“Declaration of Independence” by John Turnbull, 1818
All political questions, every one of them, come down to a basic proposition: Who gets to say? Who in society will decide the big questions and, by extension, the smaller ones for the rest of us? Who will make the rules? Who will rule on what is allowed and what forbidden? Whose vision of culture and society will shape the world in which the rest of us must live?
For a hundred thousand years or so of our hunter-gatherer existence, going back even before the H. sapiens genome settled down in its current configuration, the question of who-gets-to-say was probably handled as close to democratically as one could wish. After all, each group or band was about the size of an extended family or tribe, probably no more than fifty individuals maximum. In such a group, you might think that the oldest, wisest, strongest, or bravest would be the natural leader and decider. But I believe such a small group would probably have its own ideas.
The person whom the tribe picked as “wisest,” “strongest,” or “bravest” might be the result of a lot of individual choice and input. It would really come down to whomever the collected individuals trusted or respected or hoped would take them in a direction that found food, water, shelter, and safety. And that might not be the person with the smartest mouth, the biggest muscles, or an unflinching attitude when staring down a wild boar or tiger. It ultimately would be the person to whom the most members of the group would listen, respond, and obey.
It’s also possible, with a group that small, to have a situation of shared leadership. One person might know the most about and be the most skilled at hunting. Another might have special diplomatic skills when dealing with other tribes. And a third might be the best to consult about campsite rules and interpersonal relationships. In this, the hunter-gatherer tribe might be like any extended family, with different natural leaders at the focus of different family problems.
But when the tribe settles down and becomes a village, a culture, or a nation, the daily push and pull of personal familiarity, family loyalty, and individual input no longer works to select a leader to speak for and direct the whole district or city-state. Each street and neighborhood might have its local wise man or woman, its go-to person for conflict resolution, and its natural spokesperson. But as soon as that local neighborhood bands together with others to form an association that is larger, better able to plan community rules and infrastructure, and benefit from extended trade with other cities and states—and so become richer and more powerful as a whole—then the need for a unified leadership becomes apparent.
The district chief, thane, or regional king would not necessarily be chosen by popular election, and probably not by simple trust, respect, and response on an individual level. And this would be the initial selection, when the old king dies without an heir or the community undergoes a popular revolution. Otherwise, for all our long history, humans have been willing to trust the children of the king to take the mantle, crown, or talking stick when the old king passes. This trust in inherited capability was not blind, because it responded to an innate understanding of biology, observed from a thousand generations of animal husbandry and seed selection: strong and capable parents usually beget strong and capable children.
But in that time of dynastic disruption—either death of a childless king or social revolution—then the choice of who-gets-to-say would be based on both self-selection and individual input. First, the candidate must put himself1 forward, and then the people who have risen to positions of respect and authority in their own neighborhoods and districts must decide whether they will trust, follow, and obey him or hold out for somebody else.
If the king or his son proved to be incompetent, then the matter of who-gets-to-say falls to the privy council, the closest advisors, or the “kitchen cabinet.” Power will still be exercised in the name of the king or the idiot son, but the decisions will be made by those who are closest to the throne. This is, of course, an unstable situation, because proximity is not a finite but a relative measure. And among the counselors and advisors there will always be those who must choose how far they will trust, follow, and obey the loudest or most persuasive speakers.
The purest form of democracy—where no one leader emerged as king, archon, or dictator—seems to have been the government of Athens in the fifth to the fourth centuries BC. There every male citizen of a certain age had a voice in the Assembly and a chance to represent his village, tribe, or administrative district (his deme) for a year’s time in the Council of 500, whose members were drawn from each tribe or district. In the Assembly, citizens could discuss and vote on proposed rules and legislation. The Council prepared the legislation for discussion in the Assembly and could also make rules by itself.
This system worked well, for as long as it did. But it was also subject to takeover by groups of oligarchs2 and individual tyrants. Rule by the direct vote of all citizens in either the Assembly or the Council is a nice idea—unless you were a woman, a slave, or a non-citizen—but it was also unwieldy. Discussion, negotiation, and consensus all take time. Not everyone is happy with every outcome. And it requires great personal and moral discipline to accept an outcome that you don’t like, or perhaps one with which you violently disagree, solely on the basis that your neighbors find it good and acceptable and that you have sworn—or just personally chosen—to uphold the democratic ideal as more important than your feelings on this one matter or string of issues.
Turning the decision power over to a smaller group of smart fellows—or even one particularly persuasive, charming, and capable fellow—who can get things done in a sensible amount of time and with a minimum of fuss, might seem like a good alternative. Especially so when there’s a crisis at hand—and almost any issue can be made to seem like a crisis—or when the bickering among Council and Assembly members has gone on so long that the issues are piling up, the roads and sewers aren’t getting fixed, the wharves are crumbling down at the port, and the rats are everywhere.
Something in the human soul gets tired of taking direct responsibility for every detail of government, especially when you can’t win every debate. It just becomes easier to turn the issues of the day over to a bunch of smart guys, or one smart guy, and let them or him figure things out. And then, if they really mess things up, you can always go out into the street with your neighbors, carry a torch or a pitchfork, and call for reforms. You can at least get the heads of the current smart guys mounted on a pike and put in their place the people who promise to do things better. And that’s a sort of democracy, too—direct action by social revolution.
In the modern political entities of the West—and in the Western-inspired parts of Asia—direct democracy and its upheavals have been replaced by representative democracy, usually in the form of a republic with an agreed-upon charter or constitution. Instead of letting smart fellows just take over the government, citizens vote to put them in power. In most of the world, exemplified by the United Kingdom, the representatives sit in an assembly or parliament, and the leaders in that body also form the administrative government. In the United States, the assembly of representatives is the Congress, with two houses whose members are seated differently—either on an equal basis among all states (the Senate) or proportionally by population (the House)—and with different terms for each. The administrative government is voted directly in the person of the Executive—the President, with cabinet members and various department heads proposed by the President but confirmed in Congress. Congress makes the laws, the President’s administration enforces them, and the federal courts up to the Supreme Court—with justices also named by the President but confirmed in Congress—rule on the laws in practice.
This system has worked well—or at least without outright revolution, and only one civil war—for more than 230 years. Like Athenian democracy, it has its satisfied winners and its unhappy losers. Sometimes the Congress has more direct power as the law-making body. More recently, the actual power of interpreting the details of Congress’s large and clumsily written laws has fallen to the Executive. Like all governments and all agreements among human beings, it’s a plastic situation that changes with the times.
The genius of the American system—or its defect, in some eyes—is that we have generally focused our discussion and debate through two main parties: once the Democrats and the Whigs, now the Democrats and the Republicans. The issues and emphases of these two groups change and sometimes reverse themselves over the generations, but they keep the discussion within bounds, and each party forms an inclusive group for handling similar issues under similar principles. The alternative is the multiplicity of parties—sometimes with single issues, sometimes splintering off of larger parties—that is common in Europe. There government by coalition—shared power without necessarily shared viewpoints—has become more common. And this is an unstable situation, especially when coalitions can break up and that precipitates an unscheduled election through a “vote of no confidence.”
We may be headed in that direction in this country, as the two major parties move their centers of gravity further out to fringe positions left and right, leaving the voters in the moderate middle with fewer and fewer good choices. So far, third parties in this country have been a pit filled with wasted votes, but that may soon change. And then we may have more government by uneasy coalitions.
But whatever comes, and whether the issues of the day reflect real or invented situations and dangers, all political issues are ultimately just wedges to put one person, one party, or a strong coalition of similar intentions in a position to make day-to-day, on-the-ground decisions for the rest of us. Issues, principles, and voiced positions are one thing, but access to and the use of actual decision-making power is the final purpose.
1. In this part of the discussion I am purposely using the male pronoun. Yes, there have been some matriarchies and matrilineal societies—but not many. And yes, in recorded history many Western nations have been led by queens. During the Roman invasion, the English had a warband leader known as Boadicea and she must have been an extraordinary woman. The English have also had queens in recent history, too: Maud, Elizabeth, Anne, Victoria. But these women—extraordinary or not—generally came to power when the dynastic tradition was strong but there was no better-placed male heir at hand. The free and unrestricted choice of a woman as national leader is a much more modern phenomenon.
2. The roots of this word are the Greek olig, meaning “few, a little, or too little,” and archon, meaning “ruler” and being one of the nine chief magistrates of the ancient city.