CHARLOTTE, NC. While the pundits continue their “punding,” on the White House, 2018’s midterm elections are now behind us. So now seems like a good time to explore some trivia history on the always hot topic of democracy.
The origin of the term, democracy
The term “democracy” was coined by the ancient Greeks during that country’s golden age around 430 B.C. Derived from two Greek words demos and kratos, demos meaning “people” and kratos being “power” or “force,” the democratic process has grown into an integral part of civilization during over the past 2,500 years.
Pericles, known as a skilled orator and politician, generally receives credit for launching an early edition of what is today known as “rule by the people.” He is also regarded as the longest lasting democratic leader in Greece. Following his death, Athenian democracy was interrupted by revolution until it was later restored by Eucleides.
Recognized as Polis in the 5th century B.C., Greek democracy as established in Athens encouraged citizens to vote on executive bills as well as legislation. Despite being called “democracy” however, only adult male citizens of that city-state were allowed to vote.
Another Greek innovation, the public theater, was frequently influenced by the outcome of voting procedures. Poets were also inclined to opine in verse based upon current voting trends.
But could democracy have started elsewhere than Greece?
Some historians claim that India and a few other places actually created earlier versions of local democracy. But since the Greeks gave the process its name, they receive the honor of being called the “first.”
Today, depending upon your personal opinion, there are several places whose citizens believe they have the right to be called “the oldest continuously functioning” democracy in the world. Among them are Iceland, the Faroe Islands and the Isle of Man. All of them established local parliaments in the 9th and 10th centuries A.D.
So, who’s on first: the U.S. or the Iroquois Nation?
Though the United States is one of the oldest modern democracies, it can only lay claim the honor if certain criteria are modified to disqualify places such as Switzerland and San Marino and even the American Six Nations confederacy of the Iroquois Indians.
The Iroquois, who trace their consensus-based government tradition across eight centuries, actually constitute the oldest living participatory democracy.
Other analysts say that meaningful democracy only arrived on a national level in 1906, when Finland became the first country to abolish race and gender requirements for both voting and serving in government.
Take your pick.
How about those madcap Swiss? Aren’t Cantons in Ohio?
Let’s roll back the clock to the year 1291. That’s when the Swiss Confederation introduced one of the oldest democracies in the world that still exists today. What is interesting about Swiss democracy however lies in some of the oddities that hardly seem real in the contemporary 21st century world of today.
With roots dating to the 16th century, Landsgemeinde, or “cantonal assembly” is Switzerland’s oldest form of direct democracy. A Swiss canton is roughly the equivalent of a U.S. state.
The system is simple. Everyone gathers in the town square to discuss an issue before all final decisions are made by a show of hands.
What is unusual about this system is that it is still used today in the canton of Appenzell. Perhaps even more strange: the Appenzell assemblies only granted women the right to vote in 1991, a mere 27 years ago. In fact, the entire country of Switzerland did not allow women the right to vote at all until 1971 some 680 years after the country was founded.
The fact is, it might not have changed even then had it not been after four local women filed a legal complaint.
About those Swiss Suffragettes…
In 1928, when British women obtained their voting rights, Swiss suffragettes also paraded through the streets of Bern, the Swiss capital. They symbolically rolled a model of a giant snail down the street. It only took 43 more years for the men to relent.
In yet another quirk of modern-day voting trivia, many Swiss men still carry swords rather than voting cards. The reason also has its roots in history when men had to prove their voting eligibility by carrying a bayonet or side arm. Supposedly a person toting a weapon in public was thought to be a rational person and, therefore, their opinions were taken seriously.
Try that one on for size at a modern American political rally.
No hanging chads?
Believe it or not, there are no voting machines in Switzerland where all votes are counted by hand. E-voting was introduced in 2001, however.
Each municipality recruits citizens at random for the duty of counting ballots. Those who do not comply, which is rare, receive stiff penalties. Smaller towns tally votes manually while larger cities use automatic counters. Ballots are then weighed by a precision scale and the entire process is usually completed in about six hours.
It is indeed strange however, that one of the oldest direct democracies in the world, known for its precision, banking expertise and incredible national transportation system would be so long in changing its voting processes.
BTW, Switzerland’s legendary national hero is William Tell who famously shot an apple off his son’s head. Now you know the story. So, by a show of hands, when it comes to voting, should we let William tell it?
—Headline image: The Parthenon in Athens, Greece, circa 1978.
Image via Wikipedia entries on Athens, Greece and The Parthenon, CC 2.0 license.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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