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.

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.

What Is a 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 not binary, but rather a spectrum of several metrics. Some of the metrics sociologists look at to measure democracy include:

  • What percentage of the citizenry must be eligible to vote? If only wealthy white men can vote, is it a democracy?
  • 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 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 rather than an oligarchy. The simplicity of this claim could be likened to asking, "which is the first nation to have 'freedom?'"

Solution

Since "oldest" and "democracy" are both fuzzy terms, it would be better to work with more criteria that are more concrete.

Metric First Ever Nation First Extant Nation
Direct Democracy Athens, c. 500 BCE Switzerland, 1891
Representative Democracy Rome, c. 500 BC England, 1689
Universal Suffrage New Zealand, 1893 New Zealand, 1893