There was no mass democracy before the printing press

In 1900, how many nations were democracies?    0%?   5%?   15%?    30?

The correct answer is 0% of nations were democratic in 1900 according to our current standards of democracy. This is because there had never been any sovereign nation in all of history where the majority of adults had the right to vote in national elections. In fact, all Western nations deliberately disenfranchised a majority of adults–women–so there was no true democracy before women got the vote.  New Zealand likes to tout its primacy in granting universal suffrage to women in 1893, but it was just a colony at the time and does not claim to have been an independent country. So Norway really deserves some bragging rights for being the first sovereign nation to achieve universal suffrage in 1913. However, because New Zealand is now a sovereign nation too, many people recognize it as pioneering universal suffrage. That is what Pew decided in this graph:

So there was no nation in the world with mass democracy before either 1893 or 1913, depending on how you want to define a ‘nation’. Women’s suffrage marks the beginning of true democracy although some of these nations that have elections still are not very democratic.

One of the distinguishing hallmarks of all modern democracies that is distinct from ancient democracies is the massive scale of elections today. If we define a mass democracy as being a vote with more than 25,000 voters, then mass democracy only probably started to appear in the 1700s because an election is a kind of cooperative activity that requires a way of communicating with all the participants and that was nearly impossible to do before the printing press made mass communication cheap and fast. That didn’t happen until relatively recently in human history. For example, in 1820, the United States still only had 20 daily newspapers and a few hundred weekly newspapers and in 1776, during the beginning of the US Revolutionary War, the US only had a total of 71 magazines and newspapers in the entire country. In all of the southern colonies, there were only 8 cities that had any news publications at all:

Without abundant mass communication, mass democracy is impossible, and prior to the printing press, we do not have any evidence for any election surpassing even 25,000 voters. Unfortunately, ancient societies never bothered to record precise vote counts (which demonstrates how little they cared about this), so we can only estimate based on the time spent voting (given our knowledge of voting practices) and the capacity of the physical spaces used for voting:

Before the printing press, decisions could only be made by a group of people that was small enough that they could be in the same physical space and hear each other when they yell. In theory, the Roman Colosseum could have enabled a democracy of about 50,000 that could hear an orator screaming in the middle, but ironically, there is no evidence that the Colosseum was ever used for political speeches. Instead, the machinery of democracy took place just outside the Colosseum in the Forum which was a remarkably small, flat, rectangular plaza which would have limited communication to relatively small groups and in the spartan Ovile which was named after the wooden sheep pens that it resembled. At the end of the Roman Republic a larger structure had been in construction for voting, the saepta Iulia, but the importance of voting was greatly diminished after the fall of the Republic and although in theory the space is estimated to have had the capacity to hold more than 30,000 people, it would have been impossible for them all to communicate in the din of a dark, crowded ballroom with voices echoing off of the stone ceiling and well over 60 large stone pillars. Compared with the Colloseum or the Parthenon, it would have been a miserable space for organizing large groups to try to undertake cooperative decision making because it had terrible acoustics and lines of sight.

Similarly, in Athens, the Theatre of Dionysus was the largest theater and could seat up to up to 17,000 people for mass communication, but again there is no evidence that it was used for democratic purposes. Instead, the Athenian assembly met in a park on Pnyx Hill, a 6-minute walk away, with a capacity of only about 6,000 to 13,000 people and much worse acoustics.

Before the printing press, there is no evidence that any vote ever extended to even 25,000 people and most democracies only relied on a fraction of that number actually casting a ballot. A major problem was mass communication. There was no point trying to attempt political communication in a Colosseum or large theater because it only took a few noisy people to block mass oral communication so it was just as well to campaign in relatively small groups in a forum or a park.

In Rachel Feig Vishnia’s book, Roman Elections in the Age of Cicero, she writes that the only evidence we have for a vote in the saepta Iulia was an election in the year 45 which took five hours. Estimates of how many people could have voted in that amount of time using Roman methods yields an estimate that between 6,000 and at most 16,800 people could have voted in that election IF everything was working perfectly smoothly.

She writes that, “elections played a central role in the political life of the Roman Republic and were held every year for almost half a millennium,”(p. 106) but Roman elections were more of a ritual ceremony where elites competed for prestige than a democracy. People voted within their tribes and voting participation rates were estimated to be in the single digits because voting simply did not matter much for most Romans. Sometimes not a single person from an entire tribe would bother to show up to vote. In those cases, five members from other tribes were randomly selected to vote on their behalf! (Vishnia, p. 128) Rachel Feig Vishnia says, “Rome was neither a direct nor an indirect democracy, and had no such pretensions. It had no elected legislative assembly composed of the people’s representatives and no ideological political parties that competed for power. The voters did not choose between a failed leader and a successful one…” (p. 106)

Judged by today’s standards, the Roman Republic was an odd kind of oligarchy with voting that was merely ceremonial and that was the very best that we could expect given the communications technologies available before printing finally became fast and affordable in the late 1700s. The Republic was completely dominated by a class of aristocrats who were expected to use their wealth for bribery and to buy votes (Vishnia, pp.134-148).

The freedom of the press is required for large societies to accomplish democracy and without printing presses (or other forms of mass communication), there is no democracy.

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