Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature
and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for
several journals and is the author of Clifford
Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter,
York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham
New Yorker at Sea,, Tales
of a Hamptons Sailor and his most recent book,
from the Apple. For Nick's reviews, visit his
alone do not produce a functioning democracy.
In the 2020 spring
issue of Foreign Affairs, candidate Joe Biden promised,
if elected, to convene a global summit on Democracy during
the first year of his presidency. Citing an article in Freedom
House which reported that of the 41 countries consistently
ranked 'free' from 1985 to 2005, Biden noted that 22 had registered
declines in freedom during the last five years.
Because of several
events -- Trump authoritarianism, rioting in the U.S. capitol,
autocracy in Brazil, Hungary and Poland -- a hue and cry re.
the nature and future of Democracy has been raised by many
observers, few of whom seem to know much about the origin
and initial struggle of Democracy and its topsy-turvy history.
Athenian originators of Democracy have often been given carte
blanche credit for their bed of roses 'miracle' achievement,
this revolutionary form of government begun in the early 5th
century B.C. quickly went through tortured convolutions and
was cruelly crushed by Macedonian tyranny. Because of social
and economic squabbling, power grabbing oligarchs, horrific
pandemic and unceasing war (mostly with Sparta) Athenian democracy
constantly floundered. And after witnessing innumerable failures
in 'the people’s rule' both Plato and Aristotle, objecting
to the notion of mob anarchy, dismissed it out of hand early
in their writings.
But the idea of
abandoning absolute tyrannical rule in favour of a power-sharing
citizenry remained an ideal that could not be dislodged.
soon dominated the world and powerful Emperors made the headlines
for centuries, the legacy of shared power was clung to by
a Senate which often heeded citizen demands and the Roman
Assembly which contained ordinary citizen voters. So even
though the practice of pure democracy died in ancient Athens,
its legacy of citizen inclusion evolved into the structure
of Roman republicanism; and it should be noted that all modern
democracies are, after all, republics.
During the dark
ages following the fall of Rome classical learning was largely
abandoned and predictably accompanied by the virtual disappearance
of democratic governmental structures. The power of the Catholic
Church organized societies around the absolutist tradition
of the papacy secularly embodied in 'Holy Roman Emperors'
and every schoolboy knows about the power of that religion
over every phase of medieval life.
But early Florence
not only revived classical learning but retrieved democratic
practices when, in 1115, the citizenry refused submission
to the absolutist Marquisate and shortly established a Florentine
republic. This new governmental movement gained notoriety
in neighbouring Italian cities. The Signoria or city council
featured elections controlled by guild members and, although
there were coups and counter-coups (the poet Dante was exiled
during one) this republican tradition survived.
A similar movement
away from absolutism occurred in England in 1215 when estate
owners forced King John to accept the famous Magna Carta which
newly codified power- sharing with laws that remain the basis
of democratic institutions to the present day.
late medieval/early renaissance events were rare, and absolutism
remained and even gained adherence with the
notion of 'divine right' kings, it’s important to note
that the early ideas of Greek democracy never really disappeared.
By the 17th century, although superstar monarch Louis XIV
still maintained his divine right (L’etat c’est
moi), the 1688 glorious revolution in neighbouring England
began the permanent dissolution of European absolutism. Soon,
the classical intellectuality of the Age of Enlightenment
advanced the notions of liberty and constitutional government,
and with the oncoming of revolutions in America and France
one-man rule became the arch foe of people everywhere.
But the ancient
anarchy of mob rule that Plato and Aristotle feared could
occur with sudden democratic adoption, as in the rush to freedom
during the reign of terror in the French Revolution. Now absolute
rule was replaced by absence of rule and chaos reigned. Politicians
and political science thinkers were forced back to the drawing
Despite the French
reign of terror, constitutional rule permanently fixed itself
in the British parliament and the success of early American
representative democracy impressed people everywhere. It is
the huge economic and political success of American democracy
during the last few hundred years that has moved much of the
world toward the adoption of this form of government. The
central attraction is freedom and it is this factor which
leads populaces to try for it as the best approach in the
eternal search for a workable system of government based on
But despite the
ideal attraction that societal freedom can bring, the history
of attempts at democratic government is fraught with potholes
and clashes. A quick look at some democratic experiments in
just the past few centuries reveals a checkered history of
collisions with economic disparity, ideological opposition,
all sorts of political power grabs, colonial domination and
plain old human frailty.
France and the scars of its reign of terror, there was almost
a farcical consequence as the country hastily flew back to
Napoleonic absolutism in less than a decade after the fall
of the Bastille. And in the following centuries up to the
recent past the French, in their unswerving passion for individual
freedom, have constantly twisted and turned with democratic
structures and elected officials. Just a short while ago the
electorate swooned over President Macron as they have for
past favourites and now half the country wants to throw him
Speaking of the
electoral process, this necessitarian implement in any democratic
undertaking is pock-marked with corruption and collapse. Few
seem to recall that Adolf Hitler was an elected leader. As
often happens because of severe economic strain, approaching
anarchism appears in the form of dozens of political parties
and sometimes, through violent action, an extreme ideological
group can capture enough 'votes' to gain power. On March 5,
1933 the German people sick of their victimization in the
Treaty of Versailles, in a panic during incredible inflation
(it took a wagonload of deutch marks to buy a loaf of bread),
fleeced of much of their own territory and bought into the
glorious promises of the Fuhrer and his gangster cronies.
dramatic but equally consequential during the same period,
small minorities banded together to overthrow the absolutism
of Czar Nicholas in Russia. Sneakily, one of the groups hid
behind the flag of Karl Marx, an idealistic German philosopher
who was virtuously trying to combat the evil elements in capitalism.
But once they got into power they quickly rushed to implement
a different kind of absolutism under the stranglehold of the
KGB. At this writing that absolutism is still running things.
Just a few weeks
ago the short period of democratic freedom in Myanmar ended
because it upset the covetous desires of selfish Generals
who are shooting protesters in the streets as I write this
essay. The democratic experiment was not able to harness the
forces of order and process, a story only too familiar in
the wobbly history of some modern Democracies.
One of the problems
associated with these failures is a remarkable naïveté.
Somehow, the notion that Democracy is the ultimate solution
for all human problems has ingrained itself in the minds of
too many in western countries -- the daily struggles of political
parties, power groups, lobbying interests and the age-old
fights between rich and poor occur with often painful regularity
even in the most successful modern democracies.
And much of the
world gasped when, on January 6, insurrectionists stormed
the US Capitol building, the arch symbol of contemporary Democratic
everywhere need a refresher course in the history of Democracy.
In the film The American President Aaron Sorkin wrote
the following lines for the fictitious President who is trying
to educate a restless and cynical citizenry: