Episode #1 of the course “Ideas that changed the world”
A democracy is a system of government summarized as “rule by the people.” In democracies, officials who make decisions of law and policy are chosen by the country’s citizens. The idea of a government ruled by its citizens contrasts with systems like monarchies, in which power to rule is passed through family lineage, and dictatorship, in which a single person rules by claiming power.
Democracies are often large, complex governments that distribute and balance power among multiple branches, which are often comprised of elected officials (although some may be appointed). In a democracy, the government must answer for its actions to its citizens, and the citizens have the right to replace that government. The citizen also has a number of other guaranteed rights, creating protected statuses and a government-guaranteed “system of equality.” The ideas inherent in democracy helped abolish slavery and are intricately tied with the revolutionary 18th-century idea of “human rights.”
History commonly attributes the birth of the idea of democracy to ancient Athens around 500 BCE. However, evidence exists for the idea that ancient people in Sparta, as well as in Syria and Mesopotamia, practiced elements of democracy, such as elections. The Athenians, however, are known for their fully-functioning democracy, including a Senate whose members were elected and whose power was limited. No senator claimed more power than another, and none could ignore a set law. This was unheard-of in the ancient world.
Democracy was not popular in Europe or Asia throughout the Middle Ages, and although some Native Americans, South Americans, and African societies practiced democratic aspects during those years, it is unlikely that they were influenced by the Athenians. It was during the Enlightenment that democracy became the promoted system, culminating in the founding of the United States of America in 1776. The USA was the first country to found itself on solely democratic principles; it has served as a model for democracies for two centuries, attempting to advance this idea around the world.
“Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” by George Bernard Shaw
“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” by Sir Winston Churchill
“Democracy is a process by which the people are free to choose the man who will get the blame.” by Laurence J Peter
“The whole idea of a democracy is that we ourselves, the people, are supposed to make a path of our politics, and it is we who with our feet and our vote and our labors and our vigilance are supposed to shape our country.” by Eugene Jarecki
“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” by Franklin D. Roosevelt
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