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The Greatest Threat to Democracies

The OLD Philosopher – John M. Miller 

Of all the forms of government in all the nations, regions, or tribes of the world in all of history, autocracy (or monarchy) has been, by far, the most prevalent. Fewer than one tenth of one per cent of all the people who have ever existed lived in what we know as democracies. Most people have essentially been ruled by a single chief or leader or king.  

Virtually all historical democracies are technically republics. The only time “democracy” was seriously attempted before the eighteenth century of the Common Era was in sixth century BCE Greece. But that too was a republic, and a severely restricted one at that. Plato claimed as much in his classic treatise on government called The Republic. Only a small percentage of classical Greeks attempted to rule collectively through their representatives. Women, people of ordinary means, those who did not own property, slaves, and other such secondary non-citizens were prevented from having any part in the governance of ancient Greece.

The first major attempt at democratic government in world history occurred in the eventual union of the thirteen American colonies of the British Empire toward the end of the eighteenth century. The United States of America is the result of that amazing American Revolution. However, as in Greece, only a small percentage of the populace were actually welcomed into the democratic process.

Other democracies evolved very slowly after that in the remainder of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By 1945, at the end of World War II, fewer than three per cent of the world’s population lived in democracies. Everyone else had either chosen to live or were forced to live under autocrats, dictators, or crowned kings.

In 1948, after a relatively peaceful revolution, India severed its ties to Britain,  becoming the world’s largest democracy. By the 1980s and 90s, democratic governments frequently began springing up elsewhere in other parts of Asia, as well as many nations of Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, and in a few African nations.     

At the turn of this century, there were over seventy democracies scattered throughout the globe, representing a quarter of the world’s people. Now, almost half those nations have either reverted to autocratic government or seem to be quickly headed in that direction.

Why? Why would anyone choose autocracy, especially when they have tasted the freedoms of democracy?

Millions of Indians, Afghans, Iraqis, Venezuelans, Brazilians, Hungarians, Austrians, Poles, Greeks, French, Dutch, Germans, South Africans, and others have actually voted for leaders who obliquely or clearly identified themselves as favoring rule by a “strongman,” namely, themselves. But many more millions of people in those nationalities and others chose not to vote at all, or voted for democracy-supporting candidates who lost their elections. Thus the way was paved for autocrats to take control in what formerly had been democracies, even if relatively recent ones.   

Populism explains the current rise of autocracy in many countries. Populism can take many forms, but now it is in the ascent because strongmen have been democratically elected in almost half of the world’s democracies.

How could educated voters allow that to happen? It occurred because those voters did not sufficiently educate themselves to the demanding requirements of citizens in democracies. Democracy can slouch into autocracy because voters do not adequately consider the likelihood that persuasive populists may be wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The greatest threat to democracies is a disinterested, disaffected, and disconnected electorate who pay too little attention to the important ingredients which alone enable democracy to flourish. People cannot be cavalier about voting. Voting is the single most important responsibility with which citizens in democracies are endowed.

Democracies are very difficult to assemble, and fairly easy to be disassemble. Are the world’s democracies now facing a state of advancement or retreat? Either way, are voters clearly aware of what is happening?


John Miller is Pastor of The Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island, SC. More of his writings may be viewed at www.chapelwithoutwalls.org.



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