World's oldest democracy

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The world's oldest democracy is a title that many nations like to bestow upon themselves, especially the US, but I believe the honor belongs to New Zealand. In America, it is especially popular for US nationalists to claim the title, and even Plolitifact accepts their argument (under specific definitions), but I disagree.

Oldest In What Way?

To say that something is the "oldest" is an ambiguous term. For example, the "oldest" democratic government could mean:

  1. The very first democratic government ever created, even if it no longer exists.
  2. The democratic government that lasted for the longest stretch of time in a relatively unchanged state.
  3. The democratic government that is still in existence today from when it was formed despite changes.

When Was It Formed?

Whenever we talk about the lifespan of a government, we have to determine what criteria should be used to decide when the government was formed or replaced. For example, France has existed as a nation in name for over 1,000 years, but in that time its government has been restructured from a monarchy to a representative democracy, so there is no reasonable way to claim its current government was formed 1,000 years ago.

When determining how different the government has changed, you not only have to look at how the government itself functions, but you also have to consider how it affects the individual citizens. For example, in the United States, we see little change in governance from the perspective of a land-owning white man from today compared to when the country was founded, but the change in governance for women, non-white people, and the poor has changed so drastically it warrants being described as a new form of government.

How Do You Define Democracy?

A democracy is any form of government that is ruled by its citizens rather than a limited group or individual, but citizen rule is a spectrum of several metrics. Some of the metrics sociologists look at to measure democracy include:

  • What percentage of the citizenry is eligible to vote? If only a single race or sex can vote, is it a democracy?
  • How often does the citizenry vote on governmental changes? If elections are only held once every 30 years, is it a democracy?
  • How direct of access to government modification does the citizenry have? If your votes can be modified by several layers of representatives, is it a democracy?
  • How evenly are laws enforced among the citizenry? If the upper class is treated with far more leniency, is it a democracy?
  • What protections are in place to protect minorities? If the majority can eliminate the rights of the minorities, is it a democracy?

There are no agreed upon minimum value for these metrics to determine when a government is a democracy as opposed to an oligarchy, and even nations which maintain monarchies are viewed today as democracies provided the people have a high degree of autonomy.

Who Is the Oldest For Individual Metrics?

Since "oldest" and "democracy" are both fuzzy terms, it would be better to focus on criteria that are more concrete. Here is a list of some of the attributes found in democracies, which nation first implemented them, which extant nations continue to implement them, compared to when the US began implementing them.

Metric First Ever Nation First Extant Nation US Adoption
Direct Democracy Athens, c. 500 BCE Switzerland, 1891 Never
Representative Democracy Rome, c. 500 BCE England, 1689 1789
Abolition of Slavery Athens c. 500 BCE Haiti, 1804 1865
Woman's Suffrage New Zealand, 1893 New Zealand, 1893 1920
Ethnic Suffrage Norway, 1821 Norway, 1821 1965
Universal Suffrage New Zealand, 1893 New Zealand, 1893 1965

United States

The simplicity of the claim often belies the ignorance of the claimant. It's as though they're claiming their nation was the first to have "freedom." To which the informed would ask, "freedom in what way, and for whom?"

The only way I can see this claim being accurate for the USA is if it were reworded in the following way:

The United States is the oldest extant democracy, excluding those with a concurrent oligarchy, and assuming "democracy" means a government where most citizens can't vote, and the upper class is allowed to own other people as slaves.

It is only under that contrived definition that the USA can be considered the oldest democracy, and, even then, I don't know enough about the history of world politics to be sure.