How did the printing press affect democracy?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The relationship between democracy and the printing press is, at best, uncertain. Voting systems do not require print or even literacy. In ancient Athens, where few people were literate, secret ballots were conducted by people dropping pebbles into a clay jar, with a black pebble counting as a negative vote and a white one as a positive vote. It is also possible to vote using a show of hands.

In terms of disseminating information, oratory could reach many interested citizens. In Athens, laws were inscribed on stelae in the agora, a tradition continued in ancient Rome, where imperial decrees were publicly displayed on stone. Written displays of law codes, however, are not unique to democracies; they were a feature of ancient Mesopotamian kingdoms as well.

Modern western nations became increasingly democratic a few centuries after the development of the printing press, but this timeline does not actually prove causation. While inexpensively printed pamphlets helped disseminate democratic ideas widely, the same technology could equally well disseminate anti-democratic ideas. Hitler and Stalin understood the value of the press to circulate political ideas just as well as Thomas Paine or James Madison.

One frequent claim is that the printing press and the wide circulation of knowledge across all classes facilitates the informed public necessary to the proper functioning of democracy. The technology of print, though, and the more recent technologies of electronic communication, are politically neutral. While such movements as the Arab Spring used technology to promote democracy, the  Chinese government uses similar information technology (including both print and electronic media) to suppress democracy. 

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