Is the United States “the oldest democracy in the world”?

Sometimes political statements include would-be facts that pique our curiosity but aren’t of any special importance to the overall message.  One such occurred during President Obama’s joint press conference with Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra:

 

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, let me just say, first of all, that democracy is not something that is static; it’s something that we constantly have to work on. The United States has the oldest democracy in the world, but we constantly have to, as citizens, work to make sure that it is working to include everybody, to make sure that the freedoms that are in our Constitution — the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship — that those are practiced and observed.

 

The president said the U.S. is the “oldest democracy in the world.”  He’s not the first to say it.  President George W. Bush said it before him. Filmmaker Michael Moore said itHillary Clinton said it.

What’s the truth?

Other nations developed working democracies long before the U.S., so taken charitably the statement probably is supposed to mean that the U.S. has the longest run as a democracy up through the present.

Using that understanding, the U.S. might qualify as the oldest democracy if one narrows the term sufficiently.

A confederacy of Indian tribes and Iceland both lay claim to reasonable challenges, though both the Iroquois and Icelandic claims are open to question on the basis of continuity.

Great Britain and tiny San Marino also make claims as the oldest democracy.

The spotty history and weak current state of the Six Nations along with Iceland’s relatively recent constitution could serve to weaken their claims .  Some might disqualify Great Britain because of its monarchy and extensive parliamentary reform.  Some might disqualify San Marino on the basis of its small size.

With careful parsing one might sustain the claim that the U.S. is the oldest modern democracy.

We don’t see much point in pressing the claim.  Nor do we see much point in disputing it.  The U.S. is the most obvious sustained model of self-governance in the world.  Let’s just leave it at that.

4 Comments

  1. Micki

    There is just one little mistake in the argument that the U.S. is the oldest modern democracy…the U.S. is NOT a democracy. The U.S. is a Republic. Therefore, the U.S. cannot be the oldest democracy.

    Reply
    1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

      You’re correct in that the United States is not a pure democracy. On the other hand, probably no nation is a pure democracy, which would make any claim of an oldest democracy moot. However, “democracy” has a less formal meaning that includes constitutional republics and the like. That’s the definition we used for this fact check.

      http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/democracy

      Reply
  2. preetha varghese

    how can us claim to the oldest in the line? then we have to forget Greek democracy. Greeks claim is more stable. After all us merged only in the 16th cntury.so a wrong claim

    Reply
    1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

      Preetha,

      The central part of the claim that gives it superficial plausibility is the notion that the U.S. has had continuous government under its basic constitutional system. Greece can’t make that claim. However, as the article points out, there are a number of entities who can make plausibly make competing similar claims. How true the claim is depends on how specifically (or cleverly) one defines the terms. We see little use in such exercises. We find little use in a country claiming itself as the oldest democracy.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!

      Reply

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