Evolution of Democracy


The expansion of democratic rights has tracked the development of scientific understanding. The time line shows some of  the incremental steps in the evolution of democracy.

The first democracy in the Greek Republics coincided with the Greek Enlightenment. After the Roman Emperors, the European monarchs took over. In England there was an incremental transition to constitutional monarchy. The Renaissance started in the Florence Republic. Elsewhere, revolutions and invasions triggered changes in governance, mostly to Republics.  Some Democracies have converted to Authoritarian when the leaders have refused to depart, Hitler is the infamous example.  Full voting rights were painfully  slow to appear.



Leaders in human communities are either elected, inherited, or enforced. Based on today's hunter gatherer communities,  leaders of pre-historic tribes were likely chosen by senior respected families in the community.

After settled agriculture appeared around 10,000 years ago, the Pharoe god-kings ruled in Egypt. These were authoritarian rulers over a almost completely illiterate community. 

Invasions of neighboring communities have been a fact of life, and inevitably result in authoritarian rule of the invaded. Over 3000 years, Phaeronic Egypt experienced invasion by  a Western Asian people called the Hyksos, Assyrians , Persians, and Alexander the Great from Greece. The invaders inserted themselves as leaders, co-opted the local power structure and left the underlying community mostly untouched.

Authoritarian Monarchs or tribal leaders have ruled over most of  the world. 

Monarchies, with leadership passed on within a ruling family by rules of inheritance has been the most common power structure.  Monarchs controlled all the major European powers by the Middle Ages; England, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Russia etc. 

The first Republic Democracy

The first mass democratic experiment occurred in the Republic city states of ancient Greece. All males got to vote, no slaves and no women. This coincided with the "Greek Enlightenment" with an array of breakthroughs in scientific understanding of how the world works. Roman democracy followed the Greek, and then ended in 27AD with the election of the first Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. 

The Roman emperors were selected by a combination of the military and the Senate a group of wealthy landowners. The legitimacy of an emperor's rule depended on his control of the army and recognition by the Senate; an emperor would normally be proclaimed by his troops, or invested with imperial titles by the Senate, or both. 

After the fall of the Roman empire, from civil war and incursions by aggressive nomadic people, the European monarchies emerged and ruled through the Middle Ages. Many maintained domination, ruling as "absolute monarchs", such as France and Russia. 

The transition to a democratic constitutional monarchy

Other monarchs started to devolve power to their people to maintain power by consent from their people

In England for example, in 1215, the barons coerced the king into issuing Magna Carta  to guarantee the rights and liberties of the nobility. After King James ran away, the Bill of Rights 1689 affirmed parliamentary supremacy and declared that the English people held certain rights, including freedom from taxes imposed without parliamentary consent. During William IV's reign, the Reform Act 1832,  led to an expansion of the electoral franchise and the rise of the House of Commons as the most important branch of Parliament. By the time of Victoria, 1860's, the English royalty had a purely administrative role, with the real power in the prime minister as head of the legislature. It was not until the 1920's that women finally got the vote.

The return of Republics 

City states such as Venice and Florence in the 1400's were Republics The Signoria of Florence  ruled  between 1250 and 1532. Its nine members, the Priori, were chosen by random draw from the ranks of the guilds of the city: six of them from the major guilds, and two from the minor guilds. 

The republic of Venice was ruled by the doge, who was elected by members of the Great Council of Venice The ruling class was an oligarchy of merchants and aristocrats, supported by Venetian citizens.

The invasions of the New World by the European Monarch expanded authoritarian rule, and spread disease. Resistance resulted in the US Revolution. The US Republic formed in 1776, was the first with comprehensive political structure, and a powerful executive  president. The voters were still limited to white males. Women got to vote in 1920. African Americans were nominally included in 1880 after the Civil war, but real access only occurred in 1970. The world wide empires of the European powers were finally  dissolved after the end of World War 2. 

The European absolute monarchs were unable to resist people power forever. In 1789, the French Revolution formed the first French Republic  modelled after the US, which finally stabilized in the the third  Republic in 1870.

By the early 1900's, the ambitions of the European monarchies in Austro-Hungary, Germany, Russia and the European democracies in France and England had resulted in a web of treaties designed for mutual control. A local freedom fighter in Serbia killed the Austro Hungarian Archduke and everything spiraled into World War 1. In the aftermath, Republics were formed in Germany, Austria, Hungary, CzechoslovakiaPoland and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. 

The rise of "popular" authoritarians 

In 1917, the Russian revolutionary civil war removed the Tsarist absolute monarchy and replaced them with a nominally elected leadership committed to imposing equality on their community. This quickly become a one party democracy, that was effectively authoritarian. Leadership was acquired through a power struggle based on who has the support of the military. Communism finally collapsed in the 1980's through a combination of economic failure and old and ineffective leadership.

Fascist authoritarian leaders can come to power through revolution or election. In 1935, Hitler came to power in an election, and promptly dissolved the German Weimar Republic. He then precipitated World War 2 by invading most of Europe, committed genocide,  and co-opted Japan. The whole world had to be mobilized in resistance.  

The Cold War era

Since World War 2, the warring empires have become the democratic West against authoritarian Russia in a nuclear  Cold War that cannot be fought. The Cold War sent several countries back to authoritarian. The fights were through proxies, and with unhappy parts of their empires. In general, the locals simply have more staying power than the invader as in  Vietnam and Iran  against USA or Afghanistan against pretty much everyone.


The fall of the Berlin wall, allowed democracy in Russia and many others. Putin came to power democratically in Russia and proceeded to undercut that democracy, now we have the resistance of Ukraine to Russian invasion. 

The attack of 9/11 was reminiscent of the start of WW1, a guerilla attack designed to trigger a response, that succeeded with the US invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, that ended with US withdrawal, leaving theocratic authoritarians in charge. In Iran, a theocratic revolution replaced a US backed dictator. 

The long term presence of foreign military in Germany, Japan, and South Korea are examples of the long term commitment that is required after successfully taking control. 

Democracy today 

The major democracies fall into 3 categories; constitutional monarchy, republics with powerful president and republics with ceremonial president. 

In a  constitutional monarchy, the real power resides with the prime minister who is head of the legislature, and the executive Civil Service managed by legislators. Examples include United Kingdom.

A republic with ceremonial president, is very similar with the president and monarch performing similar duties. Examples include Israel, Ireland. 

In a republic with executive president, the president controls the apparatus of government and wealds most of the power. The legislatures are responsible for developing legislation and oversight. Examples include USA.

It is becoming clear that the real danger is presented by power hungry theocrats, or by  sociopath's with populist / fascist instincts such as Hitler, Putin, Trump,  Kim Jung Il in N Korea.  The rise of the self identified "morally superior rich" has also bolstered fascist tendencies. 

Democracy and sustainability

The challenge now is to transform our energy infrastructure with huge costs and disruption over a 50+ year commitment, in democratic countries when there are elections every few years. The  inherent messiness of democracy means that the drive to sustainability will inevitably be slower than people would like. 




Universe                        1year

Earth                              3mo

Life                                 2.5mo

Dino's lasted                4 days

Oil created                    5 days 

To evolve from apes   7 hrs 

Homo Sapiens so far 10mins

Human history            30secs

1000 years                      3secs

I year                                3msec