Word Nerd: Democracy

11 Jul

July is when some of the oldest modern democracies celebrate freedom from tyranny and arbitrary rule – Canada on July 1, the US on July 4, and France on July 14. On July 9, Argentina celebrated 200 years of independence from the Spanish empire.


Above: Illustration of French women marching to Versailles in 1789

The United States freed itself from British rule 240 years ago, and in France, revolutionaries brought an end to absolute monarchy 227 years ago, all at the cost of thousands of lives. Today, sadly, voter turnouts do not always reflect the enthusiasm seen during independence day celebrations worldwide. For instance, less than half of all US voters aged 18-24 voted in the 2008 presidential election. In India, the 2014 election saw an average voter turnout of just over 66%, but in Maharashtra it was an appalling 60%, and in Bihar it was less than 57%.

Above: This political cartoon, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, originally appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754, and was recycled by American revolutionaries to rally the colonies to unite

“Democracy” literally means the rule of the people. The word “democracy” comes from ancient Greek words that literally mean “the people” (demos) and “power” or “authority” (-kratia). The dictionary defines it as a “form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them… or by officers elected by them”, or a state in which “all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege”.

The absence of rank and privilege, of course, is an ideal situation. Even blatant inequalities were not obvious to the founders of modern democracies, no matter how genuinely good their intentions. For instance, the founders of the US were white and slave-owning. French Revolutionaries somehow worked the gendered term “fraternity” into their rallying cry of “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. Neither democracy kicked off by freeing slaves or enfranchising women – that took another century or two. Nor did those democracies give up their colonies and start treating Asians and Africans as equals. If that had been the case, people like Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela might have just been ordinary lawyers that no one ever heard of.

So while we are rightly proud of our democracy, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s what B-school types call a “work in progress”. Democracy is an incomplete project, evolving as nations expand civil rights and develop more inclusive policies.

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By: Uma Asher

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