Thursday, September 16, 2010

Democracy – Everywhere? Nowhere?

Immanuel Wallerstein,Commentary No. 289, Sept. 15, 2010

Democracy is a very popular word these days. There is virtually no country in the world today whose government does not claim to be the government of a democracy. But at the same time, there is virtually no country in the world today about which others – both inside the country and in other countries – do not denounce the government as being undemocratic.

There seems to be very little agreement about what we mean when we say a country is democratic. The problem is clear in the very etymology of the word. Democracy comes from two Greek roots – demos, or people, and kratia, or rule, the authority to decide. But what do we mean by rule? And what do we mean by the people?

Lucien Febvre told us it is always important to look at the history of a word. The word, democracy, was not always so universally popular. The word first came into common modern political usage in the first half of the nineteenth century, primarily in western Europe. At that time, it had the tonality of terrorism today.

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