There is a common conceit that democracy is a universal truth and a universal good, that those past societies that did not practice it did not practice it due to ignorance, short-sightedness, stupidity or greed.
We began as a social species, as hunter gatherers who eventually branched off and explored static agricultural strategies, and as humanity’s ability to manipulate its environment became refined, was able to gradually increase the percentage of its population that could be diverted from food generative occupations to other occupations.
Some historical comparison is useful here. Here at what is likely the apex of human industrial civilization, we are fond of casting moral aspersion on previous cultures. These aspersions are ignorant; a medieval society could afford, simply by dint of its agricultural and industrial capabilities, to maintain only a tiny percentage – perhaps 1% of its population – at anything other than agricultural. Today, these percentages are completely reversed, with 1-2% of the population in the United States engaged in agricultural occupations.
Democracy relies on a cluster of critical components:
First, the society must allow for a strong sense of common purpose. A divided society that lacks trust and some sense of commonalities in its moral views will tend to fracture down into component pieces that allow for trust.
Second, the society must have robust multilateral communication channels, meaning its component individuals must be physically capable of maintaining communication with a wide cross-section of the society.
Third, the society must have sufficient leisure time to be able to devote to abstract intellectual investment. Abstract intellectual investment may lead to philosophic, economic, geographical, or technological exploration – all of which contribute to a society that is based on an individual’s ideas’ merits as opposed to an individual’s structural place in society.
Rendered down like this, a society must either have a small population or else possess – as is the case in the First World today – superior communication technology. In addition, a society must have substantial leisure time, something possessed by modern First World economies, although also by most hunter-gatherer societies, as well as certain very wealthy city states (e.g., Athens) throughout the annals of history.
Make no mistake about it, democracy – if you can economically pull it off – has a lot of advantages, the most important of which is the generally peaceful transition of power to significantly different loci of power and ideas within the society. There are, however, drawbacks to it.
The preservation and promulgation of democracy lies thus not in slogans, nor (much) in emotional fervor, but rather in an understanding of the fundamental forces that shape, promote and allow for it.