Claim: The United States Is the Oldest Democracy
The claim the United States is the oldest democracy is usually made by US nationalists. The argument consists of two points, that the US has always been a democracy, and that it is the oldest of the world's democracies. Plolitifact accepts this argument (under specific definitions), but I disagree with both points of the argument.
Oldest In What Way?
To say that something is the "oldest" is an ambiguous term. For example, the "oldest" government could mean:
- The earliest government in history.
- The government that lasted for the longest length of time in a relatively unchanged state.
- The government that is still in existence today in a relatively unchanged state from when it was formed.
It is generally assumed that this argument uses the third meaning because it certainly wouldn't be true with the other two.
When Was It Formed?
Whenever we talk about the lifespan of a government, we have to determine what criteria should be used to decide when the government was formed or replaced. For example, France has existed as a nation in name for over 1,000 years, but in that time its government has been restructured from a monarchy to a representative democracy, so there is no reasonable way to claim it's current government was formed 1,000 years ago.
When determining how different the government has changed, you not only have to look at how the government itself functions, but you also have to consider how it affects the individual citizens. For example, in the United States, we see practically no change in governance from the perspective of a land-owning white man from today back to when the country won its independence, but the governance change for women, black people, or the poor was so drastically different it could warrant being described as a new form of government.
How Do You Define Democracy?
A democracy is any form of government that is ruled by its citizens rather than a limited group or individual, but citizen rule is a spectrum of several metrics. Some of the metrics sociologists look at to measure democracy include:
- What percentage of the citizenry is eligible to vote? If only a single race or sex can vote, is it a democracy?
- How often does the citizenry vote on governmental changes? If elections are only held once every 30 years, is it a democracy?
- How direct of access to government modification does the citizenry have? If your votes can be modified by several layers of representatives, is it a democracy?
- How evenly are laws enforced among the citizenry? If the upper class is treated with far more leniency, is it a democracy?
- What protections are in place to protect minorities? If the majority can eliminate the rights of the minorities, is it a democracy?
There are no agreed upon minimum value for these metrics to determine when a government is a democracy as opposed to an oligarchy, and even nations which maintain monarchies are viewed today as democracies provided the people have a high degree of autonomy.
Who Is the Oldest For Individual Metrics?
Since "oldest" and "democracy" are both fuzzy terms, it would be better to focus on criteria that are more concrete. Here is a list of some of the attributes found in democracies, which nation first implemented them, which extant nations continue to implement them, and when the US began implementing them.
|Metric||First Ever Nation||First Extant Nation||US Adoption|
|Direct Democracy||Athens, c. 500 BCE||Switzerland, 1891||Never|
|Representative Democracy||Rome, c. 500 BCE||England, 1689||1789|
|Abolition of Slavery||Athens c. 500 BCE||Haiti, 1804||1865|
|Woman's Suffrage||New Zealand, 1893||New Zealand, 1893||1920|
|Ethnic Suffrage||Norway, 1821||Norway, 1821||1965|
|Universal Suffrage||New Zealand, 1893||New Zealand, 1893||1965|
The simplicity of the original claim often belies the ignorance of the claimant. It's as though they're claiming that the US was the first nation to have "freedom." To which the informed would ask, "freedom in what way, and for whom?"
The only way I can see this claim being accurate is if it were reworded in the following way:
The United States is the oldest extant democracy, excluding those with a concurrent oligarchy, and assuming you define "democracy" to include nations where most citizens can't vote, and the upper class owns human beings as slaves.