I was thinking today about the diminishing effect of democracy as a progressive force. Democracy is (or at least, should be) entirely a numbers game, so it is very effective in creating change when the majority are denied a right. When, however, it is a minority that is denied a right, democracy is often found lacking. When the vast majority of the population were below the poverty line it was straightforward to petition for welfare, education and social mobility. Now that we have pulled a majority over the poverty line, that same majority tends to look with contempt on those remaining underneath.
One of the most interesting examples to me is the diverging history between England and France. Prior to 1214, both countries were absolute monarchies, yet in 1214 King Philip II of France decisively crushed the armies of King John of England at the Battle of Bouvines. From that year on, the fate of the monarchies of two countries seperated. King John, weakened by defeat, was forced to slowly capitulate on the absolute rights of the monarch, signing the Magna Carta in 1215. King Philip II, by contrast, passed on the crown to his son, Louis VIII, who ruled with even more authority. For 500 years, the influence of the Magna Carta led to a slow erosion of the monarchy and a strengthening of the rights of the people, with limited elections in 1265 and a slow progression to the English Bill of Rights in 1689. The writers of the Magna Carta certainly did not want the common people to have independent rights, but the effect was to provide a release valve, where social pressure for equality could boil over and produce minor changes. In France, by contrast, the iron first of the King prevented any social change, with the French Revolution of 1789 the final result. Now, 800 years after the Battle of Bouvines, France is a modern Republic, while in the UK the monarchy has still been able to hang on, by just giving up drips of power every hundred years or so. Evolution prevents revolution.
Another interesting comparison is between South Africa and Switzerland. Switzerland was one of the cradles of equality, considered to be a functional democracy since 1848, and yet women did not achieve the right to vote until 1971 - a 123 year wait! South Africa, by contrast, was the posterchild of injustice until 1994, when Nelson Mandela won the first multiracial elections, with the jump in equality occuring simultaneously in men and women. And this is not just true on gender equality, South Africa now has a more liberal constitution with regards to sexuality than Switzerland. I would hazard a guess that among the population, Switzerland is less homophobic than South Africa, but at the constitutional level the polarity is reversed. By becoming a democracy earlier Switzerland locked in some profoundly regressive policies, while South Africa, writing its constitution in 1997, does not have these archaic notions of the 19th century engraved in stone.
Or look at democracy in the United States. While it was not the first democracy, the democratic movement in the US was one of the earliest and among the most significant. America, in principle, became a democracy in 1776, yet women only gained the vote in 1920 and the Civil Rights Act was only passed in 1964. Today among the functioning democracies, the United States has among the most unrepresentative Congress, with 5 million citizens denied the vote due to geographic location (Washington DC, Puerto Rico and the other territories), another ~5 million with voting rights removed due to criminal records. And don't get me started on the Senate, where a resident of Wyoming has a vote >65 times more powerful than a voter in California, or the two party first-past-the-post system which essentially locks out independents and third-party candidates.
The point I am trying to make is not that the US has a bad democracy (although it does), it is that when the democratic revolution occured in a country early, the revolution locked in some very undemocratic ideals. Countries that had later democratic revolutions were more able to learn from the mistakes of others, and the pressure-cooker of social inequality had longer to boil before it exploded - creating a greater leap forward.
I've given a handful of examples, but of course it is easy to come up with counter-factual examples. Does the principle hold true in general? What would you see if you plot the year that a country became a functioning democracy versus the number of years women had to wait to participate in that democracy? The graph below shows an inverse relationship - indicating that the earlier a country became a democracy, the longer on average women had to wait to gain equal voting rights. The first stirrings of democracy gave rights exclusively to rich white men, who (once they gained power) were happy to keep power exclusive to themselves. Countries that had to fight longer for democracy were more likely to grant it simultaneously to all.
Description of graph: A scatterplot of the year a country first became a democracy, versus the number of years that female suffrage was delayed. The year of first democracy was taken to be the year that the country first achieved a Polity score of 6 or above, indicating basic functioning democracy. The data of female suffrage was taken from wikipedia. All countries for which both data points were available were included. Countries are colour-coded by region - red indicates the Americas, blue Europe, orange Pacific, green Africa and purple Asia. The trendline is calculated across all countries as a linear regression, and has a r2 value of 0.803.
What are the political implications of the observation that incremental change can actually be a detriment to reaching the destination? Could the message be to insist on total equality in a single step, as partial equality may simply entrench the remaining inequality? In sexuality rights I can imagine this as a real risk. I would have preferred to see a bill before the US Congress granting full equality based on sexual and gender equality, rather than the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" alone. To me, if we could have kept same-sex marriage and gay military rights as a single cohesive issue we may have reached the destination of equality faster. Likewise the idea of "civil union" may undermine the push for marriage equality. Denmark was the first country to pass civil union rights, with the registreret partnerskab in 1989, ten years later France passed the pacte civil de solidarité, before any country in the world had legislated for same-sex marriage. Today the LGBT communities in Denmark and France are still living with second class rights, with the social conservatives using civil unions as a shield against same-sex marriage.