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 (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:

  1. The earliest civilization in history.
  2. The civilization that lasted for the longest length of time.
  3. 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. And, 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 and fell. For example, France has existed as a nation in name for over 1,000 years, but it has seen such major governmental restructuring, that it can't be considered to have a single government all this time.

Is the United States a Democracy?

The word "democracy" is also an ambiguous term. In its most basic definition, a democracy is any form of government that is ruled by its citizens rather than a limited political group or individual. However, there are several criteria used to measure a democracy, but there are no agreed upon values. For example:

  • What percentage of the citizenry must be eligible to vote? If only rich white men can vote, is it a democracy?
  • How often does voting take place? If citizens only get to vote every 20 years, is it a democracy?
  • How direct of access to government modification should the citizenry have? If your votes must pass through 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?

In the case of the United States, universal suffrage did not happen until 1965 (the 38th nation to do so), some elections only take place every 6 years, most elections go through at least one representative, the wealthy are generally less subject to justice than the poor, and for most of the early history, minorities were savagely abused.

Best Case Scenario

In order for this claim to even hope to be accurate, it must be reworded to something along the lines of, "the US is the oldest extant representative democracy assuming a government that allows slavery and only lets a single race and sex vote is a democracy."