Democracy Here Is Not Necessarily Democracy There

By Levinson, Martin H. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Democracy Here Is Not Necessarily Democracy There


Levinson, Martin H., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


THE WORD "DEMOCRACY" is frequently in the news these days. But that word is not so easily defined.

Historically, the term "democracy" has a checkered past going back to the Greek city-states. The Greeks defined democracy differently than we do now. One example: The citizens of Athens, the "demos," consisted of a privileged class that excluded women, slaves, farmers, and those who worked by the sweat of their brow.

The Romans did not particularly care for "democracy" in its suggestion of direct participation by the people. They used the word "republic" to describe a method of having senators, who were not indifferent to the "vox populi," elect consuls.

The term "democracy" languished for many centuries but was revived in the 1600s when questions concerning the nature and foundation of the state assumed renewed importance.

Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan (1651), wrote that democracy in any form would eventually lead to anarchy. John Locke disagreed. In Two Treatises on Government (1689, 1690), Locke condemned hereditary power and advanced an idea that has attached itself to the word "democracy" to this day: the notion that "the beginning of politic society depends upon the consent of the individuals to join into and make one society."

In the 18th century, Locke's thoughts on what might be called a "democratic polity" were debated in Europe. Voltaire preferred an "enlightened monarchy." Denis Diderot favored a "constitutional monarchy."

When the discussion about democracy transferred from Europe to America, the word was not accorded the respect we have for it today. Our nation's founders were divided over its meaning.

The word "democracy" does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or the federal Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address, said: "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. …

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Democracy Here Is Not Necessarily Democracy There
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