Thursday, December 22, 2011

Google Ngram: Democracy versus Republicanism

Google Ngram Viewer creates a graph depicting the popularity of words used in a database of 5 million books scanned by the company, dating back to 1500. A paper published in Science this year explains the massive scale of the project:
The resulting corpus contains over 500 billion words, in English (361 billion), French (45 billion), Spanish (45 billion), German (37 billion), Chinese (13 billion), Russian (35 billion), and Hebrew (2 billion). The oldest works were published in the 1500s. The early decades are represented by only a few books per year, comprising several hundred thousand words. By 1800, the corpus grows to 98 million words per year; by 1900, 1.8 billion; and by 2000, 11 billion...

The corpus cannot be read by a human. If you tried to read only English-language entries from the year 2000 alone, at the reasonable pace of 200 words/min,without interruptions for food or sleep, it would take 80 years. The sequence of letters is 1000 times longer than the human genome: If you wrote it out in a straight line, it would reach to the Moon and back 10 times over.
So Ngram can be used to spot very long term trends, across centuries instead of the Google Insights for Search trends that rise and fall over years or weeks. I put the words 'democracy' and 'republic' into Ngram, searching from 1500 to 2008:
An initial observation is that both words peak early in the 1640s. This was the same period as the English Civil War, when the parliament overthrew (and decapitated) King Charles. It was a time of political turmoil and debate, with liberals pushing for democracy, monarchists pushing for absolute rule, and thinkers like Thomas Hobbes trying to reconcile the two.

That republican experiment would peter out with the restoration of the English monarchy. A second wave of interest in republicanism arises in the 1750s, perhaps coinciding with early American anti-British agitation? I'm not sure if there were other important republican movements in this period, but certainly writings over the rest of the 18th century show high levels of interest while Americans, French and Irish republicans put their thoughts into violent action. A third, smaller, peak appears to coincide with the republican revolutions of 1848.

So why do we see republicanism fade from importance as democracy rises? Democracy seems to coincide with the world wars, perhaps as idealists sought to replace the discredited autocratic monarchies and dictatorships with new representative alternatives. Perhaps it is also related to the rise of female suffrage and democracies that finally allowed all adults to vote regardless of sex or race?

Still, I don't see clearly why republicanism fell out of fashion in books while democracy increased. Is it just a shift in language, with the two meaning the same thing? Or does it indicate a more serious change in preferences, perhaps emphasising collective engagement in the political process (democracy) over individual liberty from oppressive government (republicanism)?

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