Democracy Isn’t Just About Voting

For Americans who rebelled against Britain’s King George III in 1775, monarchy was another name for tyranny—by definition, incompatible with democracy. This view of Britain softened over the next centuries, as many Americans drew inspiration from the British empire’s “civilizing mission” in regions suffering under “oriental” and other despotisms. During the Cold War especially, they saw Britain as a vital partner in a contest against Soviet tyranny, tolerating its monarchy as a quaint vestige in a country otherwise committed to liberal democracy. The bond sustained the U.S.-U.K. partnership in the subsequent war on terror, including the invasion of Iraq in the name of spreading democracy.

But if Britain’s royals were perceived as benign ornaments, the death of Queen Elizabeth II last year launched a new global conversation about their role. In former colonies, such as Jamaica, where the British monarch remains the head of state, republican sentiment has gained strength. Historians have highlighted the monarchy’s role in slavery and imperialism and the origins of its hereditary wealth and jewels. And revelations about the monarchy’s racist treatment of Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, have fortified the old equation of monarchy with despotism. In a New York Times column about a Netflix documentary on the Sussexes, American writer Roxane Gay affirmed: “Monarchies are almost never benevolent, even if they have no political power. They are often upheld with one form of violence or another.” For Americans, monarchy is either ornamental or autocratic, never democratic.

Yet Americans are also concerned about the reality of democracy in their own republic. They ask: Does the power to elect one’s rulers guarantee democracy? And can democratic republics holding regular elections become deeply coercive even as they fly the flag of liberty? As it turns out, Americans’ narrow focus on voting has blinded them to other, more robust, forms of democratic expression practiced even in some monarchies in the past. Behind myths about foreign despotisms are lost kingdoms where monarchs were often actively accountable to the ruled.

An illustration of residents setting fire to the courthouse in St. Thomas in the East

An illustration of residents setting fire to the courthouse in St. Thomas in the East

On Oct. 11, 1865, residents set fire to the courthouse in Saint Thomas, Jamaica, during the Morant Bay Rebellion. Culture Club/Getty Images

Britons, like Americans, like to believe they invented and settled on ideal democratic practices centuries ago, merely expanding them to include groups such as women and nonwhite people who had originally been left out. Theirs was a monarchy that evolved to heed the will of the people. But in reality, the practices they settled on have routinely sidelined the people’s will.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 turned Britain into a constitutional monarchy in which supreme legislative power resided with Parliament. Parliament had curbed kingly authority, but not in the name of democracy: It also usurped the common rights of ordinary Britons, as the aristocrats who controlled Parliament used it to pass thousands of “enclosure acts” transforming common lands into their private property. The right to vote for parliamentary representation was itself based on property ownership.

Over the next century, popular movements emerged against this monopoly of state power—the oligarchic entanglement of the landed elite and imperial state that the radical reformer William Cobbett dubbed “the THING.” Those who had lost common rights and lacked the right to vote had recourse to extraparliamentary modes of expressing their political will: petitions and pamphleteering enabled by radical printers, but also marches and mass meetings—in a word, crowd politics. In such activities they drew on utopian forms of popular Christianity and radical libertarian language about the rights of freeborn Englishmen. Many of them advocated for an expanded franchise, hoping that it would afford ordinary people political leverage in a rapidly changing society.

Finally, with the Reform Act of 1832, the bar for property ownership shifted to allow some middle-class Britons to vote. Limited as this reform was, it was the first evolution of the franchise and suggested that others might follow—that, gradually, Britain might become a democratic constitutional monarchy.

The hugely popular working-class Chartist movement that erupted in the 1830s patiently petitioned Parliament for the vote against an ominous backdrop of riots and strikes in an era of European revolution. Women’s suffrage movements emerged, too.

The racial distinction of these subjects of the Crown from the millions of other riotous subjects around the empire abetted their success. In the mid-19th century, Britain crushed a series of colonial rebellions, sharpening the division between white and nonwhite subjects. Just two years after a Jamaican uprising was brutally suppressed in 1865, working-class British men who were seen to have proven their “respectability”—with permanent addresses, sobriety, and savings accounts—were given the vote. Meanwhile, Jamaica—where the minority white population had formerly ruled through a local assembly—reverted to direct British rule as a Crown colony, as security against the majority-Black population. Further expansion of Britain’s property-based franchise followed in 1884.

This narrative of expanding enfranchisement looks like a story of progressive democratization, at least for white men. But in important ways, it also reduced democratic participation in British politics. As historians such as James Vernon have shown, political energies became focused on voting and elections, guided by an establishment print culture. Privatized and institutionalized politics based on organized parties and secret balloting at times overtook more radically democratic, extra-parliamentary forms of expression. Political space shrunk; class solidarities fractured. Women, once central to the informal politics of public spaces, were increasingly excluded from the associations of a more formally organized male social body. Meanwhile, the monarchy acquired an important cultural function, becoming increasingly revered by and dear to Britons from the 1870s on.

Even at the time, the constitutional theorist A. V. Dicey perceived that the expanded franchise had reduced democracy by reposing power in the hands of a party machine. His proposed solution was to double down on voting by having people vote directly on certain issues via referendum (the mechanism through which Brexit has become a reality).

After World War I, though service to the nation became the new basis of enfranchisement, allowing unpropertied men over age 21 and women over age 30 to vote, it became increasingly clear that the British state would smother democratic desires that ran counter to its interests. Having suffered profound loss, Britons were determined to assert democratic control over foreign policy to ensure their government did not embroil them in avoidable conflicts going forward. But the state found means to evade them, drawing on practices developed during the war, including propaganda, censorship, and discreet aerial forms of warfare abroad.

With such tactics, the British state sought to pursue its interests free from the check of Britons skeptical about the benefits of war and colonialism. Many citizens realized their shrinking leverage over the state. In 1921, in support of questioning by radical members of Parliament, a Times editorial called the government’s expansionist policy in Iraq the greatest departure from parliamentary oversight “since the days of the Stuart Kings” in the 17th century. A month later, the paper endorsed Lord Islington’s letter warning that the old Crown vs. Parliament conflict had revived in the guise of a battle “between the nation and the Executive”—a view echoed by numerous supportive readers.

Former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh steps off a plane in August 1953

Former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh steps off a plane in August 1953

Former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh steps off a plane in August 1953. Mosaddegh was removed from power on Aug. 19, 1953, in a coup supported and funded by the British and U.S. governments. AFP via Getty Images

Many Britons, like the denizens of nominally independent colonies such as Iraq and Egypt, became doubtful about government claims, ever suspicious of a hidden hand defying democratic writ. From the 1950s to 1980s, British critics concerned about the activities of the “secret state”—the “new Thing” disempowering ordinary Britons (as the historian and activist E. P. Thompson styled it)—looked to 18th-century traditions of democratic protest to assemble popular movements in support of nuclear disarmament and civil liberties.

Being a republic did not immunize the U.S. government against similarly engaging in covert activities to evade the check of public opinion while also bolstering antidemocratic regimes abroad. In 1953, for instance, Britain and the United States jointly undertook an operation to displace Iran’s popularly elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was pushing back against Britain’s influence in the country and working to increase the power of Iran’s parliament vis-à-vis its monarchy. The United States then supported the Iranian monarchy’s transformation into a truly authoritarian government.

These covert capacities have stymied U.S. presidents who promise to heed Americans’ antiwar desires and end the war on terror. Drone operations in Asia and Africa increased under then-President Barack Obama, who was just “one man on top of a huge national security establishment,” in the words of antiwar lawyer Michael Ratner. To shield his failure to end the war, Obama enveloped it in even greater secrecy. The involvement of agencies such as the CIA strove to keep it out of American sight and out of American minds, rendering assent irrelevant. The United States may be a democratic republic, but it is one in thrall to a state whose institutional inertia makes it deeply antidemocratic—partly because of imperial priorities strikingly similar to those nurtured by Britain’s monarchical state.

An illustration of a monarchical crown sitting atop a democratic column with cracks splitting both.

An illustration of a monarchical crown sitting atop a democratic column with cracks splitting both.

Hanna Barczyk illustration for Foreign Policy

If modern constitutional monarchies and republics are liable to evade the check of democratic opinion, older monarchies at times proved more accountable to it. Indeed, the crowd politics that are often a powerful vehicle of democratic expression depend on a dynamic of reciprocity between rulers and ruled that has been at the core of past monarchical polities.

In many monarchies of precolonial India, risk-sharing between ruler and ruled offered insurance against famine. Revenue payments were a share of the harvest rather than pegged at fixed rates; rulers maintained grain stores for times of need. As historians such as Ravi Ahuja and Prasannan Parthasarathi have shown, this paternalism arose not out of monarchical benevolence but in response to ordinary people’s demands, which acquired potency through the threat that they might otherwise seize grain by force or withdraw their labor from—and thus their consent in—the regime. Political elites had an interest in performing charitable acts that shored up their status.

Creative democratic visions fortified some polities. As historian Priya Atwal has shown, the Sikh kingdom was the product of marital alliances between clans and thus depended on a sense of common destiny. Sikh political thought further ensured that Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingly authority depended on partnership with the Sikh Khalsa Army, which was infused with an ethos of collective kingship.

Despite this dynamic and relatively functional political culture, the British saw the Indian subcontinent as mired in so-called oriental despotism, a backward form of rule in need of eradication by Europeans bearing the wisdom of Western liberal democracy—albeit holding off on bestowing it until South Asians became supposedly fit for it.

Meanwhile, British commitment to liberal political economy wreaked havoc on the reciprocal relations that had sustained Indian governance. Where they ruled, the British adopted a policy of non-interference in times of dearth. Laborers lost other means of empowerment as colonial economic priorities transformed the environment. The power to withdraw labor, the very mobility of the poor, became a particular bogey to a colonial state determined to discipline the society it was governing, sparking the invention of concentration camps to detain famine victims. The empire’s minions affirmed that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement”—as East India Company bureaucrat and philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in his 1859 essay “On Liberty.”

In many cases, these transformations occurred while Indian elites remained nominally in power. But even kingdoms that withstood the encroaching British threat saw major change that ultimately sealed their fate. The influence of British patriarchal norms in the Sikh kingdom, for instance, triggered questioning of women’s involvement in Sikh rule (which the British contrasted to the more discreet, symbolic, matriarchal role of their own queen, Victoria), dooming the last Sikh queen Rani Jindan’s bid to defy British conquest in the 1840s. Some states, such as Tipu Sultan’s Mysore, became intensely autocratic in the course of transforming into fiscal-military states along European lines in order to resist the British.

The creation of the kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir as part of the unraveling of the Sikh empire exemplifies the way British colonialism undermined democratic checks on Indian monarchy. In 1808, Ranjit Singh, the maharaja of the Sikh empire, annexed Jammu to his kingdom. But he soon co-opted Jammu’s Dogra Rajput rulers into his own administrative structure, making Kishore Singh (followed soon after by Kishore’s son Gulab Singh) the raja of Jammu under Sikh rule—another instance of the Sikh kingdom’s reliance on partnership among powerful chieftains and its complex conception of sovereignty. Gulab Singh was given taxation rights over lands in Punjab, too, and emerged a powerful figure in the Sikh court.

Gulab Singh expanded the empire into Kashmir (then under Afghan rule); his nephew was the empire’s prime minister. Eventually, this Dogra dynasty nurtured ambitions to ascend the Sikh throne themselves, attempting a coup in 1843 and extracting much of the kingdom’s treasury to Jammu. Finally, they colluded with the British conquest of the Sikh kingdom; and in 1846, the British rewarded them by selling them a new, separate kingdom of “Jammu and Kashmir.” It was the largest “princely state” (that is, territory that the British ruled indirectly through a local monarch) in the subcontinent.

Such commodification of sovereignty was integral to the functioning and expansion of British colonialism, as historian Steven Press has shown, and radically altered the process of monarchical legitimation. The fateful Dogra-British deal is the root of Kashmir’s misery: As historian Mridu Rai has written, British backing enabled Dogra rulers to impose a highly personalized and decisively Hindu sovereignty over the majority Muslim population of Kashmir, “erasing earlier traditions of layered authority shared simultaneously by various levels of Kashmiri society.” In 1947, the Dogra king acceded the state of Jammu and Kashmir to independent India, without the assent—or any effort to secure the assent—of the Kashmiri population. His rule had never depended on local assent, but instead on British support.

All this is to say not that precolonial Indian monarchies and empires were utopic, but that there were rich political cultures in place to hold monarchs accountable when they became extractive or oppressive. This moral purchase explains why Indian monarchs proved such compelling and influential leaders in the massive rebellion against British rule in 1857.

Indeed, realizing these monarchs’ enduring claims on Indian loyalty, the British resolved to make better use of them after that rebellion. After 1858, areas that had been governed directly by the East India Company came under Crown rule. But further British expansion would take the form of indirect rule through local rulers, these so-called princely states comprising roughly 40 percent of British territory in the subcontinent. Rulers submitted to treaty relationships with the British in India, paying a subsidy and ceding control of foreign policy in exchange for protection from internal risings and external threats. The states’ deepening indebtedness to the British effectively signed away considerable control over internal affairs, too.

woman and child are pictured in a South Africa concentration camp

woman and child are pictured in a South Africa concentration camp

A woman and child are pictured in a South Africa concentration camp built by the British government during the Second Boer War circa 1901-1902. ullstein bild/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Though Indian monarchy survived, these colonial arrangements disempowered ordinary people. Propped up by the British, monarchs no longer had to accede to their subjects’ demands, and Indian monarchy acquired a new authoritarian style. Meanwhile, British officials continued to propagate the idea that India’s princely rulers were corrupt, petty despots to justify continual interventions in their realms—a stereotype that haunts historical understanding of them today.

In Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, the British likewise partnered with chiefs, princes, and pashas against anti-colonial elements. The resolutions of the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England, which sought an end to colonial rule, spelled it out: “The democratic nature of the indigenous institutions of the peoples … has been … replaced by autocratic systems of Government.”

It is difficult to generalize about these myriad precolonial states, as their histories are locally rooted. In South Asia, the Gandhian movement sought to recover the democratic precolonial culture of the panchayat, or village councils, but we have yet to fully grasp or redeem other political customs and possibilities nurtured in states the British taught the world to think of as stagnant and dissolute backwaters. Yet doing so allows us to recognize, as economist and philosopher Amartya Sen did decades ago, that democratic practice is not limited to elections as invented by the West. Indeed, a too-narrow preoccupation with elections has caused many societies, especially Western ones, to devalue forms of public deliberation and collective action essential to security against oppression.

In drawing attention to monarchies’ possible responsiveness to democratic will, my aim is not to encourage a turn to monarchy, but to discourage a too-easy equation of a voting republic with democracy—an equation that Americans arrived at through the influence of British colonial thought.

The British idea of oriental despotism was a self-serving myth that stoked misunderstanding of precolonial monarchies and forgetting about cultures of common rights and collective action in Western societies. Gay is right that monarchies are upheld by violence, but so too are the states of many republics—especially those harboring imperial agendas of eradicating “despotism” elsewhere.

Questioning our assumptions about monarchy as the “other” of democracy helps us reflect on what real democracy entails. Democracy is not the endpoint of a process of political evolution from an original state of anarchy or tyranny; it is the continual collective struggle for liberation in every kind of polity. “Democracy is not a settled state, but a shifting expression of collective will,” one British journalist reflected in the Guardian after the massive 2019 march against Brexit. This is the culture that drove and was nurtured among the Indian farmers who joined what was likely the largest protest in history in 2020-21. It is a culture of empowered political agency, a sense of the sovereignty of every human being.

This is what anti-colonialism was fundamentally about: rediscovering personal sovereignty. For thinkers such as Mahatma Gandhi, swaraj (self-rule) was about unlearning capitalism and colonialism’s denial of mutual obligation to become, once again, an ethical being: “It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves,” Gandhi wrote, echoing thinkers such as Leo Tolstoy. “It is, therefore, in the palm of our hands.” Anti-colonialism’s objective was an “enlightened anarchy in which each person will become his own ruler.”

The goal of human life is self-rule—each of us monarchs unto ourselves. This is a cultural ideal that resonates even with Americans who, despite their allegiance to a republic, embrace stories about fairy-tale queens and princes as vehicles for working out ethical ideals. It is the radical libertarianism that animated the 18th-century English working classes and the mutually committed members of the Khalsa Army. As we continue to wrestle with the legacies of colonialism, it remains a democratic vision to which we might aspire, together.

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