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Reasons why Democracies do not form overnight

Updated on August 29, 2014

Democracy in the World


As Rome was not built in a day, so democracy has never been established overnight.In 2013, political events in North Africa and Southeast Asia demonstrated yet again that the true democratization of a nation is not a quick and easy process. No, the elections in Egypt and Cambodia proved that the formation of a truly representative democracy is a long and complicated process. This hub briefly discusses the general history of representative democracy and how that history proves that forming an atmosphere for politics by representation is not an overnight affair.

What does Democratization of a Nation Mean?

For the purposes of this hub (article), the term "democratization" means

  • The establishment of a truly free and fair society wherein:
  • Every member of a society residing within the borders of a particular nation has equal rights
  • Governing officials are elected as representatives of the people in a transparent electoral process
  • Every citizen has the right, means, and opportunity to participate in the political and electoral process
  • No class of citizen has more privileges or extra powers of participation than any other class of citizen
  • The representative bodies (such as British Parliament, Russian Duma, or United States Congress) are more than rubber stamps for the whims of Heads of State (such as presidents or prime ministers)
  • Heads of State (and other representatives) are more interested in the advancement of all citizens (rich and poor) than holding onto power
  • Incumbents use persuasion rather than bribery or coercion (threat of military or police action) to retain their positions

The Roman Republic

The beginnings of representative democracy can be traced back to the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic began to take shape in the 6th century B.C. when a class of citizens known as the patricians wrested power from the king. Over the course of three centuries, the ordinary citizens of the republic felt disenfranchised and became disenchanted with the rule of the patricians, so they formed their own representative assembly known as the plebians. In 287 B.C. after an event called the Conflict of Orders some of the wealthier plebians gained political equality with the patricians. The chief outcome was the formation of a noble ruling class consisting of representatives both patricians and plebians. The Roman Republic lasted until the first century B.C. when a number of factors led to abandonment of representative government and the return to authoritarian rule through a series of dictatorships began by Gaius Julius Ceasar Octavian also known as Caesar Augustus. (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History)

Magna Carta - The Beginning of the Death of Despotism

The movement towards the establishment of free and fair societies and thus the democratization of nations in Western civilization is most often traced to the signing of a document called the Magna Carta. Many well-regarded Western heads of state as well as socio-political historians regarded the Magna Carta as the foundation of democracy and freedom in the world. Such figures included American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and current British Prime Minister David Cameron (Keith Moore, BBC News, 2012).

The term "Magna Carta" is a Latin phrase that means "Great Charter." It was signed in 1215 when a group of powerful barons in the British Isles rebelled against King John, stormed London, and forced the king to agree to a list of concessions. Later, the document was held up as the embodiment of freedom and equality by instigators of the American Revolution against King George III and thus an influence of the Declaration of Independence.

More recent historians have questioned the link of this Great Charter to freedom and democracy. Mark Juddery, author of a book titled Overrated, commented that freedom and equality was not necessarily the main purpose for the Magna Carta. Another historian Simon Schama wrote in his book A History of Britain the charter was not truly a call for freedom but the death certificate of despotism (Keith, 2012).

Yet, the movement towards freedom and free and fair societies had to begin somewhere. And that beginning must start with the beginning of the end of authoritarianism and or totalitarianism. The Magna Carta set into motion the gradual swing of the pendulum from coercive restrictive societies to free and fair societies and eventually the democratization of one nation and then multiple nations around the world.

The movement may have been set into motion, but progress was slow and came through many years of blood, sweat, and tears. In fact, representative government with no monarch to oversee it did not come to the New World in the 13 British Colonies in the Americas until five and half centuries after the signing of the Magna Carta.

The Trouble with The Great American Experiment

The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution gave birth to The Great Experiment (as coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s) called the United States of America. This great experiment brought with it the promise of a freedom for all citizens and the right to participate in a representative democracy. It was meant to be a nation governed by the people and for the people.

Yet it should be noted that this so-called great experiment did not take place until after the socio-political pendulum from despotism to representation had swung back and forth in the United Kingdom for over five and half centuries. In fact, it took 561 years before the ratification of the United States Constitution and yet even then freedom did not yet come to all.

Yes, the great experiment called the United States of America was a big step forward for the establishment of free and fair societies and representative democracy. But, slaves from West Africa remained oppressed, counted only as 3/5ths of a person, and were not allowed to participate in the electoral process. Likewise, Native Americans were restricted from their natural lands only to be confined to arbitrarily determined land grants called reservations. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation that African Americans were "declared" free and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that they were given the right of full representation.

It took nearly 750 years after the signing of the Magna Carta and almost 200 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence for full representative democracy to begin to come to all "Americans." So why would anyone expect that full representative democracy would come to places like Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, or Cambodia in less than 25 years?

Democracy in Russia - Perestroika and the Fall of the Iron Curtain

Democracy first came to the Russian region in the 12th century in the Novgorod Republic. It was established in the small city now known as Veliky Novgorod which means "The Great New City." The inhabitants of this New City obtained independence in 1014 when it broke away from the Kievan Rus kingdom and established its own state. From 1136 to 1569, the Novgorod Republic was governed by a local chamber called a veche - a democratic gathering of local citizen. In 1569, Novgorod was overrun by Ivan the Terrible which began a long run of authoritarianism and despotic rulers titled Tsars.

At the turn of the 20th century, Russian liberal reformers attempted to modernize society and instituted Russia's first real experiment in democracy from 1905 to 1917. During this time, the reigning Tsar and other officials reluctantly granted the formation of a consultative assembly called the Duma in 1906. With no history of self-rule, Russian society soon denigrated to every member for himself. Indiscriminate peasant criminality and violence broke out against those of authority including police, teachers, the gentry, and anyone else who did not belong to the peasant class. This experiment ended with the onslaught of the Bolshevik revolution which established the old authoritarian rule in a new form called Communism. Even so, the political pendulum had begun to swing from despotic rule to rule by representation; a coercive restrictive society to a free and fair society.

The pendulum was further allowed to swing in direction of democracy and freedom in the Russian political landscape during the early days of the Lenin's establishment of the Communist regime. Unintentionally perhaps, Lenin sowed the seeds of freedom when he allowed free farmers in the Ukraine, the bread basket of Russia's agricultural sector. Both Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev worked in the free farming areas and it could be argued that seeds of freedom and political reform were sown in their hearts due to the relative freedom their families enjoyed in the 1920s.

In the Soviet Union (Russia) the socio-political pendulum was swung far back to the direction of despotic rule under the heavy hand of Josef Stalin. Stalin put a stop to the free farmers and collectivized the farms under State rule and graduated the Communist rule from authoritarianism to totalitarianism. The iron-fist rule of Communism continued until after Stalin's death in 1953.

Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Stalin as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. As mentioned beforehand he had worked in the area of the Lenin's free farmers. Although he believed Communism was far superior to democracy and capitalism, Khrushchev relaxed the political climate, made allowance for free of thought including the establishment of a dissident movement of writers and intellectuals. Even though, he did not move the Soviet Union towards representative democracy, it can be argued that the allowance of the dissident writers opened the way further to the future establishment of a free and fair society.

In 1964, Khrushchev was pushed out of power and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev swung the pendulum back towards hard line totalitarianism. He ruled over the Soviet Union until 1982.

After the short-lived rule of Yuri Andropov, Mikhail Gorbachev was lifted to the helm of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev introduced his plan to reform the Soviet Union in a book titled Perestroika. Under the leadership of Gorbachev and his successor Boris Yeltsin, the communist party was removed from power and representative democracy was introduced. A genuine effort was set in motion to establish representative democracy.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. A new experiment in freedom and democracy came to the Russian people. However, the people of Russia did not seem ready for it. They did not know how to handle their new found freedom. They did not know how to run their own communities. Prosperity did not come to the masses in an instant. A true representative democracy did not result instantly like stirring a packet of Nescafe into hot water. Unemployment and shortages remained rampant and Russia began to lose its prestige as a world super power.

As of the Fall of 2013, Russian politics had begun to revert back to authoritarian rule under the guise of Vladimir Putin, a former member of the Soviet Union's KGB.

This should not be surprising to anyone who has studied the history of the democratization of a nation. No matter how much light is shed on the process, democracy is more like a fine bottle of alcohol than a packet of koolaid or teaspoon of Tang.

No Quick Road to Democracy and Free and Fair Societies

The above mentioned examples point to the unmitigated fact that free and fair societies do not come about overnight. Numerous other examples could be lifted to prove that the march towards freedom and representative democracy is rife with danger and a slow movement back and forth. Even the French Revolution which some herald as the birth mother of the modern human rights movement did not instantly result in a society which was free and fair, governed by the people and for the benefit of all people. So why did any pundit of socio-political history believe that these things would come easily to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or even China? Why do American politicians who cannot even get their own house in order (given the massive gridlock in Washington, D.C. at the time of this writing) think they can scale their ivory tower to call for instant societal change in any other place in the world. It took the USA over 200 years to give true freedom to black members of the country.

Of course, Let Us not Give Up Hope

This article is not to say that we should give up hope or abandon the cause to see all peoples of all societies gain equal access to the electoral process and gain equal opportunity to thrive in their respective societies. Yes the struggle for representative democracy is worth it. But let us not be blind to progress made and too quick to judge when many in the West have not yet set aside their own egos to share power with others who disagree with them.


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    • ecoggins profile image

      ecoggins 4 years ago from Corona, California

      Thank you Mark for your encouraging comment. I guess some historians are beginning to the true intent of the Magna Carta but it is nonetheless the beginning of the movement towards free and fair societies in Western civilization.

    • Mark Johann profile image

      Mark Johann 4 years ago from Italy

      I am much glad to know the meaning of the word, Magna Carta. I always hear this term when my uncles argue on something about politics and so on. This is the great charter which means the birth of Democracy. Good job eco! :)

    • ecoggins profile image

      ecoggins 4 years ago from Corona, California

      Thank you Thief12 for your comments. I would very much agree with your observation.

    • Thief12 profile image

      Thief12 4 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Interesting hub. Unfortunately, most democracies have failed to ensure most of the items on that list about what "democratization" means. I'll be tempted to say that few, if any, so-called democracies can guarantee at least one.