Government and Direct Democracy Throughout History

From ancient Greece to modern Chicago, direct democracy has played a prominent role in government and politics throughout all ages. What are its pros and cons?

Nov 17, 2021By Jeff DiSandro, BA Criminology w/ Psychology, MS. Ed w/History

government democracy through history ancient greece hitler


Can the government, and more specifically political philosophy, be viewed as a progression and evolution of ideas? Because of the trials and errors of the past, is it fair to say that humankind has arrived at the best kinds of government as evidenced today? Or is this idea highly subjective, and is the “best” government reserved for the regions and peoples the structure is put in place to serve? Democracy is rooted in the annals of world history. For that matter, so are the ideas and practices of the republican government. So, why do these (and other) government structures exist, and what are their end goals? Or maybe the more appropriate question is, what should be their specified end goals?


A Path to Direct Democracy: What is Sovereignty? 

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Athenian Democracy, C. 507 BC, via the Greek Herald


When overviewing political systems, it is important to ask the question, who is sovereign? What does it mean to be sovereign? Webster’s dictionary defines the word as supreme power over a body of politics, freedom from external control or autonomy, and possessing a controlling influence. The concept of “self-sufficiency” is key in understanding sovereignty.


So, who owns the self-sufficient nature in political affairs? To be sure, throughout history, this question has been answered in many ways. But we should think about sovereignty and ask that basic question in the exploration below. Who is sovereign in democracy? And who is sovereign in other government types? Understanding the answer to this question allows us to have a solid mental framework to build from. Questions like who can make decisions, laws, and changes really start with the idea of sovereignty.


Direct Democracy: An Overview

direct democracy ancient greece
Athens under the leadership of Pericles, C. 495 – 429 BC, Via Hutchinson’s History of the Nations


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The people act as the sovereign in a democracy. Democracy is the rule of the majority opinion. Direct democracy is the purest form of citizens “ruling themselves” and has a long history throughout the world. Ancient Greece is home to the earliest known forms of democracy in world history. In 507 BC, Cleisthenes instituted a series of reforms that gave the Athenian people power. This was called demokratia and literally meant rule by people.


Athenian democracy came in three parts. The first, the assembly, or the Ekklesia, was a legislative group that made decisions on foreign policy and laws. They came to conclusions by simple majority votes. Attendance was open to all citizens of Athens. The second, the council, or the Boule, was 50 representatives from each of the ten tribes that handled most of the day-to-day work of actual governance. The Boule also recommended cases for the Ekklesia to review. The third, the Dikasteria, was made up of randomly selected jurors to hear cases and give verdicts on majority opinions. This group rotated daily, and Aristotle argued that this group contributed the most to the Athenian version of democracy.


Ancient Greece is the best and most enduring example of direct democracy in our history books. But, direct democracy surfaces at various times throughout history, most notably at the beginning of the pre-modern era. Major revolutions such as the American, French, and Russian revolutions all have democratic sentiments at their core. For example, during the French Revolution, the citizens forcefully (and violently) redesigned their political structure multiple times. At the root of this revolution is the French citizenry rebelling against traditional absolute monarchy. In fact, all the revolutions mentioned above are responses to abuse by a dominant one-man (or one-woman) rule. The citizens are, in effect, standing up for their fair share of economic health. The citizens are claiming their sovereignty.


Modern Day Examples of Direct Democracy 

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Direct Democracy in Switzerland, 2021, via Presence Switzerland


Today, direct democracy exists in many different forms. Switzerland is quite possibly the most relevant example of direct democracy in our modern world to date. In Switzerland, policy is shaped and formed with tools like initiatives and referendums. Both ideas give citizens power and control over the legislative direction. Initiatives allow citizens to propose laws for further review and a referendum allows the citizens to call legislation up for a national vote. Direct democracy ideas are often carried out best at small government levels. The notion of participatory budgeting is a good example of this.


Participatory budgeting is a way to empower citizens to take control of legislation, tax money, and any changes in their communities. Participatory budgeting is based on a citizen majority vote. The 40th Ward of Chicago, as well as other Chicago wards, claim to use participatory budgeting effectively to this end. The 40th Ward details the process well on their website called The Peoples Budget! Each Ward in Chicago is given a set amount of money that is earmarked for infrastructure improvements. Any stakeholder can propose infrastructure updates, and citizens of the Ward vote upon those updates. The results are public, and the majority become legislation. In 2020, 441 citizens of the 40th Ward cast a ballot, and a total of four project initiatives were approved.


Direct democracy, both philosophically and practically, is a bottom-up approach to government. As the example of the Chicago Ward shows, the citizens are sovereign, and they have control in the decision-making process.


Dictatorship and Opposition to Direct Democracy

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Detail of Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509-1511, via Lampham Quarterly


Many political philosophers throughout history have actively criticized the ideas of direct democracy. For example, Plato said, “dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.” The issue in direct democracy is whether the majority will (or public opinion) will conflict with basic human liberties. If the people are sovereign and have the ease of passing legislation that neglects basic human freedom, then tyranny and dictatorship can ensue. It is in documented history that people often seek power for ends that violate human liberties. And this is just what happened when the public majority sought to empower the Nazi political party on the eve of World War II.


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Hitler addressing soldiers in Dortmund, Germany, 1933, via Time


The majority viewed Hitler and other key leaders of the Nazi party as heroic and even god-like. This phenomenon, called the cult of personality, happens when a leader, through media avenues, captures the majority public will. Hitler was revered by the majority as a leader who could help pull the country out of post-Treaty of Versailles ruin. Through his popularity and then through brutal force, he was able to gain control of policymaking in Germany with the Enabling Acts of 1933. These acts allowed Hitler to bypass both parliament and the president when creating new German laws. Hitler’s accumulation of power, thanks to his cult of personality, was the reason he was able to rule as sovereign and eventually commit atrocious human rights violations.


To clarify, participatory budgeting in Chicago is not the same as the brutal dictatorships of the 20th century. But we need to call attention to Plato’s warning on the most oppressive tyranny arising from the most basic liberty. The fact is that a vocal majority seeking power for its own end can violate basic human liberties and freedoms.


Mixed Styles: Republic As Representative Government 

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India’s Parliament (Joint Session), 2010


Representative democracy is a level removed from direct democracy. Through elections, the citizens will vote on politicians to essentially be the voice of the people. Elected officials carry out the duties of day-to-day government with heavy input from the citizenry. In this modification to direct democracy, politicians are elected on different platforms (political parties) and represent the different opinions of the community. The competition of ideas and of the majority and minority are both equally represented and equally important. In its nature, this serves as a check to a majority’s will and ease of legislation that can turn into dictatorship discussed above.


For example, the Union of India is a form of representative democracy. The federal government comprises elected officials in all three branches (executive, legislative, judicial). A head of state (president) acts as commander in chief, and the elected prime minister runs the day-to-day executive functions of the federal government. Elected officials serve in the legislature in the lower house (Lok Sabha) or the upper house (Rajya Sabha). The state system of government in India closely mirrors the federal, and the public elects state government officials (federalism).


But no one system of government is perfect. Cons in a representative form of democracy exist in their polarization. Debates and excessive competition can lead to gridlock. The more voices that are heard often means that more legislation is created. This enables the endless and often criticized “bureaucratic” nature of modern government.


Republics and Constitutions 

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The Scales of Justice, photo by James Stidl, 2019


Arguably the most important aspect of a republic government today is the constitution. To date, over 190 different independent countries have some form of a constitution. A constitution is a government structure set into play by written law (constitution). And many of the constitutions have additional protections on basic human rights and liberties like the USA Bill of Rights.


More specifically, a republic is a system of government accorded by written law. Essentially, many levels of mixed government can exist in a republic. For example, in the United States, one could argue that the Executive Branch mirrors a monarch with limited powers. Those powers are checked by a legislative branch. The legislative branch represents a quasi-direct democracy in one area (the House) and possibly an aristocracy in another (the Senate). But both branches are directly elected by the people and responsible to the people.


The main idea is that in a republic, the degree and style of government are directly influenced by the written constitution or the law. The law gives the government structure and the ability and the power to govern. All government variances are most assuredly addressed in a constitution or a written law.


Discussions on democracy and government are needed in our modern world now more than ever. Opinions abound in many communities, thanks largely to social media and the interconnectedness of life in the 21st century. Understanding the pros and cons of competing systems will allow for productive discussion and debate in the future.

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By Jeff DiSandroBA Criminology w/ Psychology, MS. Ed w/HistoryJeff holds a BA in Criminology with a minor in Psychology, M.S. Ed, and an academic certification in basic law with an emphasis on the bill of rights and civil liberties. I’m also a professionally certified high school social studies teacher with experience in world history, European history, economics, and government. Economics, politics, and all things history are among my favorite nonfiction hobbies, and I read about one book per week on various topics. I have attended a wide variety of professional workshops ranging from study at the federal reserve to seminars on comparative government.

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