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WHAT WITH our being in the midst of highly divisive presidential campaigns, it’s a good time to discuss the etymology of words that are associated with how people rule themselves—or how others rule them. I learned a lot in its research. To wit:
Democracy. From the Greek, δῆμος, dêmos, people; and κράτος, krátos, rule. Governance by the people existed in Greek city-states in the 5th century BC, though exactly who constituted “the people” differed from today’s perception. (There were slaves in ancient Greece.)
Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
Republic. From the Latin, publicae, commonwealth. A republic invests its power in representatives elected by the people. In our modern world, there are Democratic Republics of this or that, though not all follow the pattern practiced in the U.S. as envisioned by our Founding Fathers.
If you’re into the revisionist history that calls Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and the like Colonial Elitists, you might as well quit reading here.
Monarchy. From the Greek, μόνος, monos, singular, and ἄρχω, árkhō, to rule. Earliest civilizations evolved with tribal chiefs, kingships. Monarchies are often typified by hereditary rule. There’s a spectrum of current monarchies, everything from absolute (Saudi Arabia) to constitutional (United Kingdom). [Happy 90th Birthday, Queen Elizabeth!]
The U.S. Constitution’s writers were aware of a monarchy’s potential shortcomings, especially monarchies with an authorized religion. However, it was an intellectual quandary of the Founding Fathers voicing equality of all while a slave culture existed.
Ochlocracy. From the Greek, ὀχλοκρατία, okhlokratía; ὀχλο, mob. The Latin phrase mobile vulgus, the fickle crowd, gives English the word mob, arising in the 1680s (alas, long after ochlocracies existed).
The idea of people led by demagogues (Greek: people leaders) overwhelming the logic of law was exemplified by the Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts. Thirteen women and six men were hanged in 1692. One other man was pressed to death when he failed to plead guilty or not guilty. Dozens of others were jailed; hundreds faced accusations until the hysteria subsided.
In 1837, Abraham Lincoln wrote of lynching as “the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgement of courts….”
U.S. Founding Fathers were as fearful of ochlocracy as they were of absolute monarchy. A democratic republic evolved from this, with the concept of an Electoral College being employed since 1787. The U.S. President and Vice President are elected not directly by the people, but by designated intermediaries.
In theory at least, and to some extent in practice, a benefit of this system is smaller states not being overwhelmed by larger ones. Another is avoidance of mob rule.
The Electoral College is not without controversy. A most recent proposal for its modification is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact initiated in 2007. Briefly, ten states and the District of Columbia have proposed awarding all their respective electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote nationwide. The Compact would not have legal force until 270 of the Electoral College’s 538 representatives agree to it. The current count is 165.
Anarchy. From the Greek, ἀναρχία, anarchia, the initial ἀ meaning without. An anarchic society would be without rulers, just as an immoral one is without morality
Leon Czolgosz gave anarchism a bad name (if ever it had any other) with his assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 . His last name also gave headaches to editorial staffs.
Oligarchy. From the Greek, ὀλίγος, olígos, few. This form of government has the power residing in a small group of people. Getting the power may depend upon royalty, religion, family, education, military connections, any criterion that severely limits those in contention.
Though the term often has a pejorative ring, oligarchies run the gamut from North Korea to Vatican City. Nor would I want to defend the thesis that the U.S. isn’t one. Over the years since 1790, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 112 justices have included 19 alumni of Harvard and 10 of Yale. Also, the 43 presidential birthplaces are skewed by state: Virginia has eight native sons; Ohio has seven (with another, William Henry Harrison, living there though born in Virginia).
Plutocracy. From the Greek, πλοῦτος, ploutos, wealth. Plutocracies form a subgroup of oligarchies, their group selection based on filthy lucre. The term appeared first in 1652 and has almost always had a pejorative sense.
Sorry to say, many modern governments, the U.S. included, have plutocratic characteristics. Nor has this been a new phenomenon. Consider the Gilded Age: Even its Trust Buster, Theodore Roosevelt, had more than two dimes to rub together.
Meritocracy. From the Latin, merit, I earn. A meritocracy is a political philosophy in which the selection of those governing is based on their ability and talent.
What a novel idea. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016