Difference between revisions of "Claim: The United States Is the Oldest Democracy"

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The claim '''''the United States is the oldest democracy''''' is usually made by US nationalists. The argument consists of two points, that the US is a democracy, and that it is the oldest of world democracies. Plolitifact accepts this argument ([http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2016/jul/11/paul-ryan/paul-ryan-claims-us-oldest-democracy-world-he-righ/ under specific definitions]), but I disagree with both points of the argument.
 
The claim '''''the United States is the oldest democracy''''' is usually made by US nationalists. The argument consists of two points, that the US is a democracy, and that it is the oldest of world democracies. Plolitifact accepts this argument ([http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2016/jul/11/paul-ryan/paul-ryan-claims-us-oldest-democracy-world-he-righ/ under specific definitions]), but I disagree with both points of the argument.
  
==The Oldest In What Way?==
+
==Oldest In What Way?==
To say that something is the "oldest" of a category is an ambiguous term. For example, the "oldest" civilization could mean:
+
To say that something is the "oldest" is an ambiguous term. For example, the "oldest" government could mean:
  
# The earliest civilization in history.
+
# The earliest government in history.
# The civilization that lasted for the longest length of time.
+
# The government that lasted for the longest length of time in a relatively unchanged state.
# The civilization that dates back furthest from those still in existence today.
+
# The government that is still in existence today in a relatively unchanged state from when it was formed.
  
Whenever we talk about the lifespan of a nation, we have to determine what criteria should be used to decide when a nation was formed or been replaced. For example, France has existed as a nation in name for over 1,000 years, but it has seen such major governmental restructuring, it can't be considered to have a single government in that time. This is also a matter of perspective for individual citizens. When we look at the history of the US, we see practically no change in governance for rich white men since the country's revolution, but the governance change for black people was more than enough to view the government as a new nation.
+
It is generally assumed that this argument uses the third meaning.
  
==What Is a Democracy?==
+
==When Was It Formed?==
A [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy democracy] is any form of government that is ruled by its citizens rather than a limited group or individual, but citizen rule is not binary, but rather a spectrum of several metrics. Some of the metrics sociologists look at to measure democracy include:
+
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.
  
* What percentage of the citizenry must be eligible to vote? If only wealthy white men can vote, is it a democracy?
+
When determining the 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 black women was so drastically different it could warrant being described as a new form of government.
* How often does the citizenry vote on governmental changes? If elections are only held once every 20 years, is it a democracy?
+
 
* How direct of access to government modification should the citizenry have? If your votes can be modified from several layers of representatives, is it a democracy?
+
==How Do You Define Democracy?==
 +
A [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy 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?
 
* 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?
 
* 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 values for these metrics to determine when a government is a democracy rather than an [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oligarchy oligarchy]. The simplicity of this claim could be likened to asking, "which is the first nation to have 'freedom?'"
+
There are no agreed upon minimum values for these metrics to determine when a government is a democracy as opposed to an [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oligarchy oligarchy], and even nations which maintain monarchies are viewed today as democracies provided the people have a high degree of autonomy.
  
==Solution==
+
==Who Is the Oldest For Individual Metrics?==
Since "oldest" and "democracy" are both fuzzy terms, it would be better to work with more criteria that are more concrete.
+
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.
  
 
{| class="wikitable" |
 
{| class="wikitable" |
Line 28: Line 33:
 
! First Ever Nation
 
! First Ever Nation
 
! First Extant Nation
 
! First Extant Nation
 +
! US Adoption
 
|-
 
|-
 
| [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_democracy Direct Democracy]
 
| [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_democracy Direct Democracy]
 
| Athens, c. 500 BCE
 
| Athens, c. 500 BCE
 
| Switzerland, 1891
 
| Switzerland, 1891
 +
| Never
 
|-
 
|-
 
| [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Representative_democracy Representative Democracy]
 
| [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Representative_democracy Representative Democracy]
| Rome, c. 500 BC
+
| Rome, c. 500 BCE
 
| England, 1689
 
| England, 1689
 +
| 1789
 +
|-
 +
| [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_abolition_of_slavery_and_serfdom Abolition of Slavery]
 +
| Athens c. 500 BCE
 +
| Haiti, 1804
 +
| 1865
 +
|-
 +
| [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women's_suffrage Woman's Suffrage]
 +
| New Zealand, 1893
 +
| New Zealand, 1893
 +
| 1920
 +
|-
 +
| [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffrage#Race Ethnic Suffrage]
 +
| Norway, 1821
 +
| Norway, 1821
 +
| 1965
 
|-
 
|-
 
| [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_suffrage Universal Suffrage]
 
| [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_suffrage Universal Suffrage]
 
| New Zealand, 1893
 
| New Zealand, 1893
 
| New Zealand, 1893
 
| New Zealand, 1893
 +
| 1965
 
|}
 
|}
 +
 +
==Conclusion==
 +
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 other people as slaves.''
  
  
 
[[Category: Politics]]
 
[[Category: Politics]]

Latest revision as of 13:09, 7 November 2017

The claim the United States is the oldest democracy is usually made by US nationalists. The argument consists of two points, that the US is a democracy, and that it is the oldest of world 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:

  1. The earliest government in history.
  2. The government that lasted for the longest length of time in a relatively unchanged state.
  3. 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.

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 the 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 black women 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 values 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

Conclusion

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 other people as slaves.