Building a Democracy in Your Fantasy World

A painting of the Roman Senate.

Most governments in fantasy settings are authoritarian. From feudal hierarchies to autocratic empires, readers and authors alike are used to power being wielded by a select few through force of arms, divine right, or whoever has the fanciest hat. But those aren’t the only options available. It’s also possible to build settings where the ultimate power rests with the people and politicians govern only with popular approval.

This form of government is generally called a democracy, and while that often seems like a modern concept, democracies are perfectly at home in most fantasy settings, be they based on history or devised entirely from your own mind. That said, democracies are often more complicated than monarchies or oligarchies, so there are a few extra things to consider when designing one.

Be Careful When Portraying Democracy

A painting of Greeks from the Peloponnesian War

Before you set out to create any fictional form of government, it’s important to remember that in real life, democracies across the world are under threat. This makes people particularly sensitive to how democratic government is represented in stories, which makes sense. It’s really easy to create a story that reinforces antidemocratic biases, especially when so many of us have learned to take democracy for granted.

In the vast majority of stories, it’s best to avoid plots where democratic institutions are a hindrance to the protagonist. You know what I’m talking about. The hero is a monarch or general, and they could surely save the day if they weren’t always being held back by those bleeding hearts and bureaucratic pedants in the legislature. Or maybe it’s a story about an otherwise morally upright leader turning evil because they must pander to the hedonistic mob.

Either way, these stories reinforce the idea that democracy is bad at a time when that same idea is gaining traction in far too many countries. In most cases, it doesn’t matter how well you construct the scenario or if you have a historical precedent in mind. Yes, it’s always possible for a democratic institution to cause harm, but nine times out of ten an authoritarian institution would be worse. Democracy is still the best form of government, or if you prefer: democracy is the worst form of government, except for every other form of government.

Occasionally, I’ve worked with writers who had the opposite problem: they were including democracy because they felt obligated to. If you ever find yourself in that position, remember there’s nothing wrong with a story including monarchies, oligarchies, magocracies, or any other form of government normally found in fantasy. They can even be benevolent if you’re building a more upbeat world; that’s fine. As long as your story isn’t saying that an authoritarian government is better than a democratic one, there’s no problem.

Who Is Enfranchised?

A classical illustration of a woman with a torch marching across America spreading women's suffrage.

Believe it or not, there’s no easy definition for exactly what counts as a democracy. It’s more of a sliding scale, measured in who is enfranchised with votes and how much those votes count for. At one end, you have the modern norm: universal suffrage for all adults, even if we sometimes argue what the voting age should be.* At the other extreme end, you have something like the Holy Roman Empire, where a handful of princes got to vote on who among them would be emperor.* That’s technically an election, but almost no one would call it a democracy.

Then you have the Roman Republic, where all adult male citizens could vote, but the system was so ridiculously stacked that a tiny number of wealthy Romans had more voting power than the rest of the population put together.* In the early years of the United States, each person’s vote was more or less equal in power, but you had to be a white male landowner to vote at all. Ancient Athens was a little better, with male citizens having equal voting power regardless of class, but that still leaves out most of the adult population.

It’s difficult to say which of these states technically qualifies as a democracy, but some are clearly more democratic than others, and that dynamic is important for your setting. In general, the more people who can vote and the more equally those votes are counted, the more egalitarian your society will be. Other factors like wealth and race can still create divides, of course, but if people can vote, they at least have some recourse when faced with other problems.

There’s no rule saying you have to build a world with full suffrage, but be aware what messages your story is sending by not doing so. If you craft a nation that operates like Rome, with aristocrats given vastly more voting power than the poor, most readers will accept that as simply the way things are. But if your characters wax philosophically about how these rules are necessary to protect the state from peasants voting themselves too many benefits,* it’s likely to come off as antidemocratic propaganda unless you clearly show this view is wrong.

Of course, a disparity of voting rights is a great source of conflict. If you want a story where characters are fighting for enfranchisement, go for it. You can even go the other way if you want to, where certain marginalized groups are given greater voting power as a way to counterbalance their lack of privilege. A lot of governments do this in real life, with a certain number of parliamentary seats reserved for women or racial minorities. Just remember that the group has to actually be marginalized, unless you’re deliberately trying to create injustice.

How Educated Is Your Population?

A painting of a creepy looking Renaissance scholar.

It is impossible to overstate the benefits of an educated population to a democracy. For one thing, voters with a solid grounding in economics can tell whether a politician’s tax cut is really just a gift to the wealthy, while history teaches the importance of rejecting bigoted demagogues. On a more basic level, voters need to know something about the candidates or initiatives on offer, or else they can’t make an informed choice.

This can be a major hurdle for fantasy settings, as many are modeled off periods of European history when even the elites were often illiterate and the common folk had little knowledge of life outside their home village. A good number of these settings are actually worse than their historical counterparts, as storytellers choose to focus on poverty and ignorance rather than portraying history in all its infinite complexity.*

Fortunately, not all is lost. For one thing, there’s no rule saying the people in your fantasy setting have to be uneducated, even at low tech levels. Inventions like the printing press certainly help spread knowledge, but they are not a requirement. Many ancient societies had advanced education systems, to the point where Medieval Europe was the exception, not the rule.

If a society is wealthy and well organized, it is perfectly believable that most people would have a decent education. If newspapers don’t fit in your world, powerful states might post bulletins in town square for anyone to read or even pay heralds to shout important news at passersby. From there, political parties can host social gatherings where they pitch candidates and policies to prospective voters. Such events are likely to be rowdy and full of hyperbole,* but they can get the job done.

But that’s not all! Even if you’re set on the uneducated medieval model for your world, democracy is still possible; it just needs to be smaller in scale. A random leatherworker from the frontier might not know much about what’s going on in the capital, but they know plenty about their own village. People don’t need extensive schooling to vote on local issues or elect someone to their town council. From there, local councils can choose representatives for higher legislative bodies, and so on until you have a system that runs on layers of democracy.

Education is also an option for generating conflict, especially if your story takes place over a long period of time. If your democratic system was designed with a certain standard of education in mind, and that standard starts to slip, democracy could be in trouble. This could happen through malicious sabotage or simple neglect. Either way, a less-educated populace is far more likely to vote against their own interests, possibly even giving up their democratic power altogether.

How Do People Cast Their Votes?

A black and white photo of people in voting booths.

Once you’ve handled the more philosophical, abstract questions of who gets to vote and how much they know about the candidates, it’s time to consider the basic logistics of how people cast those votes in the first place. This is a contentious issue even today, so it’s worth spending some time on when creating your setting.

Unless you’re deliberately creating an unjust system, people should probably vote where they live; otherwise it’ll be a mess. One of the many flaws with the Roman system was that citizens were expected to travel to Rome to cast their ballot. Imagine needing to go to another city in order to vote. Now imagine you have to do it without modern transport. As you can guess, only the wealthiest citizens could afford to make the journey, and even then, only the ones who lived on the Italian Peninsula.

Assuming people vote locally, you’ll need a way to communicate voting results to a central government. Unless your setting has magical communication, that probably means human messengers, either on foot or on horseback.* These messengers will need roads, rest stops, and likely protection, as unscrupulous individuals are not above trying to literally steal an election.

Even under the best of circumstances, it will take time to tally the results, and it will take longer for larger countries. Then there’s the possibility of contested elections, which mean you have to send messengers back to double-check the totals, and so forth. So you’re probably looking at a fairly long election cycle; otherwise, there just isn’t time to get everything done.

Finally, you get to decide how people physically vote in your world. Written ballots might seem like the obvious standard, and they do make it easier to confirm voting results, but they also require a lot of paper,* which is often expensive to produce. Other options include having people walk to different locations to indicate their vote or determining a winner based on which side shouts louder, both tried-and-true methods of historical democracies. You could also employ a less-orthodox option, like dropping pebbles into jars representing a preferred candidate, otherwise known as the Night’s Watch method.*

What’s the Ratio of Direct to Representative Democracy?

A black and white illustration of Gaius Gracchus.

Another logistical consideration is how much of your setting’s democracy is direct and how much is representative. Direct democracy is, as the name implies, when people vote directly on policy. Representative democracy is when people vote for someone else to decide said policy. It’s the difference between voting on which crop to plant next year and electing someone to the office of chief crop planter.

Despite what some internet memes might tell you, these are both legitimate forms of democracy, and most systems use a combination of the two. Representative democracy will probably always be necessary on some level, since it’s just not feasible for the entire electorate to vote on every little thing a government manages. Plus, this way you can vote in experts who know about crafting effective policy. The downside is that elected representatives tend to be from the upper classes and can often be out of touch with their constituents, and that’s before powerful interest groups start “lobbying” them.*

Direct democracy can serve as a useful check on the power of elected officials, especially if those officials are dragging their feet on something most people want done. A lot of progressive measures get passed this way in real life, but direct democracy can also be used for evil. California’s Proposition 8 is a particularly infamous example, where the majority voted to strip marriage rights from a marginalized minority. It’s also ridiculously easy to get support for anti-tax initiatives, thereby starving the state of much-needed revenue.

What ratio your democracy uses will depend a lot on its scale and how equitable it is. Both Rome and Athens had a system where the elected legislature would pass a bill, and then the bill was put before a public assembly for approval. That works fine for a city-state, but probably isn’t practical for laws that affect a large country, unless you want to give the capital disproportionate power. Speaking of power, while the Athenian system was actually designed to give voters a voice in policy,* the Roman model was heavily stacked to the point that popular assemblies were little more than a rubber stamp for most of the Republic’s existence, so you can consider that as well.

In a larger country where power is evenly distributed, direct democracy will probably be practiced mostly at the local level. At the national level, direct democracy requires both a highly educated populous and excellent lines of communication to function, and even then it’s a major undertaking.

From a storytelling perspective, the ratio of direct to representative democracy will affect where your setting’s political drama resides. If most of the power is exercised by representatives, then the maneuvering will mostly be done within legislative structures, except for speeches around election time. With more direct democracy, ambitious politicians will spend a lot of time out and about, whipping up popular support for their proposals.

Are Votes Cast Individually or Proportionally?

An illustration of the Gerrymander Monster.

Even settings with a lot of direct democracy will have some need for elected officials, and it’s important to understand how the votes for those officials are counted. Broadly speaking, there are two generally accepted methods: individual votes and proportional votes.

Individual voting is what most people in the United States are familiar with. Two or more candidates* run for a position, and everyone votes for whichever candidate they like best. Sometimes there are runoffs until one candidate gets a majority; other times, the winner is chosen based on who gets a plurality in round one.* Either way, an individual candidate is elected, often representing a geographic area.

In a proportional system, votes are usually cast for a political party rather than an individual candidate. Each party then receives seats in proportion to their share of the vote, and the party itself decides which candidates fill those seats, often from lists announced beforehand. To vastly simplify it, if the Red Mages Party got 10% of the vote for a 100-seat legislature, they would get 10 seats.

Which of these methods works best and in what circumstances is hotly debated, as I’m sure you’re shocked to learn. Nevertheless, we can say with relative surety that proportional systems produce governments that more closely match a country’s general political opinion. Whether that’s good or not depends on your perspective. On the one hand, more people have their views directly represented in government, so they’re more likely to participate. On the other, lots of small parties can often lead to a divided government that has trouble getting things done. A side benefit is that proportional systems are usually easier to administer, because they don’t require the careful drawing of geographic districts.

Most large democracies will have elements of both, but which you choose to focus on will have a big impact on political storylines. In individual systems, the political landscape is typically dominated by two large parties, and yet at the same time, specific candidates matter a lot more. In proportional systems, party affiliation tends to matter more than individual candidates, since each party can have a stronger political identity.

Naturally, this is just scratching the surface of all the different ways elections can be run. I haven’t even touched on single transferable votes or additional member systems. As with most aspects of democracy, you can always go deeper, especially if you’re telling a story that’s really getting into the nuts and bolts of how governments work.

How Long Do Representatives Serve For?

A black and white illustration of politician.

Here in the US, term lengths are often taken for granted because they rarely change. Presidents serve for four years, senators serve for six, House reps serve for two – it seems set in stone. But those numbers didn’t spring fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, and the term lengths you choose will have a big impact on how your setting operates.

Putting aside other factors, the longer an official is in office, the more powerful they become. For one thing, they have more time to get things done. Just as importantly, they have more time to build up influence and connections. In the US, a six-term representative has far more influence than someone who’s just entered the House. Sometimes this can even lead to situations where a veteran politician can equal or surpass other officials who are more powerful on paper. Roman senators, for example, were elected for life, and some of these elder statesmen had more influence than the supposedly more powerful consuls who only served for a year.*

Adjusting the length of political terms can change the setting in several ways. On paper, it seems like shorter terms would make a government more responsive to popular demands, and to some extent that’s true. Politicians who run for office often have to be more careful about their image. But on the other hand, newer politicians are often more vulnerable to influence by special interest groups, because they are less established and don’t have many resources at their disposal. This actually makes governments less responsive and is one reason why term limits are so controversial.

Shorter terms also tend to reduce stability for two reasons. First, officials with a limited time in office often have to go all out getting their agenda through before their term is up. This was a constant problem in Rome, as consuls only had one year to pass legislation. Second, every election is a chance for someone with different politics to enter office, potentially leading to a situation where the country completely changes directions every couple of years. This gets way more complicated if term lengths are variable, such as with parliamentary systems that allow for snap elections to be held whenever the government likes.

While instability is usually negative in the short term, it’s often necessary in the long term, as societies that are too stable can find themselves unable to address growing problems. Which option you choose will depend on the type of story you want to tell. Are you interested in dissidents struggling to change an ossified system or a society where the system itself is breaking down under the constant weight of change?

How Easy Is It to Stall the Government?

A defining feature of many democracies is the ability of certain officials to bring the government to a screeching halt when it does something they don’t like. This doesn’t come up as often in authoritarian governments because autocrats can generally do whatever they please, while in a democracy everyone is supposed to follow the rules.

Sometimes governments are stalled through official powers, often called the veto. You would not believe how many people in the Roman Republic had veto powers. In other cases, the government is stalled through procedural tricks or emergent properties. You’ve probably heard of the filibuster, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the US for example, the senate majority leader isn’t supposed to have veto power over legislation, but they effectively do in most cases, since they’re the one who decides what gets brought up for a vote.

As with so many other aspects of democracy, how easy it should be to stall the government is the subject of much disagreement. To some extent, it can be a useful check against extremism, but it can also be a way for entrenched interests to block much-needed popular reforms. This is what happened toward the end of the Roman Republic. As Rome faced a crisis of citizens losing their farms and livelihoods, some politicians tried to deal with the problem, but conservative senators had so many ways to stall these extremely popular measures that the situation just dragged on and on until Rome’s entire government broke down.

This is another area where it pays to be careful in your stories. You can get a lot of great conflict from a scenario where the villain exploits flaws in the system to keep the hero from getting things done, but that’s also where a lot of stories go into antidemocratic territory. It’s easy to look at those situations and conclude that what we really need is an authoritarian to sweep aside all this democratic nonsense and get things done. In reality, such situations are usually caused by officials using their position to resist popular demand. The problem is rarely too much democracy, but rather not enough.

We’ve only done the most cursory examination of how democracies work in practice. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert in democracies to portray them in fiction. As with most aspects of worldbuilding, you only need enough to make things believable to the audience. Of course, if you want to go deeper, there are countless resources available. You could even get yourself a political science degree and take things to the next level. But most of us can get by with just a little knowledge and some critical thought.

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  1. Cay Reet

    For comparison, a quick overview of the German democratic system.

    Every person of 18 or older who is a German citizen, considered mentally able enough, and not currently in jail has the right to both the active and the passive vote (which means they can vote and run for office). Before an election, you get a letter (used to be a postcard) which details where you will vote (where your polling place is). You can take that letter along or use your ID (all Germans are required by the law to have an ID on them at all times) to identify yourself at your polling place to vote. If you are infirm or have no chance to vote that day, you can send for all you need for absentee voting. Elections are always on a Sunday and employers are required to give their employees time off for voting (in those few jobs where people are working Sundays in Germany).

    Votes are cast the old-fashioned way: with two crosses (1 for a candidate, 1 for a party) on a long piece of paper. You are not required to vote for a candidate from the party you vote for. Germany currently has about 5-6 big parties (CDU/CSU, SPD, Green, The Left, AfD, FDP – that one is debateable) and in local elections, a lot of smaller ones will also be around. A party can get direct seats or seats over the percentage they have overall – if a party has less than 5% of the votes, it can only have direct seats through popular candidates.

    Elections are on three levels: County, State, Germany on the whole. Terms are four years on each level, but elections are not all in the same year. This year, for instance, we had county elections and European parliament, in 2021 we’ll have the next elections on the top level.

    Germany has no electoral college or similar construct – votes are cast, counted, and used that way. It doesn’t matter if your area is generally black (conservative – CDU/CSU), red (liberal – SPD), green (self explanatory), purple (socialist/leftist – The Left), or brown (even though the AfD has blue logos, nationalists are traditionally viewed as brown, because of the brown uniforms of the Nazis). Every German citizen has the right to watch as the votes in their polling place are counted.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      It’s interesting that you still have “considered mentally able enough”. In Sweden that law was abolished in the 1980:s. Now you can vote if you’re over eighteen, period.

      • Cay Reet

        This merely covers any kind of mental illness which is considered to make a person unable to decide on their own affairs. Everyone who is over eighteen and doesn’t have a guardian of sorts for personal or business decisions has the right to vote.

        • Dvärghundspossen

          Yeah I understood that’s what it meant. We don’t have that kind of exception any longer. Everyone over eighteen, period.

          • Cay Reet

            Well, it’s not exactly in the law, either. It’s just understood that if you’re not allowed to make any personal decisions any longer, you’re also not allowed to vote.

          • Dvärghundspossen

            So it’s not in the law, it’s just understood? Does it mean that if someone living with a caretaker were to go to the voting station at election day, they’d be allowed to cast their vote? Or could they be legally stopped from doing so?

          • Cay Reet

            If they could still decide to go to the voting booth and had an invitation for the vote, they could still cast it. Question is whether they’d actually be able to go through all that.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Thanks for the breakdown Sir Cay, I love reading about how other countries handle democracy, partly because America’s democracy is so dysfunctional.

      The thing I find most interesting about the German system is that the constitution isn’t value neutral, at least that’s my understanding. In the US, if you get a big enough majority, you can legally end democracy. In Germany, there’s no legal way to do that.

      • Cay Reet

        We had a legal way to end democracy in the Weimar Republic and you know what became of that (hint: it was the Third Reich). Therefore, when we got our constitution in 1949, we made sure that it was not possible to just ‘vote democracy out’ in the parliament.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          If it were up to me, every constitution would have that rule. There’s no legitimate reason to allow your democracy to destroy itself.

          • Cay Reet

            The only way to destroy democracy in Germany would be a revolution or takeover of sorts – then we would no longer be the BRD, but something else (dictatorship? kingdom? take your pick).

      • crimsonsquare

        Honestly, the… Austrian constitution might be kind of worse than the American one in that way?

        Literally everything about it is changeable, and it does include ways to completely change it around; I don’t know how it is in the US, here, it needs to win the popular vote.

        More than that… IIRC, the American constitution includes some bits about the “establishing justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty” at the beginning.

        The beginning of Austria’s constitution (translated by someone not trained in legal matters):
        “Art 1 B-VG: Austria is a democratic republic. Its rights derive from the people.”
        Art 2 B-VG: Austria is a federal state.”

        There’s… no preamble whatsoever. Or any value mentioned at all. the closest are Staatszielbestimmungen, which are soft law and therefore not legally binding.

        Literally all the constitution-level human rights part come either from the Staatsgrundgesetz from the 19th century (AKA Habsburg times and a minimum of 4 complete changes in type of government, including one period of time where Austria didn’t technically exist, ago), or the European Human Rights Convention and EU law, which are both above constitutional law (but below the major principles of the constitution, which would technically be also changeable. They’re the democratic, republican, federal liberal, separation of powers and legal guarantee [… idk how to translate this, the principle that the law is upheld] principles)

        … in theory, it’s possible to vote out the whole “Law is upheld” bit, for instance.

        Worst part? We also had a legal way to end democracy, it happened (Dollfuß, Austrofaschismus), then we got… idk, taken over seems the wrong word choice, because too voluntary, by the Third Reich, where people had made a similar experience with the Weimarer Republik, and…
        We put in pretty much the same constitution again. Alright, with one of the parts that let democracy be semi-legally removed gone. That was it. (Also, all the non-constitution level laws that weren’t explicitely (too) Nazi stayed on the books)

        … alright, we’re also the country who had a former SS member as a UN general secretary, have a party quite literally founded by former NSDAP members, and another party who put down Dollfuß’ (Austrofascism’s dictator) portrait in their headquarters sometime within the last three years.
        And who had the official position of state be the “Opferthese” (“Austria was Germany’s first victim” – hahaha NOPE we weren’t) for literal decades while more than a couple of former SS members went into politics.

        … the more I learn about Austrian politics, the more I want to bang my head against a desk, and I have an exam about the political systems of Austria and the EU soon so I’m bingeing on all this. Also, this might’ve gotten a bit more rambly than it should have been because of that.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          No worries, Crimson Square. I love reading about how other countries’ political systems work. Here in the US it is at least fairly difficult to change the Constitution, which cuts both ways of course, since we’ve been stuck needing just one more state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment for nearly a decade now.

          • Dvärghundspossen

            Sweden also has a system where it’s relatively easy to change “the Basic Laws” – not as easy as other laws, but not as hard as, say, the US constitution. You need two parliamentary decisions to that effect, with an election in between. That’s it.

            I guess that’s an interesting feature you can play around with when building fantasy democracies.

          • Michael Campbell

            Yeah if anybody says the 2nd amendment can’t be abolished; just remind them of the 18th amendment.

            If I understand correctly, changes to the US constitution simply require a two thirds majority of a joint sitting of the house and senate.
            Most other countries need to go through the expense of an actual referendum for each change.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            That’s close: It requires a 2/3 majority in Congress, but then it also requires a 3/4 majority of state legislatures to ratify it, which currently means 38 states. State ratification has proven to be the harder milestone recently, with the Equal Rights Amendment sitting at 37 ratifications.

            It’s also possible to sidestep Congress entirely by having enough state governments call for a constitutional convention, but this has never been tried so there’s a lot of untested law around it.

          • Michael Campbell

            Just on doing things differently in different countries:-

            In Australia there is no bill of rights.
            We’ve always operated with the courts assuming the public have rights.
            Logically since you can vote (and must once you’re on the roll) therefore you must be properly informed or else your votes are pointless, therefore you must have a right to free-speech and a right to access the publications of a free press.

            And there are some legal scholars who believe that rights are protected better without a bill of rights.
            A bill of rights doesn’t really protect the rights of the individual: it merely grants a means by which one can sue after one’s rights have been violated.
            The result being that once a person’s rights are egregiously violated by some government department such as the police; that person’s lawyer talks to “their lawyer” and the two nut out an out-of-court settlement that involves a non-disclosure clause and makes no statement of guilt.
            Money is paid out but departmental procedures don’t change and staff aren’t fired.

            By having assumed rights, you send a letter to the minster in charge of that government department (something technically less available in the cited example).
            And the minster, upon realising that rights have been violated, writes out a cheque and questions that staff as to what happened (frequently firing some) and creates a new departmental policy so that that event will never happen again.

            But as with most things, the pontifications of the best legal minds and the outworking of actuality; hardly ever align.

      • Elda King

        The US, like the UK and some other countries, have very peculiar constitutions by virtue of them being very old. Of course they were amended, but not rewritten from scratch like in many countries.

        Brazil for example has a very progressive constitution, with a few quirks but good principles (if only we could implement them fully). It was created in 1988 (!) after the re-democratization. Democracy, federalism, separation of powers and individual rights are “stone clauses” that can’t be changed even by amendments to the constitution. So for example, torture can’t ever be made legal. As for whether this really protects democracy, I’m not going to comment because it is a long discussion and very, very sad.

        Elections in Brazil are also quite different. A major one is that voting is mandatory; you lose many civil rights if you don’t vote (or file a justification). Well, lose them until you go to an office and pay an insignificant fine (less than 1USD). Anyone over 16 can vote; it is mandatory between 18 and 70 with a few exceptions, like living abroad or having limited mobility. That is kind of bad, as you are forced to support a candidate and it creates a false sense of legitimacy, but it prevents so many problems. And we have a ridiculously large number of political parties, 35 in total, and 14 have more than one elected senator (For the executive it used to be a more polarized left-right-center relationship with the 3 biggest parties, but recently we had a huge swing to the far right). No electoral college, no gerrymandering*, no house of lords or other such anachronisms. Oh, and we have electronic voting; it is relatively safe, not ideal (at a fundamental level, not as auditable as paper), but not as nightmarish as voting machines suggested in the US. Machines aren’t connected to the internet, they are physically transported to polling places, supervised the entire time, locked, etc. From everything I heard, it is safer than many paper ballots that are badly executed and easily defrauded. We are now moving to biometric authentication in polling places and printed confirmations of votes (so that the number of votes can be verified – actual votes remain secret).

    • Jeppsson

      Re our earlier discussion: Found this easy-to-read pamphlet which goes through which European countries have, and which countries do not have, restrictions of voting rights for people with intellectual disabilities. Germany is listed as one of those countries that do have restrictions, whereas Sweden does not.

  2. Dvärghundspossen

    Are humans really faster than horses over long distances? I’m thinking that in sports, we see that both humans and horses can cover one hundred miles in one day. But the horses have all these veterinary checks making sure that their pulse isn’t too high and they’re not pressured to hard, while humans really push themselves to do this.

    • Cay Reet

      Humans aren’t faster than horses over longer distances than a few hundred metres, but humans are able to cover much more distance in a day – humans can walk the whole day, covering quite a bit of ground, whereas horses need pronounced breaks throughout the day. In a sprint which goes over a medium distance, the horse will win (after needing a little longer to sort out its legs at the beginning), but once we go into marathon range, humans will be faster, because they need fewer breaks. If you’re travelling, having a packing horse or other packing animal will actually slow you down and not speed things up.

      • Richard

        “If you’re travelling, having a packing horse or other packing animal will actually slow you down and not speed things up.”

        Shouldn’t that be as long as you’re not carrying a lot of stuff? Seems to me that an average horse should be able to carry 50 or so pounds of gear for longer than an average human can…..

        • Cay Reet

          No, because the horse can’t walk as long without a break as a human can. Even a human with a yoke or another means of carrying a lot of stuff can walk the whole day with, perhaps, one or two breaks, if trained for it – horses don’t have the basic endurance needed to move for that long without a break.

          • ChibiKia

            Fun fact, this is an ancient method of hunting. A group of people would just keep chasing after an animal all day until it wore out, because we’ve got the advantage on endurance.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, it is. And it’s why humans have tamed wolves and turned them into dogs: because they were inclined to hunt like us and they could work in groups.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      To add to what Cay Reet has already said, it all comes down to stamina. A human in really good shape can just keep going for longer than a horse can, and over long enough distances the human pulls ahead.

      Of course, most humans aren’t in good enough shape to do that, they have to be professional athletes for the most part. Interestingly, you might conclude the opposite from looking at the results of various man vs horse races, but that’s because it’s incredibly cruel to make horses run the distances where humans can out pace them. The horses will likely die if they’re made to run like that.

      You can read about that here if you want, but serious content warning for cruelty to animals:

      On the other hand, a well established relay of horses will be much faster than humans. If you have rested horses set up in a line and each horse can go all out for a shorter distance, you’re good to go. But that requires a LOT of horses.

      • Cay Reet

        Sooo … the Pony Express, then?

        Having stations at the distances horses could go before they tired was also the principle for coaching inns. The horses could be exchanged before they really tired out and the coaches (or in case of the Pony Express the riders) could go on much longer.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        I’ve read about these man vs horse events before, but they neither feature top human athletes nor top horses.


        If you look at top human athletes running one hundred miles/160 kilometers (I just looked this up ), the world record is like 11,5 hours. And we can assume men who run that fast are 100 % exhausted afterwards.

        For a horse comparison, it makes more sense, I think, to look at top endurance horses (which I once again just did, thanks Google ), rather than some poor horses in man vs horse contests. They take about one hour longer to go the same distance. But they have all these veterinary checks along the way, checking their pulse to make sure they’re not pushed too hard.
        So… based on that, humans and horses might be equally good? Even though I’ve read MANY articles saying humans are much better than horses, but just looking at top humans and top horses running a hundred miles in big official sporting events, we do seem more even than people usually claim…? At least over 100 miles/160 kilometers – maybe humans would be much better than horses at 200 miles, 300 miles etc, IDK.

        Although I guess it’s worth pointing out that top endurance horses are all Arabs. They’re inferior to ordinary warmbloods and thoroughbreds when it comes to Show Jumping and Speed and Endurance, so you never see them in these sports (at least not on top level), but they have much better endurance.

        • Cay Reet

          A human can walk all day, which is important to remember when you travel. So instead of looking at who can run faster or longer, check how long over the course of a day they can move constantly, without stopping for food or water or rest. You’ll find that humans are much better at that (provided they’re used to it) than horses which are used to it, too. They can keep a good pace for many hours without stopping. The only animal which can really keep up with the human in that aspect is actually the wolf, who has a similar behaviour of hunting by following over long distances – thus being a long-distance endurance walker.

          • Dvärghundspossen

            That’s a good point, and I actually think these horses take breaks from time to time, only they make up for it by moving a bit faster when they’re on the move.

            You know, I get deja vu now – I think we had this exact same discussion like a year ago! Ah well, Mythcreants is large and sprawling, it happens I guess.

  3. Michael Campbell

    There are factors more important than the length of term.
    One house (like Queensland) or multiple houses (like US Federal system)?

    Do all people have equal weight to their vote?
    If each state provides a particular number of senators to the senate no-matter the population of the state, does that advantage people from smaller states?
    Could a person’s vote be weighted as proportionate to their income tax level?
    Are slaves counted in the population for boundary drawing purposes but not allowed to vote (driving up the value of a free person’s vote in that electorate)?

    Do all people always vote or just those who can arrange time off work?

    Is there a free and independent judiciary?
    Are electoral dirty tricks punished or merely tolerated?

    Is there a free and independent press or similar news medium?

    Is lobbying regulated?

    Are corporations legal people and if so can they vote?

  4. Mike

    The discussion on vote counting reminded me of a fascinating video I saw. The host picks a certain vote distribution for five candidates, and counts the votes by five different methods. Each method ends up choosing a different candidate as the winner.

    Here’s the video, if anyone’s interested. It can certainly be something to keep in mind. This is from a math channel, but the video does touch on the reasons why certain methods choose certain candidates.

  5. Dvärghundspossen

    Fun fact about the Swedish parliament: Until 1866, parliament had seats reserved for representatives of “the four social classes”: Aristocrats, merchants, priests and farmers. Seems sort of fantasyish when you look back on it.

    • Michael Campbell

      Well none of the British house of Lords were elected; they’re all appointed.

      • Shamanka

        Which, considering they have veto power over any law the commons tries to enact, suggests an interesting way to have both a positive depiction of democracy and an obstructive parliament- the people chosen by the people are trying to make things better, but are being overruled by the entrenched nobility.

        • Michael Campbell

          Yes, but on the flip-side, people with a life-peerage won’t be beholden to the party apparatchiks to fund their re-election campaigns making parties less dominant in such a house.

  6. JXMcKie

    Nice to see Mythcreant`s take-on Democracy in a fantasy world, and a pleasure to read, with many good points. I would however like to add, that in a historical context, there was usually a correlation between “Democracy”, however limited, and the practical, often economical or military, distribution of power.

    The article itself brushes on this subject with “…In general, the more people who can vote and the more equally those votes are counted, the more egalitarian your society will be…” and several other places by having the reader consider questions like “Who Is Enfranchised ?” or “How Educated Is Your Population?” and such like, but other factors to consider are how wealth is distributed, and how military technology and organisation is related to democracy (or lack thereoff).

    For example it is generally acknowledged that the rise of (very limited) democracy in the Polis-culture of Ancient Greece, and in Ancient Rome, were dependent upon the existence of a “middle-class” of freeborn small-holders, shop-owners and artisans, which also by necessity played an important part, of the military organisations of their respective cultures : The Greek Phalanx, and the Manipular Army of the Roman Republic.
    Also in Medieval Europe, the semi-democratic institutions of some Medieval Towns and City-states, were closely connected to the existence, of Militia forces from the same Towns. Conversely Kings and Feudal Lords basing their military strength, on a limited elite force of noble and mounted knights, did not grant democratic rights to their peasants (which was not an inportant part of the feudal levy).

    So my point here is to say that if you considers to include a democracy, especially an extended democracy, as part of your fantasy worldbuilding, you should give some good reasons, either based on military necessities; relative economic equality; or some other explanations for a relatively egalitarian society. A fantasy world where magic abilities are common, would probably also be more likely to facilitate democratic forms, and if women had considerable magic abilities, it would be more difficult to deny them the rights of political partipation. As Oren has stated in some earlier post : “Women with the ability to sprout fire-bolts from their fingertips with little effort, as not easily denied” (or some wording to that effect). Democracy after all, was not just “invented” because people wanted to be “nice” to each other. It is usually based on some practical power distribution in society !

  7. LeeEsq

    Most European medieval countries had more representative institutions than nearly every fantasy kingdom. Besides the English Parliament, you had the French Estates-General, the Reichstag of the Holy Roman Empire, the Diet of Hungary, and most major cities being run by a city council.

    Fantasy novels tend to do away with these representative institutions because they tend to put a kibosh on why people read the fantasy novels. Democracies or even aristocratic oligarchies tend not be big on a bunch of random adventurers, read mercenaries, mucking it about in their country. Why rely on a bunch of teenagers to defeat the dragon armies led by the Arch-Wizard Boilbort when you can just send in a bunch of adult soldiers supported by the equally adult Republican Mage Force? More reliable, more mature, and much cheaper.

    Monarchies also give rise to more soap opera dramatics than democracies, especially functioning democracies that managed to clamp down on corruption and power plays. I think democracy seems to much like the real world for most fantasy novels. Its the kill joy form of government.

    • Cay Reet

      The free cities – cities which did not belong to any lord’s domain – were relatively democratic already, yes. Even though voting rights were only given to men in most cases – and often men with a certain wealth -, there was no one ruler who decided on everything, but a group which tried to do the people justice (because it wasn’t unheard of for the populace to make their displeasure felt very clearly in those cities).

      There were no standing armies for a long time in medieval Europe, though, only militia – farmers and other men called to arms when a battle was to be fought (which was pretty much what a war was then – one battle). Mercenaries provided a bolster to such armies, but there weren’t that many professional fighters until we reach the latter stages of the crusades, when ‘soldier’ became a viable life choice. So depending on your fantasy kingdom’s development, a standing army to deal with the dragon armies might not exist and a bunch of adventurers might be your only viable option (apart from giving in to the arch-wizard’s demands).

    • Elda King

      I was just thinking about this – how we make a big deal about the actual rulers, but often ignore the vast powers of parliaments, councils, diets and other institutions.

      Absolute monarchies were actually very rare, and arose somewhat late in history. Kings were often elected or successions were disputed, changing laws often required the agreement of nobles or other powerful people, imposing taxes was often something that had to be negotiated, laws were more a matter of tradition than of king’s decrees, and so on.

      • Michael Campbell

        Perhaps a little like the US (particularly Hollywood) attributing all power to the president, when Mayors and Governors have an incredible ability to make life unpleasant for people.

      • LeeEsq

        Most medieval kingdoms did not have the administrative capacities to be absolute monarchies. The transportation and communication networks were poor, the civil service too small and inefficient, and most importantly the finances were lacking. It is no surprise that absolute monarchies only began to emerge in Europe after there was a big inrush of wealth from the Americas and the Renaissance provided a big cadre of civil servants.

        You can use magic to justify the existence of absolute monarchies in fantasy novels. Magic can provide the infrastructure necessary for a monarch to rule alone. Most fantasy authors don’t think that far. I think that the representative institutions of the medieval period are ignored because most speculative fiction authors don’t know about them and like the soap opera dramatics of monarchy. Functioning representative institutions attempt to cut down on soap opera dramatics.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, most European monarchies were more or less a ruler on top with a lot of more or less uncontrolled dukes, earls, and other nobles around who did the local governing the way they saw fit. As long as the taxes came in, they had little to fear from their ruler, they would not intervene.

          We have the first few emperors of the Holy Roman Empire (essentially Germany with a few areas tagged on to it) who didn’t even have a residence – they were moving constantly from noble to noble, in order to keep a semblance of control over their Empire.

  8. Xandar The Zenon

    It’s worth noting that the more direct a democracy, the more dangerous it is if it doesn’t have a constitution. Without that particular barrier, there’s nothing to stop the majority from deciding that those disenfranchised minorities don’t deserve their possessions, or that Steve is rich and we deserve to steal his things.
    It’s also important to consider that consitutitions will often just fail as people begin to ignore them. A huge example of this is the United States, whose problem isn’t as much (although it is a big problem in a few cases) that the constitution can be changed as it is that its constitution is by and large ignored. For example, the tenth ammendment that prohibits the federal government from doing more than the constitution allows is unbelievably beyond dead. The second ammendment (which dictates that the government can’t interfere with people owning guns) has been both misconstrued and ignored to varying degrees, and the supreme court (whose members are unelected and appointed) creates new laws out of whole cloth despite not actually possessing the power to do so. And all this despite the fact these laws could be changed, but instead are merely ignored.

    • Michael Campbell

      Well some things that are not laws get cited as laws.
      The sitting president can not be tried “law” is just a justice department policy decision dating back the the Watergate era, written by someone who was not elected to the job.
      Seriously, the 14th and 6th amendments should make such a policy; unconstitutional. Surely equal protection under the law also means equal vulnerability to the law.

  9. Bubbles

    You know, I think this is a fairly important article to write. There are so few democracies present in fantasy fiction that it’s probably time for more people to at least think about including them. Now, as you said, it isn’t intrinsically a problem to feature other forms of government. However, it’s just that monarchies, especially, have been so overused. People include them without much thought, and often, they don’t feature much of the complexity of real-life governments.

    In my personal experience, the only fantasy book that I remember reading with a republic (although it isn’t the main focus and there aren’t many details given) is Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow. While I don’t know much about it, I have heard that there are a small number of groups in The Song of Ice and Fire series that don’t have monarchies.

  10. Matt

    “But if your characters wax philosophically about how these rules are necessary to protect the state from peasants voting themselves too many benefits,*Something a lot of people are always worried about but that has never happened as far as I can tell.”
    So, obviously “peasants” should be allowed to vote, but tyranny of the majority is a real concern. This is why a constitution that guarantees individuals rights is so important. As for examples, how about every welfare program ever?

    • Dinwar

      Usually what happens (see Rome, the USSR, and other Communist countries) is that the elites try to enact programs for what the peasants want, or what the elite think the peasants should want. The peasants have about as much say in the process as they do in creating laws, except that the peasants can, if provoked sufficiently, rebel or flee.

      Rome, for example, tried to enact laws they thought would help the poor, such as fixed prices of grains, with over-charging being punishable in the usual Roman fashion. Trouble is, most people in Rome worked on farms–and the fixed price of grain shattered their economy. So they stopped producing grain. When the cities started to starve, people moved out of them. Sure, that’s an empire and not even pretending to be democratic at that point, but the same pattern applies to democracies/republics (Russia after the Revolution and the American South spring to mind).

      As for true, honest, one-person-one-vote democracy, they never get to the stage where they vote themselves access to the country coffers. Such a system is so inefficient that any true democracy of more than about two people lasts until lunchtime. Once a decision has to be made, the system either crumbles into interminable argument (Athens) or leaders emerge and take over (Rome).

      • AIdan Chappuis

        I have studied a good amount of US constitutional law, and there is at least one example that verges on this. Under the articles of confederation, several states passed laws allowing debts to be repaid in worthless paper money (which they had coined in absurd quantities), or even random commodities (think chickens). Massachusetts, for example, did shortly after Shay’s rebellion, when the rebels democratically organized and replaced most of the legislature. There are real historical disputes over how much of this issue was just whiny rich bankers [read: The framers we usually read stuff from] complaining they couldn’t screw farmers, and how much actually harmed the economy, but it’s usually agreed they harmed it at least some. Rhode Island in particular got carried away, making it a criminal offense to refuse (worthless) paper money and abolishing jury trials for it, and wrecked their economy since merchants and lender closed and no one would export goods to them for fear of being forced to take the paper money. These actions all had popular support, indeed when the RI supreme court declared them unconstitutional, all but one were voted out.

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