What Nelson Mandela's life tells us about the legitimacy of "democratic nations"

This morning, as I listened to the BBC World Service on Mandela, I found myself pondering what it meant that he was South Africa's "first democratically elected leader."

This is undoubtedly true. The apartheid regime held elections regularly, but only white people were given the vote. The systematic, arbitrary denial of the franchise to a large fraction of the population makes those elections "undemocratic" and their leaders illegitimate. I think that this is indisputable.

But what about US elections prior to the 19th Amendment? Was Warren Harding the first "democratically elected leader of the United States?"

And what about the UK prior to 1918 (or 1928)? Women's suffrage came late the the UK, and if Nelson Mandela was the first democratically elected leader of South Africa, I think that makes Ramsay MacDonald the UK's first democratically elected leader.

Or if there's something special about gender that disqualifies it from being a prerequisite for democratic legitimacy, let's have the apples-to-apples comparison: enfranchisement for people of color.

Black people got the right to vote in the USA in 1870, making Ulysses S Grant the first "democratically elected" leader in US history (albeit that black people were systematically disenfranchised by law, norm, and deed throughout the land, a practice that continues today, especially in states with Tea Party legislatures).

Canada didn't give First Nations people the right to vote until 1960, making John Diefenbaker the first "democratically elected" leader in Canadian history.

It's not like the idea of women as full-fledged people, entitled to the vote, was obscure and unpopular before 1928. It's not like the idea of black people as human beings capable of reason was unheard of before 1870. It's not like First Nations people were universally considered incapable of self-determination before 1960. The systems that denied the vote to these people were violent, savage, and brutal in their repression of efforts to enfranchise all adults (and there's whole other post to be written about children and voting).

There was no democratic legitimacy in the apartheid era. None of the leaders of South Africa before Mandela were "democratically elected." But if we are going to retrospectively deny legitimacy to the men who called themselves democratic leaders because history has moved on, why not point out that every US President from Washington to Grant (or Harding) also had no legitimate claim to democratic leadership?

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. -The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

(Image: Emmeline Pankhurst in prison, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Notable Replies

  1. I wonder when the U.S. will have a democratically elected leader.

    And yeah, while I might be convinced that there's a legitimate, democratic interest in keeping those who refuse to abide by a nation's laws from being able to influence the creation of new ones, there's also a compelling argument that U.S. felony convictions disenfranchise minorities to an excessive degree.

  2. jerwin says:

    If the felons' vote is so significant that it would swing elections, you're creating too many felons.

  3. daneel says:

    Universal suffrage isn't enough, either.

    You need some kind of viable opposition, too.

  4. One argument for the male-only vote was that each household was represented by one vote. While this is arguable in many ways, I do think it is categorically different than simply denying a vote based on the color of your skin. Women were still considered to be represented, albeit by their husband.

    I am of course not making the argument that this was correct, merely that it was different.

  5. TWX says:

    "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

    "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

    Both attributed to Winston Churchill.

    Education is essential in a Democratic Republic, as education is what empowers individuals to make the best decisions with the choices presented to them. Unfortunately over the years, some have realized that their interests are served by having less educated individuals around to question their plans, so it's a fight that must be waged forever and ever.

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