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Essay: History of democracy

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The history of democracy is nothing short of messy. A crucial understanding of the foundations of the most significant, and sometimes oldest, democratic systems aids our understanding of the modern democratic systems we see today. Democracy initially sparks thoughts of government, but we cannot overlook its role in many of the most successful organizations and effective leaderships. Effective democratic practices feel and look great and, because of this, so many groups of people, regardless of purpose, naturally mold into democratic organizations. A hard look at the conditions, features, premises, and challenges that democratic systems have faced and will continue to face paves the way for a better understanding of how to maintain democracy, not only in the world of politics, but in many facets of our world today.

A Brief History

The original creation of democracy is tough to define because the few ancient systems that were once in place eventually disappeared. The Greek and Roman empires did not create democratic systems that evolved into what the world sees today and it is difficult to determine how much of what we know about democracy was drawn from the ancient empires.

According to Robert Dahl (2015), much of the expansion of democracy came to be because of the diffusion of ancient democratic ideas and practices, but diffusion is only part of the puzzle. Democracy was not created once and for all; democracy came about in multiple places and many times. Dahl claims that if the conditions are favorable, democracy can exist. He claims democracy can be invented and reinvented wherever and whenever the conditions are right (Dahl, 2015, p. 9).

Dahl (2015) claims that democratic participation is likely to stem from ‘the logic of equality’. The hunter-gatherer era, where people naturally grouped together for decision making and were not influenced by outside sources of power, served as a fine example of one of the first historical accounts. Groups of people accomplished tasks through this system with the assumption that the group had equal abilities to get tasks done and, therefore, govern the group. When people settled down and ‘the logic of equality’ existed, this “primitive” form of democracy was the most natural governing system (Dahl, 2015, p.10).

Times changed as groups of people settled in one place for a long period and began to experience new power dynamics. The concepts of group identity and assumptions of equality were lost as outside influence interfered and hierarchy and domination reigned supreme. Unanimous governments were replaced with monarchies, despotisms, aristocracies, and oligarchies created on  the basis of ranking. It was not until close to 500 B.C.E. that in some places, favorable conditions existed again. Conditions allowed for the development of governmental systems where participation in group decisions became a group opportunity. History shows evidence of this in the Mediterranean and Europe (Dahl, 2015, p. 11).

Near the time of 500 B.C.E., classical Greece and Rome established governmental systems based on popular participation which were strong enough to survive for centuries. It was in 507 B.C.E. that Athens, one of Greece’s hundreds of city-states, adopted a system of popular government that lived until Macedonia conquered it in 321 B.C.E. Most believe it was the Athenians who coined the terms Demos (people) and Kratos (to rule). The complex democratic system was then made up through the use of a lottery to choose an assembly and then an election for public officials. This original system of Greek democracy was not used for the development of modern democracy (Dahl, 2015, p. 11).

The Roman system, their Republic, differed from the Greeks. They also coined theirs using res (thing, affair) and publics (public) to form the “thing that belonged to the people” (Dahl, 2015, p. 13). Similar to the Greeks and all democracies up until the 20th Century, rights were only given to men. The Republic originally restricted participation to patricians and aristocrats, but eventually the plebs were granted participation. Rome grew substantially during this time through conquest and the Republic had the power to grant citizenship, which was valued highly by those affected due to the change in status it gave them. With this in mind, it seems that Rome never adapted the modern idea that a democratic system should be representative of the population governed as the citizen assemblies were not local for the growing Roman citizenship (Dahl, 2015 p.13). The Republic lived until 130 B.C.E. when the dictator, Julius Caesar, ended it. Even after Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.E., the Republic never revived itself and Rome became an empire and popular rule ceased to exist until 1100 C.E. (Dahl, 2015, p. 14-15).

Popular rule appeared once again in Southern Europe in places like Northern Italy, but participation was strictly limited to nobles, land-owners and other upper-class citizens. Rising members of the population soon found themselves organizing to uprise and eventually gain participation, but this did not last long as emerging nation-states soon conquered city-states and eradicated popular government once again (Dahl, 2015, p. 14-15).

The democratic systems of ancient Rome and Greece lacked important characteristics of modern democracy. Modern democracy requires an effective “national parliament composed of elected representatives and popularly chosen local governments” to work with it (Dahl, 2015, p. 17). dThe first examples of this style of government began in Scandinavia, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain and other northern countries. The common trend among these systems was that their governments started small and local graduated to regional and national levels.

From 600 C.E. to 1000 C.E. the Vikings organized and identified with local level ‘Ting’ assemblies, originating in Trondheim, that created laws, chose kings who swore faithfulness to the laws, decided religion and settled disputes. Their ability to govern effectively showed as Ting assemblies grew beyond Trondheim to the rest Scandinavia by 900 C.E. and the King. Knowledge of previous democratic systems did not exist and their assemblies flourished on the “logic of equality” among freemen (Dahl, 2015, p. 19), but also noting that not all men among Vikings were free as slavery did exist. The effect of the Ting assemblies was growth and adaptation as knowledge spread to Iceland and beyond. The creation of national assemblies in Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden happened during this time, but to different extents among nation-states. It was during this time that Kings began  to gain more influence over the assemblies (Dahl, 2015, p.20).

The forecast for the Netherlands and Flanders was a bit different as rulers sought approval from wealthy citizens to tax their possessions and rulers held meetings of representatives from wealthy towns and important social classes. While this system does not transfer over to modern democracy in a literal way, the traditions and trends seen here are evident in development of popular government (Dahl, 2015, p. 20-21).

The establishment of parliament looked differed in Britain as assemblies were summoned, not on a regular basis, but out of pure need due to a corrupt King. Parliament and the King ironically worked as a system by disabling the other from securing complete power. The House of Lords represented the “hereditary aristocracy” and the House of Commons represented the common man. Laws created by either of the two were examined by independent judges. This created a system of checks and balances to be admired by Europeans and Americans. The foundation of American government stems from this example of checks and balances, but eliminates the role of the monarchy (Dahl, 2015, p.22).

A lot of impactful players were involved in the evolution of democracy and, while great knowledge appeared through the trials and tribulations of ancient democracies, many questions were left unanswered for the future. Many practices of modern democracy came to be in the 1700’s including local assemblies, which stemmed from the logic of equality (Dahl, 2015, p.18). Dahl explained that government must be able to govern large areas, but only through representative governments. From this idea, practices for electing representatives starting sprouting up throughout different democracies in different forms. (Dahl, 2015, p. 21)

After examining the classical systems, it seems that inequalities existed due to a lack of representation. Status, hierarchy and social inequalities played a major role in the determination of representation diminishing full representation for minorities. While a glimpse of “checks and balances” existed in ancient democracies, a glaring trend towards control of monarchies and aristocracies affected power over the people and power of representation. Assemblies and parliaments were underdeveloped during this time and lacked control over monarchies. Instead, they were privileged men placed in seats of government by a non-democratic process. Up until the 1800’s, democracy and the ideals accompanied with it were not the most favorable of government structures due to misunderstandings, lack of enlightenment and dysfunctional and inconsistent systems of representation with no political parties. After examining the histories of these strong efforts, it seems that the longevity of democracy was not promising and truly depended on conditions and the people at hand and how they engage with democracy. (Dahl, 2015, p. 25)

“What is Democracy?”

The task of answering the question “what is democracy” is not easy and cannot be done by examining any one country’s model because the variety of democracies is vast with  no comprehensive model to refer to and aim to emulate. When defining democracy, Dahl considers the “ideal” democracy as a lofty standard which helps to establish systems and determine strategies for democratic and institutional design. He also considers the Roman, Athenian and Greek roots of democracy which led to the prominence of the state as the most important type of democratic association. The state allows for the people to make crucial decisions for their country by means of an assembly or representation. The ideal democracy is a system designed for participants who are willing and ready to perceive and treat others as, specifically, political equals with the same rights to political participation. (Dahl, 2015, p. 36)
There is no universal definition of how a democracy should exist, but it is best defined by the rules and principles, usually referred to as a constitution, that is based off of the key idea that “all the members are to be treated as if they were equally qualified to participate in the process of making decisions about the policies the association will pursue” (Dahl, 2015, p. 37).

Dahl believes there are five criteria to be met to ensure that all members are equally entitled to participate in the organization’s decision-making process. The criteria include effective participation, voting equality, enlightened understanding, control of the agenda and inclusion of all adults. Before any policy passes, every member of that democracy should be able to share their views with other members, allowing them to effectively participate in a political decision making process. When it comes time to vote for a policy, Dahl’s criteria requires that all members should have the same equal and effective chance to vote, and no vote should weight heavier than another. In order for all members to effectively vote and participate, they should be able to enter the conversation with an enlightened understanding of relevant alternative policies, current policies and the consequences of all possibilities.

Philosopher, John Dewey, explored the relationship between social and democratic ideas in education in his book “Democracy and Education” (1999). He claimed that education is a social process and that, because of this, there must be something in common between the agenda and social ideas. This leads to the quality of education of a society dependent on what the ideals are and worth is of that society. He measures the worth of a society on the “extent in which the interests of a group are shared by all its members, and the fullness and freedom with which it interacts with other groups” (Dewey, 1999, p. 99). Dahl’s theories agree with this idea that if all members are provided and take advantage of these opportunities, members should be able to control the agenda by giving input on how matter and what matters are to be seen in action. These four criteria of Dahl’s support Parker Palmer’s idea, stated in “Healing the Heart of Democracy” (2014) that a democracy does not aim to solve all issues, but to continue to progress and develop the issues in a way that keeps the people active in government (Palmer, 2014, p. 78). Dewey agrees with a similar idea that democracy does not need to be seen as perfect or unchangeable, but that it is constantly subject to improvement as public interest shifts with the current climate. This is a vivid difference of democracy compared to a government such as totalitarianism, where issues are solved or simply buried into the ground without the people’s consent (Palmer, 2014, p. 76).
Finally, Dahl requires that all adults residents in a society should be able to participate and obtain the full rights of a citizen in regards to their ability to participate in their government. At the time that Dahl presented these five criteria, inclusion of all adults was problematic for many traditionalists, but today it is seen as absolutely necessary. Parker Palmer reflects on his citizenship as one of his main identities and something that he should act on every day of his life (Palmer, 2014, p. 29). He exudes passion about the concept and compares its importance to the importance of his identity as a spouse, a father and a quaker. His realization of how he took his citizenship for granted for so long has significance because so many humans who make up “We the People” live the same way he used to.
While the identification of the five criteria and discussion of the logic of equality do not answer the question “what is a democracy” in full, it is beneficial to attempt to answer the question with a vision of what an ideal democracy has the potential to look like. How does such a luminous set of criteria help to create effective systems of democracy and how can we be sure that this set is all there is to it? With those ideas clearly stated and understood, participating citizens, who approach democracy with the heart first and openness to hold tension above themselves, move forward to participate and determine if this criteria is ever fully attainable. Dewey’s consideration of democracy and how it benefits the people stems from the idea that democracy is a “mode of associated life” that encourages citizens to work together and provides the types of freedoms needed for individual to exchange ideas and opinions with others, create associations to reach goals and the explore their freedom to determine what is a good and desirable life (Dewey, 1999). People often find that their democratic system is not flawless or does not meet every criteria of an ideal democracy, but in actuality, it aims to get there or resembles pieces of the expectation (Dewey, 1999). An ideal democracy would, by definition, meet all five standards and an actual democracy actively work towards achieving the five. Actual democracies are realistic and actual democracies create space to hold tension and continuously evolve with hopes to reach an ideal state (Dewey, 1999).
“Why Democracy”
Dahl attempts to address the question “why democracy?” by not answering why the people want a democracy, but how a democracy can best serve the people. He provides ten desirable consequences of democracy (Dahl, 2015, p. 45) that support Dewey’s belief and show how democracy benefits all people equally and steers the people clear of non-democratic regimes who believe the people are incapable of participating.
Democracy serves the people by avoiding tyranny and autocratic rule in federal and state governments so that historically devastating events, such as the Holocaust, Stalin’s prison camps, genocides, etc., do not happen. Dahl admits that complete control over internal tyranny due to majorities may not be completely controllable, but believes that a democratic institution is the most equipped of all options to best control it (Dahl, 2015, p. 46). Parker Palmer compares and contrasts democracy to other institutions by describing a totalitarian government’s method of conflict resolution  and decision making as an effort to “banish” conflict or tension to make it disappear, but noting that is it “merely driven underground” (Palmer, 2014, p. 61). Democracies are desirable because they ensure essential rights for their people which enable them to participate in government, hold tension and disable their government from taking total control over matters that affect all of society, a characteristic that no other system has. While only democracies grant these rights, it is not enough to simply grant rights; the rights have to be monitored and enforced in order to contribute to a true functioning democracy.
Democracy strives to grant personal freedoms and if democracy were to disappear, humans would still exist and protection over personal freedoms would no longer exist. Coercion of neighbors, groups and associations becomes a possibility and the rights to keep those personal freedoms would no longer exist without democracy. Democracy allows for people to determine the importance of their basic human rights and protects them regardless of how they prioritize them. An important point that Dahl makes is that no person included in a democratic state can be positive that all of their interests will be protected at all times, but they should know that their interests will be at stake if excluded. Only democracy can provide the “opportunity for persons to exercise the freedom of self-determination” (Dahl, 2015 p. 53). Dahl recognized that humans will always have to live amongst others and there will never be unanimous laws, because if there were, laws would not be necessary. With that said, it is important to make sure that one’s opinion is heard in the creation of those laws.
Democracy contributes to the good of the self and the development of the self (Dahl, 2015, p. 55). Democracy provides the safe space to engage in conversation and thoughtful processes which help to form and exercise personal moral principles and find moral autonomy. Sometimes it may seem lofty or impossible to live morally if one does not agree with the law, but with the assumption that the democratic process provides the option to live under laws of one’s own choosing, then it should allow for and encourage one to act morally responsibly (Dahl, 2015, p 55). In addition to moral responsibility, Dahl controversially claimed that democracy does the best job at fostering human development. Democracy cannot hold the sole responsibility for moral human development, but it can provide the conditions for a society to want to care for its community and government (Dahl, 2015, p. 55). History shows that democratic democracies by representation do not typically engage in wars with each other. This result was not an intended result, but one that naturally appeared due to the idea that democratic citizens believe in compromise and have faith that other democracies also foster an environment which builds trustworthy and peaceful citizens (Dahl, 2015, p. 56). In addition to the lack of violence and war, democracies also tend to be more prosperous with the existence of a market economy in most. Market economies and economic growth are not attainable without an educated society and, of course, democracies strive to do this. Unfortunately, with a market economy comes economic inequality and, sometimes, political inequality (Dahl, 2015, p. 59). With that known, the last reason Dahl provides for why a democracy is desirable is that it is the type of government that best fosters political equality, a characteristic that cannot be forgone in a democracy.
What is the Principle of Equality?
The question, “is equality self evident,” remains common today as critics of the founding fathers and their documents argue that the self-evident equality of the founding days is simply hypocritical.  At that time, not all humans were legitimately politically equal considering that women, slaves, native Americans and free African Americans did not hold the same participative rights. The evolution of U.S. democracy brought the country to political equality, but it was difficult and inequality continues to thrive as the easiest and most natural condition.
Dahl refers to intrinsic equality as the treatment of all persons as if they possess equal rights to life, liberty, happiness and other fundamental goods and interests (Dahl, 2015, p. 64). In regards to government, the people have the full right to be heard and to make sure that any doubts they have are expressed, as this is the time to do so. Dahl encourages individuals to have suspicion on any claim that someone has concrete knowledge of the good of the self that is greater than to the moral knowledge possessed by the self (Dahl, 2015, p. 65).
The principle of intrinsic equality is essential for a democratic institution for ethical and religious reasons, lack of alternative principles, prudence and acceptability. The principle aligns with many ethical and religious backgrounds so this does not pull the people between religion and politics. Any alternative to intrinsic equality assumes that another is intrinsically superior and that would logically result in someone having a “higher power” which does not sound more desirable. Intrinsic equality encourages the people to use their common sense about issues and to make sure they are heard when the time to be heard comes. Finally, the principal is more acceptable and convincing for a greater number of people with the elimination of competition or need to prove one is more able than the other to have superior knowledge. Cooperation is more likely. (Dahl, 2015, p. 69).
We, as the governing people, are not necessarily required to support democracy as the best governing style. The superior human who possesses more knowledge about any said issue, the “Guardian,” stands as the biggest competition to democracy and supporters of Guardianship claim that the expert knowledge of superiors brings more general good and direction on how to achieve it. Critics claim that referring to Guardians as the final word removes the political equality each person should have in government. Personal decisions of Guardians are not equivalent to decisions made and enforced by the government of a state. To govern a state well, requires much more than strictly scientific and expert knowledge. This leaves out the significant of ethical judgements and opens the door to corruptibility with the power in only a few hands.
The question here is, are the majority of adults knowledgable enough to participate in governing the state and is this a strong enough argument to reject the idea of Guardianship? Dahl makes a point that if each person is entitled to equal consideration, and an expert could best provide equal consideration, then Guardianship could be desirable over democracy (Dahl, 2015, p. 70). Could it be up to the people to vote and determine who holds their best interest in mind when governing? Could this result in representation?
If your voice in politics is given to an expert, the likelihood that your interests and needs will not receive the same attention as those who have a direct voice in governing is high. Can you trust that your voice will heard? Do Guardians or experts have the ability to include your perspective in their own words and can they place themselves in your unique shoes? Dahl argues that inclusion of all peoples’ interests is essential and that every voice must be heard for a democracy to stand effective and questions the resources for all people to gain that knowledge and perspective to make decisions that include all of their personal interests (Dahl, 2015, p. 71).
How do size and scale affect democracy?
The size and scale of democracy drastically affect the type of democracy: either assembly for smaller states or representative for larger. History shows that the smaller of the two give more opportunities for individual contribution to governing, but others oppose this form because it does not achieve the goal of providing maximum scope to cover a great deal of concerns for a great number of people. In addition to smaller systems not successfully representing all members of a society, they also sacrifice other goals in order to avoid breaking apart. The participation opportunities in assembly democracies decrease as population increases and the number of participants in an assembly able to speak up usually do not exceed a low number (Dahl, 2015, p. 107). Those who do speak up essentially become representatives for those who do not speak, those who do not attend and those who do not have the education to speak. Educated and affluent people do not regularly participate, but those with strong beliefs and determination to be heard who do not represent the entire population typically do show.
On the other hand, representative democracy is limited by time and numbers; the more people to represent in decisions means less opportunity for each person to be heard and the more likely they will elect other, more knowledgeable and passionate people to represent them (Dahl, 2015, p. 109). Representative governments also risk the chance that issues with incredible impacts will be decided by bargain between political and bureaucratic elites. Bargaining can happen within limits set through democratic processes, but can also be hidden very well from public eye.
What institutions are needed for a democracy?
To this day, there is no large-scale democracy, like the U.S. democracy, that may has met every one of Dahl’s criteria previously mentioned, but there are necessary institutions needed for a democracy to function, ideal or not. The institutions Dahl (2015) believed best serve a democracy evolved from demands of countries who attempted to better their democracies to best meed the needs of their people. This set of institutions exist as the minimal requirements for democracies and this modern form is sometimes called “polyarchal” democracy. It came about in response to demands for inclusion and participation (Dahl, 2015, p. 90).
Dahl (2015) noted that this set did not all appear at once; it took time and development, especially for the last institution.“Elected officials” are decided by the citizens for a representative government in large-scare democracies. “Free, fair and frequent elections” are necessary to prevent coercion and it is up to the individual democracy to determine exact terms for this requirement.  If all citizens are to have control over the agenda, elections must stay current and frequent. Free and fair is disputed with the question whether First-Past-The-Post or Proportional Representation serves a country better and for how long any representative may serve. Citizens have “freedom of expression” where they can express themselves without fear of punishment. In order for civic competence to flourish, citizens must be able to express, learn from others, debate, read, listen, converse and so on. There must be open access to alternative sources of information for citizens to understand the issues if the government controls all the important sources of information. They have a right to refer to alternative sources from citizens, experts, newspapers, magazines, books, and telecommunications all free of political influence. Citizens have “associational autonomy” so that they may gather, learn and feel inclusion amongst other citizens. This institution may be a source of civic education and enlightenment. With universal suffrage appearing in the twentieth century, “inclusive citizenship” became an institution and alludes to the concept that every permanent adult citizen has equal rights to vote in free and fair elections, to run for office, to freely express, to associate and to attain alternate resources (Dahl, 2015, p. 96).
Our democratic future
We, as a democratic society, may require leadership and enlightenment from inspired citizens, like Palmer, and education from authors like Dahl and Dewey, to sustain a democracy. We need to experience this enlightenment when we are ready to open our hearts to the possibility of heartbreak, distress and discomfort. We need citizens who have the ability to throw their hands up in surrender to the admittance that they may have lived a political life that contributed to the current state of democracy and that they are ready to take on their identity as a citizen of a democratic country. With continued and growing enlightenment and inspiration, we may be hope that the sense of duty instilled in so many more citizens will encourage them to spread this change in a continuous manner. Let it be peaceful and let it be joyous. Let it be so exciting and empowering that we, as citizens, become innovative participants who contribute to the ever-changing state of democracy when approaching the existing challenges.
Robert Dahl (2015) provides four democratic challenges to consider: the economic order, internationalism, cultural diversity, and civic education. The challenge of the economic order is that the market-capitalism is the most favorable system for democracy and political equality and efficient enough for citizens to partake in the production of goods and services. While market-capitalism does much good for a democracy, the current state of the system has the ability to also harm certain citizens through undemocratic control over unequal gains and profits that result in unequal disbursement of resources. The existence of both effects on democracy are likely to linger. Internationalism is unavoidable and certain precautions must be considered to avoid jeopardizing the democracy of the home country. Representation for internationalism is also a tricky concept as there are enormous differences in size and population between global powers. Smaller countries holding great influence may lose that if dependent on representation and firm to avoid bargaining and hierarchies (Dahl, 2015, p. 182).
Democracy naturally favors moderate levels of cultural diversity and historical institutions do not provide much insight on how a country might adapt to an increasingly diverse culture in ways that are favorable for democracy. In the past, oppressed culturally diverse groups associated themselves to create movements for protection of their rights and interests. Immigration from diverse countries also hurt citizens and immigrants alike in regards to the wages they earned after companies realized they could hire immigrants for a much lower cost. And, of course, the situation where countries realized that their borders were not as secure as they believed and, therefore, continue to navigate the existence and struggles of countless undocumented immigrants. We, as Americans, feel this challenge in our daily lives. The last challenge, civic education, considers the complexity of the education process and resources. Citizens receive a formal education to insure literacy and, in turn, an enlightened understanding, but Dahl (2015) suggested that even higher educations struggles to do its complexity justice. Civic education could increase with an increase of  available relevant information, but citizens do not need to seek it out when they align with and trust their political parties. Changes in scale  in regards to internationalization, increased complexity of matters and changes in Communication all affect civic competence (Dahl, 2015, p. 186)
Democracy is all around us and we find comfort hoping that enough people know enough, care enough to participate for the good of their country and wellbeing. While so much of democracy may seem like a dauntingly large system to impact, we must remember that we can contribute to a well-educated and well-informed society that accepts differences, carries a good heart, shows mercy, and farsighted. Democracy is also a gamble on the strength, humanity, reliability, transparency, and integrity of public institutions and justice. Democracy has no start and end to any of its problems, but it continuously reevaluates issues and creates new goals to achieve. There is always something to fix; it is fragile and it needs vigilance and a boost every now and then.  It is up to the citizens to find their faith, their passion and their duty to democracy and to do the heart work during times of difficulty.
Even in times of difficulty, the United States, specifically, has the backing of its people and historically strong democratic institutions that have continuously prospered in times of peril. We can prevent backtracking in our present day democracy if our branches of government, our independent institutions, such as law enforcement, free press and civil service, and the private sector, make preserving and then strengthening our democracy a priority. In order to manage internationalism, political leaders would need to orchestrate political institutions to provide citizens with the opportunity to participate, influence, be enlightened and obtain control in a comparable way to the way they do in their home country. Citizens will hopefully, one day, take concern and interest in international issues in the same way that they will learn to care about the democratic issues of their home.
I find hope in the future of higher education; its possibilities are endless if the focus is in the right direction.  Higher education can still maintain its many purposes, but I believe that a more narrow scope could result in more productive citizens. Would students graduate better prepared for a career and citizenship with a greater educational focus on specialized areas of interest, complemented with core civic education to encourage their individualized contributions to society? Palmer (2014) recognizes that a community is about helping your neighbors where you have the ability to and understanding that others may be able to help you better than you can help yourself. If students concentrate the majority of their studies in a more narrow area, they might just graduate with a better idea of where they want to take their career and how they can best contribute to their community and democracy (Palmer, 2014, p. 29).
Leadership in Higher Education
I find it necessary to use Parker Palmer’s five habits of the heart (2014) to elaborate on the need to inspire and activate a change in the way our up-and-coming citizens view democracy. Each of the habits directly relate to students and their place in human development that is so capable to foster activism. The first habit, “an understanding that we are all in this together,” applies directly to students because they currently inhabit a confined space, the university, that creates a micro-democracy and community. Students depend each other for continued learning and challenge, but so often see each other as the “other,” or their competition. This notion of the “other” leads into the second habit, “an appreciation of the value of otherness” where we recognize how students tend to divide into tribes as a way of creating familiarity and a feeling of home in a new, challenging and sometimes uncomfortable new home, the university. Enlightenment that the “us” and “them” does not imply that a “versus” sits between the two; it should encourage the concept that every individual has their own contribution and specialization that will, eventually, provide for another. “Otherness” should be welcomed into our lives and, while it has the possibility to break our hearts, it also has the ability to expand our thoughts and build the elasticity in our broken hearts (Palmer, 2014, p. 43-45).
Parker Palmer elaborates on the ability to accept stressors, disagreements and have conversations, or, in other words, “hold tension” (Palmer, 2014, p. 71). He encourages us to have “an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways” with strangers as his third habit of the heart. This ability may take students to an uncomfortable and undesirable place that must take in opposing experiences and viewpoints. The inability to hold tension creatively might cause a broken apart heart that cannot pick up the pieces and make progress. When tension is held creatively, new understandings of society and ourselves may bloom and potentially inspire a chain of actions within other students. In order to make the most of these understandings, students must have “a sense of personal voice and agency” that allows for them to seek their honest truth and compare it against those of others. Education has the power to change the role of students from audience members of a scripted syllabus to controllers of their own lives and, in turn, their own government; higher education is the place for political empowerment. In order to bring all of these habits together, students must be able to hold the “capacity to create community” and, therefore, create a place for their voice to be heard. Community is the place to create courage in a group; it is the place to create a movement, no matter what size. Community is a place to bring each of your identities, live each identity and let each identity foster the courage to participate as developed citizens (Palmer, 2014, p. 43-45).
Higher education provides opportunity for complex student development in a potentially safer and comfortable environment. The ability to explore opposing viewpoints and instilled childhood beliefs takes courage and takes guidance. This ability takes a student who is ready to do so and an enlightened understanding about the legitimate role they have the ability and right to play in their democracy is a solid starting point. General knowledge of the criteria of a democracy, the institutions for a democracy and the difference between the actual democracy they live in and an ideal democracy a system should strive to be are core subjects which could and should appear in higher education. I do not advocate for education on policies, individual issues and political parties before enlightenment of their role and right to participate. It takes inspiration and truth for students to make it into the political arena where they will eventually interact daily.
I have learned, in the last semester, that my high school civics course and active ears at home have not only left me uneducated, but also created a temporary unproductive and harmful citizen. My eyes have opened and my heart has been broken. I am proud to say that I am heart broken by the ignorance I once showed, but I am even more proud to say that it is broken open and I am not only ready, but excited to see what my heart has the ability to hold moving forward. I am not admitting that my political views have evolved or that I am ready to take on the world, but I am definitely admitting that I am ready to put my whole heart into preserving and strengthening the democracy that gives me and my fellow humans the rights and freedoms to have a say in the life I live.
I am so encouraged by the progress that I have made in such a short time and I know that, as a democratic leader or educator, I have the passion to give to other students the enlightenment I received this semester. My heart calls me to lift the burden off those student’s shoulders who know better than to continue living the way they do, but do not know how to move forward with that knowledge.


  • Dahl, R. A., & Shapiro, I. (2015). On democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Dewey, J. (1999). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New
    York: Free Press.
  • Palmer, P. J. (2014). Healing the heart of democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the
    human spirit. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

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