All nations have an inflated view of themselves and their place in the world.
The Times of London famously carried a front-page headline over a century ago that read: “Fog in Channel. Europe cut off.” The reality, of course, was that Britain itself was cut off from the much bigger continent of Europe.
This morning (Monday) I heard something similar on CBS. It was a news item on President Obama’s visit to India. It went something like this: “The leader of the world’s oldest democracy is meeting the leader of the world’s largest.”
Now, I’ve heard this before . . . but this time I want to comment.
How can the United States, barely 200 years old, possibly be the world’s oldest anything?
It certainly isn’t the world’s oldest democracy.
I googled this, asking where the idea comes from. The answer, it seems, is the politicians. In recent years, they have been claiming this is the case, when it isn’t. Ignorance of history never stopped anybody from attaining office.
For the record, one of the first things the original colonists did when they landed in Jamestown, was hold an election. Elections were regularly held in the colonial period. The turnout averaged 90%. On this basis alone, you could say that colonial America was more democratic than what we have now, when participation is usually less than 50%.
When the colonists held that first election, they were not inventing democracy. Their country of origin, Great Britain, already had a democratic system in place. Not since 1215 had English kings held absolute power. For centuries after that date, parliament was gradually becoming more powerful at the expense of the crown.
The first parliament was summoned in 1264.
Part of the problem is that “democracy” can mean different things in different countries.
The North Koreans call themselves “The Democratic Peoples Republic” of Korea but they are neither democratic nor a republic.
When I googled the word “democracy,” this is the definition it came up with. Democracy is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” “All the eligible members of a state” does not necessarily mean that every person has the vote.
Today, in the year 2015, we in the West think of a democracy as a country where every adult has the vote. But this has not always been the case. It wasn’t in ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, where women and slaves were not allowed to vote. A universal franchise, where everyone has the vote, is a fairly recent thing. It did not exist in the United States until at least 1964 when the Voting Rights Act guaranteed the right of all adults to vote. Even then, there were some who missed out until more recently. In England, women got the vote in 1918, but they had to be 30, whereas men could vote at 21. Ten years later, the law was changed to make women fully equal with men.
Forty years ago, we lived in Rhodesia, which had a qualified franchise, similar to what the United States had in its infancy. Actually, Rhodesia was more generous as women had the vote equally with men, something America didn’t have until 1920. Rhodesia had five qualifications for voting. Diane and I did not meet all five, whereas many Africans we knew did. Once everybody got the vote, a dictatorship came to power and has remained there for 35 years. Rhodesia was far more democratic than its successor state.
Anyway, forget England and America. Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and the Isle of Man all have a parliamentary system that goes back to the ninth or tenth centuries.
There is no basis for claiming the US is the world’s oldest democracy. But what would you expect from a bunch of lawyers in Congress? After all, they are wrong on most things!