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.

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.

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 it can't be considered to have a single government.

When determining the starting and stopping criteria you also have to consider the perspective for 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 new.

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 is be 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 20 years, is it a democracy?
  • How direct of access to government modification does 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 the original claim could be likened to asking, "which is the first nation to have 'freedom?'" which would yield the expected answer, "freedom in what way?"

Solution

Since "oldest" and "democracy" are both fuzzy terms, it would be better to focus on criteria that are more concrete. Here are a list of some of the attributes found in democracies, and who first implemented them among defunct and extant nations, and when the US did.

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