Ah, democracy. The governmental system I, and likely most of my readers, live under . . . and also a giant can of worms. It’s “rule by the people” — but what does that mean, and how do you keep it from dissolving into chaos?
History textbooks will tell you that democracy started in ancient Greece, which is both true and not. That’s certainly where we get the word from, and it’s the model many later political thinkers looked to for inspiration (though Greek democracy was very different from the kind we have now). I’d argue that the general concept is far older than that, since hunter-gatherer bands tend to run on a general consensus of the adults — admittedly not quite the same thing as using democracy to govern an organized state, but evidence that the underlying principle existed before Cleisthenes. Republics governed via democratic means have also cropped up independently in other places, e.g. in the Vajji Confederacy in sixth century BCE India, or the Haudenosaunee Confederacy on the East Coast of North America circa the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries CE.
When we say “democracy,” though, what do we mean? To begin with, there’s a fundamental division between two approaches to the concept. The first and simpler approach is direct democracy, where everybody in the group or polity gets to vote on what the group or polity will do. (For values of “everybody” that map to “everybody with the right to vote;” we’ll be looking at the question of who that applies to next week.) You’ve probably seen basic forms of this at work when you and your friends are trying to decide where to have dinner, or maybe when an organization you belong to proposes to host some event.
Direct democracy can work reasonably well at that level. Scaled up, though . . . well, it basically doesn’t. What functions in a village of three hundred falls apart long before you get to a country of three hundred million. We’ve talked before about the role that social bonds play in making everything from economics to justice work in a small-scale society; those show up here, too, nudging people toward a consensus that’s best for the group. As the group gets larger, though, those bonds lose their force.
Furthermore, a village of three hundred is likely voting on issues that are familiar to everyone. In the country of three hundred million, you can’t expect every voter to be well-informed about what’s happening on everywhere in the land. Complexity also becomes a problem, especially as you move toward modern times, to the point where you need specialized training and knowledge to even understand the ramifications of the different options. During Brexit, a great many people voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, only to be unpleasantly surprised by all the consequences that brought.
One of the ways to address these problems is with representative or indirect democracy. Under this system, instead of everybody voting on everything, people elect representatives whose job is then to vote on their behalf. In theory, those representatives put in the time and effort necessary to understand the issues, and cast their ballots in the best interests of their constituents. If they don’t, often there are ways to recall and replace the representative — legal ways, I mean, though the blunt-force approach of “stab them in an alley” also has a great deal of historical attestation.
Deciding whether you’re going to vote directly or through a representative is only the tip of the logistical iceberg, though. Democracies also have to decide how victory is determined, whether that’s for candidates or courses of action. The straightforward approach is to say “whichever option gets the most votes wins” (referred to as first-past-the-post voting) . . . but that comes with a lot of problems. Envision a scenario in which there are ten options to choose from: it’s entirely possible for someone to win that election with only twelve percent of the vote. Hardly a strong mandate, is it?
To get around that, you can instead use ranked choice or preferential voting — found, among other places, in the voting for science fiction and fantasy’s Hugo Awards. This is more complex, but tends to produce more broadly satisfactory results when there are multiple options. Every voter ranks the options in order of their preference, and then the first-choice options are counted up. If no one has a majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and all the ballots which listed that one first move down to their second choice. Rinse and repeat until someone has enough votes to cross the threshold. The eventual victor tends to be someone generally considered worthy, even if they weren’t the first choice for that many of the voters. Another alternative is score voting or range voting, where you assign a number of points to each candidate, and whoever garners the most points wins.
If that sounds complex and therefore modern, it is to some extent, but not entirely so. You see a form of range voting in the “cheer for what you want” approach, where cheering louder means you’re more excited about that option. And successive rounds of voting can produce the same general result as a ranked-choice ballot if the candidates with lower support are eliminated from the running: when a papal election is deadlocked for long enough, only the two who got the most votes in the last ballot are eligible for a runoff election.
Even with these measures, democracy can be vulnerable to an issue called “the tyranny of the majority.” The majority group in a society, however that group may be defined, will tend to vote for its own interests, rather than those of the minority. And because they are the majority, they’ll tend to win. Fear of this led to the bicameral (two-chamber) division of the United States Congress: some of our Founding Fathers were concerned that larger and more populous states would overrun the interests of their smaller neighbors. The result was a House of Representatives where the seats are allocated according to population, and a Senate where every state gets two seats no matter what. Wyoming, with a population of roughly half a million, carries the same weight in the Senate as California, with a population of nearly forty million — a setup that has sparked endless debate ever since then.
I can’t possibly cover the range of methods democracies have used to strive for more equitable (not the same thing as equal) representation. Many of them get into the nitty-gritty of how voting districts are delineated, or the intricacies of the role political parties play in government. But bear in mind that sometimes the goal is not equitable representation: those same Founding Fathers created the despicable Three-fifths Compromise, which decreed that slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of determining representation and taxation . . . thereby using enslaved and disenfranchised individuals to strengthen the political power of their (largely Southern) masters.
Any given polity doesn’t have to run entirely on one system or another. Where I live, in California, we elect representatives to our state legislature — but we also have a proposition system that allows organized groups of citizens to put legislative measures on the ballot for all voters to decide on directly. Furthermore, democracy can be hybridized with other forms of government, especially when you look at local politics nested within a larger state. And some supposed democracies in the present day are anything but, thanks to rigged “elections” that return the same leader to office for decades on end.
These days democracies are fairly common, and they’ve been increasing in number over the last couple of centuries. Only time will tell, though, whether they’ll prove to be durable: the United States, usually classed as the world’s oldest continuous democracy, is not even two hundred and fifty years old yet, and many are much younger, having been established after World War II. For all the benefits democracy can bring, it is also fragile.