Representative Democracy 101

— This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 18 May 2010, was last revised on 1 June 2013. © Govinthenews Vol. 1:5(2).


—–de-moc-ra-cy Function: noun     Inflected Form(s): es    Etymology: Middle French democratie, from Late Latin democratia, from Greek demokratia    1 a : government by the people : rule of the majority b (1) : a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly (as in the ancient Greek city-states or the New England town meeting) — called also direct democracy (2) : a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them indirectly through a system of representation and delegated authority in which the people choose their officials and representatives at periodically held free elections — called also representative democracy    2 : a community or state in which the government is controlled by the people; specifically : a state in which the supreme power is held and exercised directly by the people rather than by their elected agents <in a democracy the people meet and exercise their government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents — James Madison> — compare REPUBLIC    3 usually capitalized a : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the United States b : the Democratic party or its members.  4 : the common people especially when regarded as the source of government   5 : political, social, or economic equality : the absence or disavowal of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges <democracy stands at a midway point, with personal freedom limited only by another concept — that of equality — Louis Wasserman>   6 : a state of society characterized by tolerance toward minorities, freedom of expression, and respect for the essential dignity and worth of the human individual with equal opportunity for each to develop freely to his fullest capacity in a cooperative community   7 : control through representation by the rank and file especially in industry — see INDUSTRIAL DEMOCRACY  Source: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002.

—–re·pub·lic Function: noun    Inflected Form(s): -s    Etymology: French république, from Middle French republique, from Latin respublica, res publica, from res thing, fact, matter + publica, feminine of publicus public — more at REAL, PUBLIC    1 obsolete : COMMONWEAL, STATE    2 a (1) : a government characterized by having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president (2) : a political unit (as a nation or state) having such a form of government <the republic of England, Scotland, and Ireland under Oliver Cromwell — E.E.Reynolds> <the republics of South America have been the happy hunting ground of dictators — L.A.Mills> <the ancient Roman republic> b (1) : a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law : REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY (2) : a political unit (as a nation or state) having such a form of government <pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands — Francis Bellamy> <the German people … by creating a federal republic resting upon a democratic constitution — U.S. Code> c : a usually specified republican government of a political unit <France’s republics are numbered … consecutively — Times Literary Supplement> <the Fourth Republic>    3 a : a community of beings that resembles in organization a political republic and is usually characterized by a general equality among members <a curious republic of industrious hornets — M.G.J.deCrèvecoeur> b : a body of persons freely engaged in a specified activity <the republic of art> <the republic of letters>    4 : an organization modeled after a junior republic <establish a boys’ republic in this state — Springfield (Massachusetts) Daily News>    5 : a constituent political and territorial unit of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Yugoslavia <our visits to four of the republics of Yugoslavia — G.E.Shipler> <the Ukraine and the other republics within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — Bogdan Raditsa>    Source: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002.

—–ol·i·gar·chy Function: noun    Inflected Form(s): es    Etymology: Greek oligarchia, from olig- + -archia -archy    1 a (1) : despotic power exercised by a privileged clique <a plutocratic oligarchy exercising all the old kingly powers — G.B.Shaw> — compare ARISTOCRACY (2) : government by the few <democracy and oligarchy shade into each other and are chiefly distinguished by the degree of the citizens’ participation in government — D.D.McKean> b : autocratic control of any group or organization by a small faction <the alarming growth of economic oligarchy resulting from corporate concentration — C.C.Rodee>  2 a : a group or organization that is controlled by a privileged few <high schools are oligarchies … or whatever you like, but not democracies — Saturday Review> b : the faction in control of such a group or organization <rival oligarchies supporting similar programs within the same party — H.R.Penniman> <the Millennium — old domination of the landowning and merchant oligarchy — D.M.Friedenberg>  Source: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. Source: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002.

—–ar·is·toc·ra·cy Function: noun    Inflected Form(s): es    Etymology: Middle French & Late Latin; Middle French aristocratie, from Late Latin aristocratia, from Greek aristokratia, from aristo- + -kratia -cracy    1 : government by the best individuals or by a relatively small privileged class    2 a : a form of government in which the power is vested in a minority consisting of those felt to be best qualified to rule b : a state having such a government    3 : a governing body made up of those felt to be outstanding citizens, especially nobles or others of high rank : an upper class usually made up of an hereditary nobility : a patrician order    4 : the aggregate of those felt to be superior (as in rank, wealth, or intellect)     Source: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002.

Democracy in History…

The birth of democracy is popularly traced to Athens, Greece, about the year 508 BCE, and took place as a reaction to the excesses of aristocratic rule. The history of Athens began in the 7th century BCE, with aristocrats–actually wealthy, powerful slave owners–in control, exploiting their slaves as a means of enriching themselves. Before long, a series of  daunting political, social, and economic upheavals took place as a consequence of aristocratic rule run amok. When things came to a head, in the 6th century, the slaves rebelled and took control. As the newly minted commoners sought to restore a workable form of governance, they drew upon the oligarchic experiences of nearby Sparta, dating from the 7th century BCE, and the constitutional reforms of the celebrated Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus.

Sparta began much as Athens did, but with two kings, a citizen class, and a lower echelon of serfs known as helots, who–though by some accounts not quite as low as slaves–were assigned to citizens to handle their domestic chores or work on their farms. Though technically not slaves, they were ritually humiliated, even killed, during the annual autumnal celebration of krypteia, a rite of passage for young Spartan men who had recently completed their military training. According to tradition, the most successful of these men, i.e., the ones specially prepared for future leadership roles, participated in krypteia as a test of their skills. In the process, they could, and often did, kill a helot as proof that they were of age. In the second half of the 7th century, the helots revolted, throwing all Sparta into turmoil. Enter Lycurgus, who years earlier had gone into self-imposed exile, but was now armed with a proclamation–from the oracle at Delphi–that he was a lawmaker to be obeyed, and that a state wise enough to observe his direction would become world famous. In fact, Lycurgus had been preparing for this moment for years, having studied the works of Homer, the Egyptian approach to governance, and–as a confidant of the poet Thales–the practice of statecraft on the island of Crete.

Supported by close friends, Lycurgus took control of Sparta’s government and instituted a series of reforms, all directed toward the three Spartan virtues of equality, military fitness, and austerity. These reforms were reduced to writing, in a list of laws and rules that comprised what many consider the first constitution in history. They transformed Sparta’s government into a unique, constitutional oligarchy ruled by, in addition to the two pre-existing royal houses, a senate of 28 men. The senate had power equal to the kings, and was supported by an assembly of citizens who–on approval by the senate–could vote on issues brought before it. Thus it was, though in primitive form, a kind of oligarchic democracy, and perhaps most important, was founded on the then-crude but pregnant concept of equality, a concept that was central to the way Spartans viewed themselves.

According to Plutarch, the reforms of Lycurgus provided a form of stability to the ship of state much like ballast in the hold of a sea-going vessel. Legend has it that once Lycurgus concluded his reforms, and was satisfied they were performing as he intended, he announced a pilgrimage to the oracle at Delphi to sacrifice to Apollo. Prior to departing, he brought the people of Sparta, the kings, and the senate together, and challenged them all to pledge an oath that bound them to full observance of his laws until his return. The pledge was given, and Lycurgus departed. It is said his pilgrimage was successful, as the oracle informed him that his laws were excellent. Immediately upon receiving this divine pronouncement, Lycurgus disappeared from history, never again to be seen alive. Some have speculated that he went into the mountains, where by design he starved to death, forcing Sparta to keep their oath to him in perpetuity. His likeness is depicted in a number of U.S. government buildings, as one of 23 important lawgivers of history.

So, when the Athenians began trying to come to grips with things following the rebellion of the slaves, it had Sparta’s case to compare against anything else they might come up with. They also had the contributions of Solon, a lyric poet of noble birth who, some 85 years earlier, had lived modestly, studied law and government, and had given Athens its first code of law, preparing it for the eventual ascent to one form of democracy or another. His legacy was a reorganization of government that laid the foundation for future improvements. Thus Athens was ripe for change, and when, in 508, aristocratic excess clashed with the visions of fresh students of enlightened governance, change took place rapidly. Enter Cleisthenes, grandfather of Alcibiades–the flamboyant student of Socrates whose exploits probably had more to do with his mentor’s conviction on a charge of impiety than anything else. Cleisthenes, quite the opposite of the grandson who would succeed him many years later, is renowned as the father of Athenian democracy and was, from all indications, a model of sobriety and decorum. Curiously he, like Lycurgus, dropped from sight shortly afterward, though no legends have surfaced later to explain how or why that happened.

The form of government that Athens adopted in 508 BCE was what Cleisthenes called isonomia, iso=equal + nomos=law, “equality under the law,” rather than demokratia, demos=people + kratos=rule, strength, “government by the people.” That latter term did not come into regular use until the time of Plato, more than a hundred years later. At that time, pure isonomia had been tested under a variety of circumstances, with interesting, and in some cases, near-disastrous results.

More to come–The Athenian Experience with Pure Democracy.

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