even at the family level. Corporations are supposed to work that way, sort of. But the guy at the top, and it’s almost always a guy, always gets more benefits than anybody else. Even in decently functioning democracies this is the case, of course. Messy and difficult as it is, I think I prefer I poorly functioning democracy to any sort of dictator ship. At least, In a democracy, there is a method to get rid of the guy at the top.

  5. I may have an answer for you, Sis. It's a little known practice employed in the golden age of the Greek Democracy. It was a procedure called "Ostrakizmos" conducted by secret ballot for the protection of Athenian democracy.

    Once a year, citizens of Athens decided whether to hold a vote ostracizing one of their fellow citizens. If a sufficient number of Athenians wanted to conduct an ostracism, the person banished could be anyone the voters agreed was dangerous to Athens and democracy.

    Reasons for ostracizing were:

    1) The citizen had conservative views characteristic of dictatorship ideas.

    2) The citizen was dishonest in business dealings.

    3) The citizen misled people for personal purposes.

    4) The citizen was rich and bragged.

    Anyone determined to be such a danger was banished from Athens for ten years and required to leave the city within ten days.

    Can you think of anyone who checks off all the boxes?

    1. I don’t agree, I am sorry to say. If a government can stop citizens from voting by using certain criteria, then what happens when the criteria change. For true democracy, everyone who is a citizen should have the right to vote. The Republicans are very busy using their criteria to eliminate voters. I don’t think it would be a good idea, if our side says we don’t like your criteria, we want to apply different ones. For me, democracy says everyone has the same rights.

    2. I know, AmA, it's a VERY stick, dangerous point. But one that I think could be dealt with by clearly stipulating the requirements in the constitution and also including language that makes it unconstitutional to change, modify, or add to those requirements, and to make it a "treasonous act" to attempt to do so.

      The flip side of this coin is that if you have an uneducated electorate, you end up with a vast majority of voters simply voting their emotional reaction, i.e., what we have today.

      For exactly the reasons you describe, it would have to be VERY carefully crafted and in ironclad language, but I think it could be done. I don't, for a moment, think it ever WILL be done, but like many other ideas, it's worth a discussion. :-)))

    3. StickY. Sigh. Too bad we can't edit our comments. :-(

  6. South Africa transitioned from a racist form of government to a democratic one without a civil war. One result was one of the fairest and most balanced constitutions on the planet. However, as Zuma (and Trump elsewhere) demonstrated, a constitution is really only a piece of paper. If people, particularly people in power, want to ignore it, it's actually quite difficult to bring the situation back to order.

    EvKa, I have always thought that two years for a congressperson is far too short - re-election starts on day 1 of the term. I'd propose three four-year terms.

    1. Stan: I agree, the 2-year term seems like a constant sprint. Split the house in half, with half of them up for relection every two years for four year terms.

    2. Agreed, EvKa. Then on to the Electoral College!

    3. Yep, you're right, Stan. There are SO many things that need a rewrite in the constitution.

  7. Stan has now brought up the other big challenge. But unlike the difficulty of the power of the Supreme Court, this one has an answer. Some of you may recall that I wrote about the interstate voting compact, which is on its way to making The popular vote the criterion for who wins the National elections. the strategy is to get states to change their voting laws and give their electoral votes to whoever gets the most votes nationally. This can happen without a constitutional amendment!

    1. True, AmA, and getting closer to success. See:
      If all of the states where it's pending (the yellow states in the map) pass it, we're there!

    2. Of course, I, as an academic, have to ask "What if the electorate elects a dictator?' - a situation that is not too far from the bounds of possibility.

    3. In a certain way, Stan, we’ve seen that! 😞

      But as happened the last time, the populace can vote him out of office when his term is up. The cretins who want to keep him can be dangerous though.

  8. Well, lots to read and think about here.
    First, ancient Greece was based on slavery. Hardly democratic. And women were not equals of men, especially the wealthy. The patriarchal family was not based on equality.

    Second, I don't hold up the U.S. Constitution as a great work of a democratic country. Enslaved people were considered 3/5 of a person. That is horrific. And women were left out. And so were Indigenous people whose land the founders were standing on. And propertyless white men didn't have rights either. So not a democratic document.

    But the vote has to be protected from those who are trying to denying it to millions, especially Black, Latinx, Indigenous people and residents of many states with fancy anti-democratic voter restriction laws.