Understanding the concept of democracy and its development in the twentieth century. Here’s take a look at the historical background, democratic structure and institutions of different countries like Britain, France, the United States, and India. We will be also looking at the several different ideologies and political scholars explaining the development of democracy.

What is Democracy?

Democracy is a form of government where the people, either directly or indirectly, make decisions about laws, policies, leadership, and important matters of the state or political entity.

Historically, this group of people has been limited to a small portion of the population, such as only free adult males in ancient Athens or only adult males with sufficient property in 19th-century Britain. However, in the mid-20th century, the definition of “people” was expanded to include nearly all adult citizens.

Historical Background Of Democracy

The concept of democracy originated in ancient Greece, specifically in the city-state of Athens, during classical antiquity. The term democracy comes from the Greek words “dêmos” meaning common people and “krátos” meaning force or might.

In 508–507 BC, under the leadership of Cleisthenes, the first known example of democracy was established in Athens. Cleisthenes is widely regarded as the “father of Athenian democracy.”

The earliest recorded use of the word democracy can be found in works written in 430s BC, such as Herodotus Histories, but it was in use for several decades prior to this. The new political system introduced by Cleisthenes was referred to as isonomia, meaning political equality.

Athenian democracy was a direct democracy that featured two distinctive elements: the random selection of citizens to fill government positions, and a legislative assembly consisting of all eligible citizens who were allowed to speak and vote.

However, citizenship was limited to only a quarter of the population and excluded women, slaves, foreigners, and young people. The Athenian system of democracy was not just direct in the sense that decisions were made by the people, but also in that the people controlled the political process through the assembly, boule, and courts of law, with a large number of citizens involved in public affairs.

The concept of individual rights did not exist in the Athenian system, but citizens enjoyed their liberties by living in a city not subject to another power and not being ruled by another person.

In 700 BC, range voting appeared in Sparta, where the Spartan ecclesia, an assembly of the people, was held once a month, allowing all male citizens over 20 years of age to participate. In this assembly, leaders were elected and votes were cast through range voting and shouting. Aristotle considered this method “childish” compared to the stone voting ballots used in Athens.

The Romans made significant contributions to democracy, but only a minority of Romans were citizens with voting rights in elections for representatives. The votes of the powerful were given more weight through a weighted voting system, resulting in most high officials coming from wealthy and noble families.

The Roman Republic served as a model for many political thinkers and today’s modern representative democracies are more influenced by the Roman system than the Greek model.

In India, the city of Vaishali, capital of the Vajjika Empire, was considered one of the first republics around the 6th century BC.

Other cultures, such as the Iroquois Nation in the Americas, also developed democratic societies between 1450 and 1660, and possibly even earlier. This democracy continues to this day and is the oldest standing representative democracy in the world, suggesting that democracy may have been developed in other societies as well.

Development of Democracy in Britain

Britain is the most modern democracy, as its powers went to the two Houses of Parliament – the “House of Commons”, an elected synod, which was formerly in the hands of the “Crown.” The special powers conferred by the state had reached the nexus of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. 

In the Reform Act of 1932, the voting rights of the upper middle classes expanded. After three reform acts at the end of the nineteenth century, two-thirds of men became candidates for voting. Before 1929, women did not have the right to vote. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1948 with the support of the principle of one person, one vote.

Development of Democracy in France

Democracy in France started with the revolution of 1789. The Declaration of the Rights of Men and Citizens proclaimed the rights to individual liberty, freedom of religion and thought protection of property, and political equality. 

According to the French Constitution of 1791, the right to vote was based on property, according to which domestic servants, homeless persons, and beggars could not vote. Thus in 1791, 40 lakh men voted. Four years later, the property conditions became more restrictive so that only one lakh wealthy taxpayers were included in the voter list. Universal male suffrage was achieved after the revolution of 1848, and finally, women in 1946.

Development of Democracy in United States

Women did not get suffrage in the United States until the 20th century after the Civil War. The document ‘Declaration of Independence, issued in 1776, implemented democracy in that country. 

The American Revolution provided the modern world’s first democratic government and society. Democracy and aristocracy were replaced by the republican government, in which all citizens were theoretically equal. 

There was also a division of power between the three branches of government, the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary

The political ideas of Levellers, John Locke, and Thomas Paine and the “French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789)” and the “American Declaration of Independence (1776)” expressed ideas and principles that strengthened democracy in the modern world. 

In seventeenth-century England, the Levellers gave impetus to a radical conception of popular autonomy and civil liberties.

Liberal democracy links liberalism as a principle of the state to democracy as a form of government. Democracy was seen in detail in the 20th century. The term “waves of democratization” described women’s suffrage in old Western democracies and the eradication of racial discrimination in South Africa.

  • First Wave: democratization in many European countries in the 19th century.
  • Second Wave: After the First World War, many countries of Europe became democratic with the countries of Scandinavia.
  • Third Wave: With the end of Nazism and Fascism after World War II, new democracies were established in Germany and Italy.
  • Fourth Wave: Democracy was revived in Eastern Europe and American countries that had turned away from democracy.

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