Democracy, Voting, and the Individual

作者: admin2

Edward “Buck” Shomo, Esq. Immigration Attorney


The United States has a form of government that is known as a ‘democratic republic.’ These two words find their origins in the very roots of Western civilization, and it may be a surprise to many that the tree that grew from those roots appeared dead for over a thousand years. The country was founded with the idea of equality and an equal voice for all, something we still work to achieve.

“Democracy” comes from the ancient Greek language, ‘demos,’ meaning ‘the people’ and ‘kratia,’ meaning ‘rule or power.’ Greece is a large peninsula, with many smaller peninsulas pushing into the sea, and nearby islands surrounding it. It is mountainous, and much of its wealth in ancient times, thousands of years ago, came from the ships that moved between the cities in the bays made by the peninsulas, and on the islands. This geography caused what are know as ‘city-states’ to develop- wealthy, sophisticated, but with very little territory. Their wealth came from trade and the intelligence of their people. Among these Greek city-states, there were ruling classes made up of citizens, and the rest of the people were slaves. The idea developed among the ruling classes that instead of a king or other single ruler making decisions for everyone, the citizens should all debate policies, and vote about the matters affecting the city. This ‘people power’ was know in their language as ‘demokratia,’ from which we get our idea and word, ‘democracy.’ In fact, if a person was thought to have too much influence, the citizens could vote to make him leave the city for a time. They put their votes on broken pieces of clay pots, ‘ostraka’ in the Greek language. This is where the English word ‘ostracize’ comes from- when the group ignores and expels a person because of his actions.

After centuries ruling themselves by democracy, the Greek city-states were eventually taken over and made part of the expanding Roman territories. The Romans once had a king, and the men who killed the king and replaced him with Greek style democracy were considered heroes. But Rome was too big for all the citizens to vote on every subject- there was just too much to study and consider, and too much territory for all the citizens to be able to understand and make informed decisions. So the Romans invented a kind of democracy in which certain elected officials would be chosen by the citizens to represent their interests. In the language of the Romans, Latin, this type of government was known as a ‘res publica,’ meaning ‘a matter of the public.’ The Roman Republic, using the democratic republic form of government, lasted for centuries, expanding the territory controlled by the Romans, who offered Roman citizenship, a voice in the democracy, to many of the people that they conquered. It was only when the Roman Republic over expanded and became too dependent on slavery that the democracy failed, and although the Roman Empire had elections that looked like democracy, one Emperor made all the real decisions, and he answered to no one, and so democracy slowly died.

When the Roman Empire finally fell, Europe broke into thousands of small kingdoms. At this point, kings claimed their right to make all decisions from two sources: military power and God. For over a thousand years, European kings, emperors, and other royal leaders all made decisions, ignoring the wishes of the people, because they claimed that God put them in power. Anyone who disagreed would be going against God (and probably find himself at the wrong end of a sword). After the Crusades, the Christian European wars with the Muslim Near East, old Greek and Roman books, long lost in Europe, but preserved by Arab scholars, found their way back to European readers, who once again read about democracy and republican government. This helped start the period known as the Enlightenment – the light of reason shining onto the intellectual darkness that Europe had lived with for all those centuries. The men who fought England to start the United States embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment, including the idea that men should rule themselves in a democracy, with each person having a voice in the matters of the public, and not a king or emperor. When they wrote the Constitution of the United States, they gave new life to the old tree of democracy which had seemed to be dead for a thousand years. As a republic, it was hoped that the men (and later, women) elected to represent people in government would follow the example of George Washington, serving without putting his own needs or the needs and desires of the most powerful before those of the people who had elected him.

Although government in the modern United States may not live up to the ideas written in the Constitution, Americans are raised to believe that each and every person has an equal voice in the matters of the public. Tens of thousands have died fighting for this idea, first in wars against the English kings, and later against other Americans who thought that full citizenship should only belong to a limited few. The idea of American democracy was written in the Declaration of Independence, the document created to inform the king of England that the American colonists no longer believed in one person having power over all. The Declaration stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable (cannot be sold, given or taken away) Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just (fair) powers from the consent of the governed.” This idea, that governments, and other organizations, are formed by individuals who have an equal voice in how much power and how the power of the government or organization may be used, is the foundation of the American nation and culture. We may have failed many, many people, from the enslaved to Native Americans to women and immigrants, in including them in this idea, but this notion of equality and equal voice remain a goal for us all. It is the inheritance of each person born in the United States, and for many immigrants to this country, like a breath of fresh air.





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