Redefining Historical Democracy


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[First published August 21, 2005] On the frontside of the Democratic Peace Chart [linked in right sidebar] I have defined democracy as: government by the people either directly or through elected representatives, and subdefined a modern version as one of two types — electoral, with universal franchise, secret ballot, and regular and competitive elections; and liberal with all that an electoral democracy has in procedures, plus freedom of speech, religion, association, and rule by law. So far, this is consistent with the political science literature on contemporary democracy.

The problem is that research has extended as far back in history as classical Greece and Rome to test the democratic peace proposition. Clearly, no ancient or medieval country was democratic in a modern sense. Not even the United State until 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was approved and women could vote. Researchers have finessed this by asking how much the democratic franchise can be limited before the idea of democracy collapses into a form of oligarchic rule. Major researchers have agreed that as long voters have equal rights, voting is secret, competitive, and regularized, and winners can lose the next election, then the limitation of the franchise to adult males still does not historically defeat the idea of democracy in the democratic peace proposition.

Therefore, I defined historical democracy as:

At least 50% of population can vote
Competitive elections for legislature and executive
At least one transfer of power

But, still there is a problem. Slavery was legal until modern times, and in the United States, slaves could not vote until the 14th Amendment ratified in 1868, and even then many states made it almost impossible for Afro-Americans to vote until Congress passed the voting rights bill in 1965. So, even allowing the franchise to be limited to 50 percent of the population, as I did above, does not work historically because of slavery, the limitation of the franchise to adult males, and the fact that at some time in some countries men were a minority due to war and a higher death rate.

I had adopted the historical definition from James Lee Ray in his book Democracy and International Conflict: An Evaluation of the Democratic Peace Proposition, where he defined democracy, among the other criteria, as where, “. . . at least half the adult population is eligible to vote . . . .” (p. 98).

How have other researchers dealt with this problem? Melvin Small and J. David Singer, in their article “The War-Proneness of Democratic Regimes, 1816-1965″ (The Jerusalem Journal of International Relations Vol. 1, No. 4, 1976) list democracies in their classification of interstate wars (able 1, p. 56). They defined as democracies:

all those nations from 1816 to 1965 that (a) held periodically scheduled elections in which opposition parties were as free to run as government parties, and in which (b) at least ten percent of the adult population was allowed to vote either directly or indirectly for (c) a parliament that either controlled or enjoyed parity with the executive branch of government. Constitutional monarchies having hereditary rulers with circumscribed powers — England and Belgium, for example — were included in this category. But the existence of a popularly elected parliament alone was not sufficient for qualification. The Germany of the turn of this century featured a parliament which held only the most limited authority over the Kaiser.

Several states met the parliamentary criterion but failed on the suffrage issue: England until the Second Reform Bill of 1867, Italy until its electoral reform of 1882, and Holland until a comparable reform in 1887. During the periods prior to these reforms, all of these states failed to meet our relatively modest ten percent suffrage criterion. Less obvious, but reasonable and consistent, we note that Czechoslovakia in 1919 and Israel in 1948 — both “declared” republics — participated in war before elections could be held. Thus they had not met our criteria on the eve of their wars.

Then there is the historical analyses of Spencer Weart’s Never At War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another , an historical detective-like search for wars between democracies (a summaryis on my website). Since he goes back in time to the Greek city-states, his limitation of the voting franchise is especially interesting. He makes a distinction between republic and democracy, and says (p. 12) “I would begin by calling a republic a democracy if the body of citizens with political rights includes at least two-thirds of the adult males.”

Finally, Michael Doyle in his historical analyses of the democratic peace, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and foreign Affairs, part 1,” (in Philosophy and Public Affairs , Vol. 12, No. 3) makes his franchise cutoff at 30 percent (Table I, footnote a).

With all this in mind, I will change the historical definition of democracy included on my chart to any regime that:

Has competitive elections for legislature and executive
At least one such transfer of power
A franchise extending to at least two-thirds of the adult male population.

It is a question whether this change in the franchise criterion would have any effect on the statistical relationship between democracy and war. Since Small and Singer, and Doyle had even more restrictive definitions, what I am defining as historical democracies would form a subset of those they included in their analyses, so that what is true for their democracies must be true for those I define. Moreover, I have adopted Weart’s definition, and so nothing should change regarding his most extensive historical analyses and the democratic peace propositions.


Link of Note

“DEFINING DEMOCRACY” A U.S. Department of State publication.

It says:

Freedom and democracy are often used interchangeably, but the two are not synonymous. Democracy is indeed a set of ideas and principles about freedom, but it also consists of a set of practices and procedures that have been molded through a long, often tortuous history. In short, democracy is the institutionalization of freedom. For this reason, it is possible to identify the time-tested fundamentals of constitutional government, human rights, and equality before the law that any society must possess to be properly called democratic. . . .

Today, the most common form of democracy, whether for a town of 50,000 or nations of 50 million, is representative democracy, in which citizens elect officials to make political decisions, formulate laws, and administer programs for the public good. In the name of the people, such officials can deliberate on complex public issues in a thoughtful and systematic manner that requires an investment of time and energy that is often impractical for the vast majority of private citizens.

How such officials are elected can vary enormously. On the national level, for example, legislators can be chosen from districts that each elect a single representative. Alternatively, under a system of proportional representation, each political party is represented in the legislature according to its percentage of the total vote nationwide. Provincial and local elections can mirror these national models, or choose their representatives more informally through group consensus instead of elections. Whatever the method used, public officials in a representative democracy hold office in the name of the people and remain accountable to the people for their actions.


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One Response to Redefining Historical Democracy

  1. My friend on Facebook shared this link and I’m not dissapointed at all that I came to your blog.

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