It’s a curious fact that democracy, as a formal system of government, seems not to have evolved, but been directly invented:
Addressing an assembly of the citizens, Cleisthenes proposed what was in effect a revolution. If the people… were truly sovereign, very well then – let them have authority over the city to match. Let them debate policy, and vote on it, and implement it, without regard to qualifications of class or wealth. Let power – kratos – be invested in the demos. Let Athens, in short, become a demokratia.
Tom Holland – Persian Fire
But democracy was created not to conform with notions of natural justice or fairness, nor as the best way to make astute judgements on which future path to take, but as a way to engage all civic classes – from the lowest to the highest – in the success and stability of the state. It ennobled even the meanest with the mantle of sovereignty:
The sponsors of the Athenian revolution were no giddy visionaries moved by shimmering notions of brotherhood with the poor, but rather hard-nosed pragmatists whose goal, quite simply, was to profit as Athenian noblemen by making their city strong.
Tom Holland – Persian Fire
And that strength, the vigour that democracy bestows, has been proven down the ages as the surest, indeed the only lasting way for people to enjoy both personal liberty and general prosperity. History has shown time and again that there simply is no other path. Not, of course, that democracy was given an easy ride in the ancient world:
The result was that when the 300 made their attack on the people, all these, and particularly the crew of the Paralus, came to the rescue; the Samian democrats were victorious; some thirty of the 300 were put to death, and three others, who had been mainly responsible for the revolt, were exiled.
Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War
When I first read Thucydides the internecine civil wars of the Greek city-states seemed entirely remote, and the self-destructive passions of their protagonists unimaginable in a modern setting. Certainly, in my youth totalitarianism was casting a long and very deep shadow across the world, but among the free nations of the West respect for the rule of law and loyalty to democratic principles seemed universal among all but those at the most extreme ideological fringes. Nobody with the slightest political credibility would for a moment have dared to question the foundations of democracy itself.
But here we stand in 2016 and the rising tide of the anti-establishment storm has exposed just how gossamer-thin the devotion many politicians and commentators hold for democracy truly is. They have been held up to a blinding light and we can see right through to their authoritarian souls.
Not, of course, that I am attacking that quiet majority of anti-Brexit or anti-Trump voters who have accepted those results and are now getting on with their lives. But there has been a desperate cacophony of rage from people who have fallen victim to believing their own insults, joyfully flung at their political foes. They have become so consumed by their own sneering hatred, that they are now openly calling for an end to universal suffrage, the very foundation of our freedom and fortune.
Think about that for a moment. Anti-establishment figures have not rigged any ballots, taken any unconstitutional action, or suspended habeas corpus. But based on their emotional upset alone these autocrats demand an end to universal suffrage, the political jewel it has taken the British and American peoples centuries to obtain.
Do those now vomiting their pain and hatred upon the public discourse not consider, even for a moment, how we on the other side of this political divide have felt for the last few decades? Losing battle after battle, seeing the erosion of our liberties to monstrosities like the Treaty of Lisbon, ceaselessly called racists merely for wanting to discuss (merely discuss!) under what rules we may welcome other people to settle in our country – were we not suffering then? But did this quiet majority call for the disenfranchisement of our political opponents, did we demand an end to democracy? Or did we embrace it all the more tightly, re-energising it with our demands to be allowed a say on the decisions that mattered to us, knowing it to be our final and greatest shield?
We did, because it is.