Posted by: Alan D. Price, PhD | November 26, 2009

Evolution of Democracy, Part I

The Near-Sighted, Albeit Democratic, Mr. Magoo

In conceptualizing the evolution of democracy, it is just as important to look to the past as to the future.  Nonetheless, most individuals tend to have a myopic view of democracy that regards this form of governance as static, rather like an image fixed on photographic paper.  The prevailing perspective is that democracy, as it exists today, is  basically what it has always been in the past.    However, when one adopts the farsighted view of history, nothing could be further from the truth.   Also, this near-sighted view fails to perceive that democracy has, and historically has had, many forms.

Ben Wilson, in reviewing Professor John Keane’s recently published book, The Life and Death of Democracy, for the Literary Review  has written about the historical myopia.

‘NEW, NEW, NEW,’ Tony Blair marvelled early in his premiership; ‘everything is new.’  He personified a willing amnesia that is so much part of our age. The temptation to dwell in the present, with its bewildering newness and illusion of liberation, outweighs an interest in history as a vital part of our political life. This is an age ruled by restricted definitions of what is relevant. The decline of history and the languishing state of our democratic institutions and liberty are not unrelated.

The myopic perspective prevents our seeing the forest, because our collective noses are plastered to one gigantic, vision-obscuring tree, viz., the rapidly changing NOW of the Information Age.  This NOW is compelling and distorting, simply because it prevents an apprehension of the NOW in a broader, more encompassing perspective that integrates the Past and the Future with the Present in something approaching the Eastern notion of the “Eternal NOW.”  To the modern individual caught up in the bombarding influx of information, the NOW is incredibly short, flashing by so quickly that it disallows a broader view of his/her personal involvement in the larger context of existence.  Our present moments, our NOWs become like a snap of the fingers played out in “real time,” as opposed to the same snap played out in exceedingly slow motion.

Toward a Farsighted, Historical View of Democracy

Wikipedia elaborates the compelling, myopic perspective that has been exacerbated by the Information Age.

At the core of Keane’s book is the author’s belief that history is a necessary key for understanding democracy in the present time. Keane’s worldwide perspective is an important corrective to the (mainly Western) idea that democracy has one and only distinctive form; one type of model that can be brought as a gift to peoples with different attitudes and histories. There is no such a thing as a singular form of democracy. Following the line of thinking that history is the only way we can make sense of what democracy means, The Life and Death of Democracy provides fresh details of the obscure origins of old institutions and ideals like government by public assembly, female enfranchisement; the secret ballot, trial by jury, and parliamentary representation.

Keane observes that even…

In the Greek world, democracy was not a single or fixed form: although the assembly was its core institution, it resembled an odyssey, in which different mental imaginings and various practical experiments were par for the course.

But, as Keane also points out, democracy did not originate in the Athenian Assembly as commonly believed.  David Aaronovitch in a review in Times Online  observes:

Departing from the convention that locates the birth of democracy in late 6th-century BC Athens, he finds evidence of citizen assemblies in the ancient Middle East, epitomised by how the men of Nippur were called upon to decide the fate of those accused of killing one Lu-Inanna; four fellow Nippurians, including the dead man’s wife, the euphoniously named Nin-dada, were sentenced to death.

Wilson goes on to point out that Keane also noted how India revived and invigorated democracy after it was on the verge of dying out in Europe following World War II. 

In doing so it defied limited theories of democracy.  It showed how democracy was not confined to white men and women; it succeeded in a vast country with a diverse society; and it riveted the loyalty of illiterate millions with scant knowledge of Western traditions…. Later in its development, Indian democracy incorporated many innovations to keep itself in good order: power-checking mechanisms such as people’s courts (lok adalats), participatory budgets, water consultation schemes and other grass-roots manifestations of civil society. It resembles the banyan tree, whose vast size is supported by many entwined trunks and roots.

But, even this grand display of the evolution of democracy from the historian’s perspective, developed over the course of nearly 1,000 pages, cannot do justice to the origins of democracy when viewed from the viewpoint of the anthropologist or the evolutionary biologist.  Doron Shultziner, Ph.D., currently a Post-doctoral Fellow and Instructor at Emory University, presented a fascinating paper to the 2005 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, September 1-4, 2005 while still a doctoral student  in the Politics & International Relations Department of Lincoln College of the University of Oxford.  The paper was entitled “Evolution and Liberal Democracy,” which reviews evidence tracing the origin of democracy  to the egalitarian structure of small hunter-gatherer groups in the Paleolithic era dating back at least 10,000 years.  Shultziner’s thesis is that “the transitions to democracy in the 20th century cannot be fully understood without reference to the evolutionary forces that shaped the human mind and human societies.”

Shultziner’s intriguing work will be discussed in subsequent parts of this essay.  It represents a creative synthesis of research in the fields of politics, anthropology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, genetics and social psychology which Shultziner uses to formulate a theory explicating the force which he assumes is “pulling towards more egalitarian structures which are consistent with the way human beings lived for most of their evolutionary history.”  Though he couches his description in teleological terms, the notion of a causal, driving force seems to work equally well.   This force he concludes is the seemingly universal, human striving for recognition, which he asserts, following the lead of others, is the motivational component of the need for self esteem [Emphasis added].


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