Recurring Dynamics of History

Activity 3: A Brief History of Democracy

Athens is considered the birthplace of democracy.

As democracy was emerging in Athens around 500 BC, democratic ideas spread to other Greek city-states and to Rome, which established a republic with a law-making body called the senate.

Democracy in ancient Athens ended about 170 years after it began, when Philip of Macedon—a king from the mountainous Macedonia region of northern Greece—built a powerful military machine that conquered Athens and took control of all of Greece. Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, extended the Macedonian empire all the way to India.

Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon River, an event which has come to symbolize the end of democracy in Rome. (Attribution)

The Roman Republic lasted for more than 400 years until a successful general, Julius Caesar, marched his armies out of Gaul (present-day France). He seized control of Rome during a time of conflict and political violence when the republic was no longer functioning effectively. Caesar was declared dictator for life in 44 BC, and his successors took the title of emperor.

Palazzo Vecchio, the “city hall” of the Republic of Florence, Italy.

After the early democracies of Greece and Rome fell to authoritarian rulers during ancient times, democracy ceased to exist for over a thousand years. Then, during the late middle ages, several Italian city-states established independent republics, which adopted the democratic principles that political offices should be filled through elections, and that officials should hold office for a limited period. The independence of the Italian republics ended in the early 1500s when Italy fell under the authoritarian rule of a monarchy, the Hapsburg royal family.

Signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. (by unidentified, CCO 1.0) 

Democracy went dark for another two-and-a-half centuries until American colonists rebelled against the English monarchy in 1776 and created the new nation of the United States, which established the first national democracy since ancient times. The young republic in America demonstrated that a modern nation could be ruled with democratic principles. The American Revolution inspired additional revolutions against ruling monarchies in France, South America, and Mexico, but functioning democracies were difficult to establish, and they often failed.

Democracy got a boost after World War I when defeated European empires were split into smaller countries that adopted democratic governments. However, the years between World War I and World War II proved to be a difficult time for democracies all over Europe as war was followed by the major economic downturn called the Great Depression. Most democracies of eastern and central Europe fell during this period. Fascist dictators replaced democratic governments in the major western European nations of Italy, Germany, and Spain.

Cold War Map. Blue: U.S. and allies, Red: Russia, China and allies, Green: unaligned nations. (Vorziblix, CCO 1.0)

From the ashes of World War II, two “superpowers” emerged as the world’s most powerful nations: the democratic United States and the communist Soviet Union, each equipped with a growing arsenal of devastating nuclear weapons. Much of the world became divided into two “camps”—democratic governments led by the U.S., and totalitarian states led by the Soviets. This grim 45-year competition between democracy and authoritarianism was called the Cold War, because it (fortunately) never turned into a hot, shooting war between the two superpowers.

The community of democracies grew in 1947 when India gained independence from Britain and became the world’s largest democracy. Even America’s enemies from World War II—Japan, Italy, and Germany—eventually joined the democratic nations, as did fascist Spain.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the number of democratic nations increased again as Russia and 14 eastern European countries gained their independence and established democratic governments.

After some 2,500 years of struggle and many failures, it looked like democracy had finally triumphed over authoritarian rule. In 1992, an influential book declared “the end of history,"1 meaning that democracy had become the final form of human political development.

Protesters mourn the death of democracy; Portland, 2017. (Attribution)

But this celebration of democracy was premature. As we have seen from history, democracy can be a difficult system of government to establish and maintain, and in our day democracies continue to fall to authoritarian rulers. After the Soviet Union fragmented into 15 independent republics, only three still functioned as democracies thirty years later, in 2021.2

We might be accustomed to thinking that democracies typically fall to men with swords, as happened in ancient Greece and Rome, or to men with guns, as in fascist Spain. But democracies can die slowly from within as democratic principles are gradually eaten away. This happened in Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler during the Great Depression financial crisis, and it’s happening today in Russia, which provides a current example of how democracies can die gradually at the hands of their own elected leaders.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Russia became an independent country, it adopted a democratic constitution that named the Russian people as “the sole source of power,”3 with that power to be exercised through free elections. Russia’s constitution promised freedoms similar to those guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, including the freedoms of speech, press, religion, and assembly.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin (front) and Dmitry Medvedev. (loSonoUnaFotoCamera, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The new Russian constitution called for the election of a president every four years to lead the country, with the president limited to two consecutive terms in office. In the midst of a deep Russian financial crisis, Vladimir Putin was elected president in the year 2000. He led an economic recovery that made him so popular with the Russian people that he easily won election to a second term.

When his second term expired, Putin stepped aside as president, but he took the title of prime minister (head of government) and continued to exercise political power alongside his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev. When Medvedev’s single presidential term expired, he and Putin exchanged jobs, and Putin again became president of Russia, but now with six-year terms due to a constitutional amendment. Midway through his fourth term as president, Putin signed a law allowing him to run for president two more times, potentially extending his control over Russia’s government to 40 years, something that no legitimate democracy would allow.

The Kremlin in Moscow, home to the president of Russia. (larrywkoester, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Organizations that monitor world governments report that Russia has been transformed from a democracy to an authoritarian state.4 Russia under Putin has been widely accused of rigging elections, barring rival candidates, suppression of the news media, and jailing or killing political opponents.

Watchdog organizations have reported a rise in authoritarian governments worldwide in recent years. The Economist Democracy Index has identified 55 percent of the world’s nations as authoritarian or partially authoritarian, and only 45 percent of nations as democracies. The Index has downgraded the United States from a "full democracy" to a "flawed democracy.”5 Today, authoritarian nations include the world’s largest country by size, Russia, and the world’s largest country by population, China.

EIU Democracy Index 2010. (Attribution)

In contrast to the heady days of the early 1990s, when democracy appeared to be the world’s most dominant form of government and the wave of the future, a recent book by a prominent American historian bears the title Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.6

Works Cited

  1. Frances Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, 1992.
  2. Democracy Index 2020, The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2021, p.33.
  3. Russian Federation’s Constitution of 1993 with Amendments through 2008, Russian Federation, 1993 (rev. 2008), p.3.
  4. Sources that have identified Putin’s Russia as an authoritarian regime include The Economist Democracy Index, Freedom House’s Freedom of the World index, and the Journal of Democracy.
  5. Democracy Index 2020, p. 3, 4.
  6. Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, Doubleday, 2020.

Check Your Understanding

  1. Did your prediction about the future of democracy in ancient Athens and Rome come true?
  2. During which three major eras of world history have we seen the appearance of democratic forms of government?
  3. Please summarize how Russia recently lost its democracy.
  4. A "Recurring Dynamic of History" is an important pattern that has repeated multiple times over the course of history. Based on your knowledge of the history of democracy, compose your own, one- or two-sentence, recurring dynamic of history that describes a pattern repeated by democracies down through the ages.
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