This is the Second in a two part piece. Please read the previous post: Democrazy-1 before you read this.
Unhappy with the pain and suffering that many of these practices entailed, and viewing the unfairness and injustice that it caused as avoidable; a few people, statesmen, philosophers and thinkers grappled with the problem of creating societies that were not just conventionally moral (in that it controlled or limited the more primitive, sexual and violent tendencies of its citizens) but even fair and just. Most notable amongst these were the Greeks who had the weird idea that a state could be governed by the citizens themselves. Despite the right to citizenship being limited to free men and men of property, or dare we imagine, even because of it, this system survived for almost two centuries.
Historically speaking, democracy was an extraordinary experiment in that it gave a voice, for the first time ever, to people regardless of tribal affiliations, family ties, brute wealth or brute muscle. This experiment in democracy, however limited, lasted only until a powerful despot, first King Phillip II and then his son, Alexander of Macedonia conquered the greater Greek regions. Goodbye to justice, equality or the demos itself!
For the next couple of thousand years, few people anywhere imagined that there could be stable societies that didn’t, also, treat people like recalcitrant children. Most agreed that since people were evidently unable to manage their uncontrollable passions and baser instincts, they needed to be kept under close watch under the mostly benign gaze of their elders, betters or the divinely favored. People, for their own good and that of the larger community, had to be kept in line and out of trouble. This was best achieved through exhortations to lead the moral life; promised inducements in the hereafter, rewards given in this life; threats of eternal damnation; public humiliations; torture, or at worst (and here human creativity and imagination knew no bounds), through death by lynching, burning, or stoning. Sometimes, just sometimes, to help you see the error of your ways, your whole family or village was burned down- an early and effective demonstration of the power of learning through modeling or, even, experiential learning!
After a millennium and half of this, democratic stirrings were again experienced, albeit amongst the elite and sporadically. It took shape first in England as a revolt by the aristocracy against the monarchy. Then in France the revolution was prompted against the excesses of the aristocracy. Finally, property owners and traders in the American colonies rose up against the English monarchy for taxing them without allowing them representation in the (English) Parliament. Through many fits and false starts, in some of these countries, the dangerous and radical idea of a self governing citizenry took hold. It didn’t happen everywhere in a similar fashion and it was almost always prompted by the self interests of groups that were able to challenge the powerful. Most importantly, even when the seeds of self-governance were sown, all the values and principles of what we, now, consider a democratic society, were not always evident.
For the longest time, given that these countries were mostly illiterate and emerging from feudalism and tyranny, and recognizing that most people had little appetite or skill to engage in rational discussion or debate, the idea and practice of democracy itself was reduced down to its simplest form; where citizens would have the right to elect, through the mechanism of one man, one vote, leaders who would be best equipped to represent them. Initially, much like the Greeks, it was first only men of property or landholders who could vote. Then this right was given to free men but not slaves; and then men of education but not the unlettered, and finally in the 20 th century after much heart ache, protests and misgivings from fathers, husbands and patriarchs in general, women were also granted this right. It was now only a matter of time before, in many of these predominately European and North American countries, every adult citizen (adulthood being defined as over the age of 21 or 18) was given the right to vote. Universal suffrage was a radical idea that enfranchised every adult regardless of station, gender or wealth; or, for that matter, education. This looked like an idea that had finally come of age, a victory for equal representation and through it fair treatment and justice.
Even as we celebrate this historically extraordinary notion that all men and women (and tomorrow those who self-identify themselves as being neither or both) are able to vote, we must ask whether the right to vote, and thereby elect our representatives who can make decisions on our behalf, is what being democratic is all about. Furthermore, we should ask ourselves if universal suffrage alone is a sign that the values of a democratic society exist in a country.
Some of the questions that we could ask are:
- What does the vote confer on the ordinary person who is not part of the ruling elite?
- What value does the individual vote have when some groups have extraordinary access to resources that allows them to unduly influence or even manipulate the electoral process?
- What does the vote mean to individuals or minorities whose views might, seemingly, never become popular enough to be accepted or accommodated by the majority?
- What protection is available for those who might be in the minority, particularly when it is in conflict with the majority?
- What is the social and political contract that must be entered into by individual citizens and competing groups in a democracy?
- What are humane and just ways of enforcing this contract when those in power (or even at the margins) subvert or pervert this contract?
- Is it possible to have a functional democracy when some stakeholders do not share core democratic values?
- Is it possible to have a functional democracy when groups, in trying to capture electoral power, do so by compromising and subverting democratic values?
- How do you ensure that citizens in a society share or develop the core values that are necessary to sustain a democracy?
- What, apart from voting, should be seen as a basic requirement and responsibility of a citizen?
The last question that I have today is this: Does democracy expect too much from us, humans, or too little?