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



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.


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


There’s something to be said for judging people by the standards of their time. There’s a bit of difference between being a racist in 1870 and 1970.

Nitpick: Aboriginals could vote in Canada prior to 1960; they just couldn’t enjoy both the privileges of Indian status and Canadian citizenship. They had to choose one or the other.


Universal suffrage isn’t enough, either.

You need some kind of viable opposition, too.


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.


I think, like many things, it depends on the context. What democracy meant in 1776 was different than what it means in 2013. Back then it was a crazy idea that people (albeit not all the people) were able to vote on their leaders instead of having them ordained by God and passed down in secession. I would say there are different degrees of democracy, just like there are different kinds of democracy.

So George Washington’s election and an election under apartheid were both democratic ones - just not as inclusive and encompassing as what we consider a democratic election today.

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To those calling for a historical context to the definition, I would go along with that for a while, but I’m only willing to cut people in the past so much slack. Doctrines of human rights aren’t a new thing, there have always been groups promoting them and populations of strict abolitionists regularly stating their views to the early US government (Quakers, for one). The fact that our fore-fathers ignored such advice is somewhat contextually understandable, but one can’t deny that they were given opportunities that they didn’t take because it was unprofitable for them.

It is clear that “democratically elected” is a bit of a sliding scale. We are doing better now than we did when Washington was elected, but still not perfect. At some point on the scale we go from “pretty darn good” to “hmm marginal” to “clearly not democratic”. I would say that our presidents prior to current voting rights rules ranged between the last two, though I don’t know where I would draw the line.


I was wondering this too. Will we one day decide that all elections we do today are undemocratic because people under the age of 18 are not allowed to vote? Or because people residing in the US who are non-citizens cannot vote? I don’t think that a “democratic election” is a binary thing. Perhaps some elections are more or less democratic than others.

Yeah, that’s my thought too. I very much doubt that too many politicians would be able to make a platform of the con or ex-con vote, except in a few small town in Texas that have massive prison complexes.

I think that everyone that has reached the age of majority should have the right to vote, if they can follow the basic, simple procedures to at least enter a polling place to cast a ballot.

For those convicted of a crime with a chance of parole or release at conclusion of sentence, they’d have a choice. Remain registered to vote where they last lived before being incarcerated, or register to vote where they now live. There would be rules that outsiders couldn’t visit prisons, the most that they could do would be to mail literature to prisoners. There would be no polling place in the prison, prisoners would need to absentee-vote, most likely by mail. Prisoners convicted to life without parole would only be able to register at their new permanent address. The main reason for these particular rules would be to restrict the possibility of prison staff tampering with the vote or compelling prisoners to vote that have no interest in casting a ballot. If the prisoner doesn’t work up the interest to register to vote by mail, then the prisoner just doesn’t vote.

I’d also modify the nature of voting in-person at polling places. One could show up to any polling place in the county or perhaps in the state, present ID, and receive a ballot that reflects one’s voting district. This would prohibit in-person-disenfranchisement by allowing those attempting to vote at intentionally-understaffed polling places to go to other polling places to vote.

All ballots would be paper with optical scan, and randomly an entire polling places’ ballots would be manually audited to verify that the electronic count is lining up with what’s on paper.


“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.

And I think that while we might quibble about when countries might have reasonably expected to expand their franchise in the fashion we now agree is right, I think we can all agree that South Africa was a rank anachronism. Well, almost all.

Arguably, (and surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to have been mentioned yet) scale counts: If Hypothetical Leader Z is elected by a margin larger than the size of the illicitly disenfranchized (be their disenfranchisement ever so vile and crassly opportunistic, even by the ‘standards of the time’), Leader Z has a much better claim to democratic legitimacy (if not necessarily to anything else) because their win was not achieved or secured on the basis of the undemocratic practices.

(the reverse also holds true: in a close race, even some fairly feeble ad-hoc attempts at exclusion can cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of a result, since the appearance, and very likely the reality, is that undemocratic activities are a major deciding factor in the outcome. It cuts either way.)

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Cory D., thanks for that link to the UN Human Rights Declaration. By my brief review, I found 13 of the 30 Articles where you could argue that, right now in the USA, specific rights are being denied, at least in part.


You can’t treat “legitimacy” as if it was an objective, measurable fact. It’s a value judgement, and the opinions of historians are the only ones that matter, in the long run.

For example, there are a whole lot of Bothas and de Clerks who would disagree that Mandela was the first democratically elected leader. History says they’re wrong, but who knows what the opinions of 2020 or 2030 will be?

In America, the narrative of democracy is that it was deeply imperfect in 1789, but has steadily improved as more Americans got the vote, and that stolen elections are the rare exception. Is this actually true? Ask your grandchildren.

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Lester B. Pearson was the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Canada.

Diefenbaker was PM in 1960 when aboriginals were granted suffrage, but his party lost the next election.

The US presidential and vice-presidential elections are decided though an electoral college system. Please remember this in discussion of US representative politics or you may end up (hint hint) looking stupid.

The idea wasn’t crazy. America’s parent country, Britain, had been a parliamentary democracy for quite a while at that point, much the same as it is today (with a figurehead of a monarch). Who can vote has been expanded, just like here.

The problem was voting didn’t extend to colonies, which was a bit of a sticking point for some. Then again it’s the same here in the US, some people in DC (and other territories) don’t get the same votes as other US citizens.


Let he who is without sin, cast the first vote.


And that changes what about felon ineligibility in this process, exactly?

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