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 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.
The 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:
- The earliest civilization in history.
- The civilization that lasted for the longest length of time.
- The civilization that dates back furthest from those still in existence today.
Obviously, the first possibility can't be true since democratic societies existed thousands of years ago. To remove such ambiguity, the claim should be reworded to, "the US is the oldest extant democracy." But this brings up the second point.
Is the United States a Democracy?
The word "democracy" is also an ambiguous term. There are multiple forms of democracy and the argument doesn't specify.
- Direct Democracy - Citizens vote directly on government issues.
- Representative Democracy - Citizens vote on representatives who then vote on government issues.
Sociologists describe the government of the United States as a constitutional republic, which, depending on how free of corruption the government is, may be a representative democracy. In either case, most governments have variations of direct or representative voting at different levels of government.
Currently, in the US, all adults can freely and fairly vote, but it wasn't always this way. At the time it declared independence the only people who could vote were wealthy white men, a fraction of the population.
In my opinion, a nation is not a democracy unless it has universal suffrage, that is, the freedom for all adults to vote. The US did not adopt universal suffrage until 1965, the 38th nation to do so. However, it was one of the first to allow a large amount of the general population to vote in meaningful elections.