1. Ancient Greece
Democracy is a Greek invention, created by some of the ancient Greek city states, in particular Athens. Athenian democracy was a direct democracy. Citizens – not including women, children, slaves, resident foreigners, i.e. the majority of the population – gathered together to discuss and decide on the policies of the state. Within this minority (the proportion of which is difficult to estimate but some put it at 10% of the total population), participation, equality and freedom was unrivaled. The quintessential description is given in Pericles’ Funeral Oration, still today one of the basic texts in democratic theory.
The word “democracy” combines the elements demos (which means “people”) and kratos (“force, power”). Kratos is an unexpectedly brutish word. In the words “monarchy” and “oligarchy”, the second element arche means rule, leading, or being first. It is possible that the term “democracy” was coined by its detractors who rejected the possibility of, so to speak, a valid “demarchy”. Whatever its original tone, the term was adopted wholeheartedly by Athenian democrats. People in the ancient times wondered if the Athens could ever survive this devastating lifestyle. (Wikipedia)
Indeed, Athenian direct democracy required much personal effort of those participating. The meetings were long, frequent and intensive. It has been said that without the slave-economy and the imperial subjugation of other cities, this experiment would not have been possible. More on direct democracy.
Athenian democracy had some of the characteristics of representative democracy. Some decisions were taken by chosen representatives, such as judicial decisions. However, the choice of officials was not by election but by lot.
2. Medieval taxation
One of the historical origins of the representative system is the principle that prohibits taxation not based on laws approved by the people who pay the taxes (“no taxation without representation”). At the time when this principle came into force, the taxpayers were mainly the wealthy members of the new middle class or bourgeoisie.
These people demanded representation in return for their money and used this representation to control the expenditures of the government. If the government wished to spend a lot of money on a stupid and unnecessary war for example, then the representatives would refuse to vote in the laws required to spend this money. Still today, budgetary control as a means for the people to check if government spending is worth paying for is an important function of parliaments.
Parliaments and representation owe their existence to taxation. The increasing costs of warfare, administration and infrastructure made the kings of the late Middle Ages dependent on the money of the wealthiest class of the moment, which happened to be the new middle class. Now and again, these kings were forced to organize meetings (for example the so-called “States-General”) where the representatives of the cities and the middle class could or could not agree to finance certain government projects. If they agreed, they did so because their interests would be served by the project. They always agreed by way of covenants, contracts or laws, whereby they not only authorized spending but also received certain rights and privileges in return. Because they paid, they were able to enforce certain reforms, at first only local and specific privileges, but later also more abstract rights, which had the advantage of being applicable in very different situations.
These meetings were gradually institutionalized into what we now call parliaments. Parliaments therefore existed before modern democracy. Starting out as an instrument for budgetary control in the hands of a part of the population, they gradually acquired more power compared to the executive (in most cases compared to the king) and they gradually engaged in legislation.
3. Contemporary evolutions
The most important evolution in modern times was the extension of the franchise. In the early period of the modern state, democracy implied the right to vote only for a small portion of the make upper class population. Gradually, more and more groups gained equal political rights: workers, women, and in some contemporary democracy, even resident aliens. This has been called universal suffrage.
The two world wars and the end of the cold war were considered victories of the democratic states over dictatorial ones. The end of colonization, however, although theoretically a victory for democracy, was in reality a mixed blessing for many new third world states, with the notable exception of India.
An analysis by Freedom House argues that there was not a single liberal democracy with universal suffrage in the world in 1900, but that in 2000 120 of the world’s 192 nations, or 62% were such democracies. (Wikipedia)
Also important and promising is the advance of corporate democracy.
Throughout history, and in many different countries and circumstances, small groups of people organized themselves democratically. Examples are the workers in the Paris Communes in the 19th century, the Swiss Cantons, the New England towns, the Italian medieval cities, the Early Bolshevik Soviets etc.