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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

Democracy's First Cautionary Tale


Every year, between the 4th and 14th of July – democracy has a lively fortnight of introspection. Between the shot heard around the world that led to the United States, and the angry mob storming the Bastille that was France’s first attempt at a republic 13 years later, the idea that the demos had any business running the shop, really took hold.

This year the conversation has gotten a little grim, with a great deal of carrying on about the “global democratic recession”, or the rollback of the freedoms that spread through most of the world in the 1990s. According to Freedom House, and think-tank that concerns itself with this sort of thing, democracy is at its lowest point across eastern Europe and Asia since the end of the Cold War.

Stateside, we’re all wringing our paws about the same. And yes, leaving the audit and certification to state political party appointees, in light of the pressure to not certify an unfavorable vote, seems bizarre – Clowns to the right of me. On the other hand, the notion that having to show some identification at the polls, even a utilities bill, is the “new Jim Crow” is just infantile race-baiting. Jokers to the left.

An aggressive moderate like myself is stuck in the middle watching all the theatric might be inclined to think that current cracks in American democracy are more cosmetic than structural. The US is the second oldest continuous government in the world. That means something. On the other hand, France is on its fifth Republic – and you can only blame the end of one of them on the Nazis. Which tells us that something else – that neither progress nor democracy are irreversible.

Democracy – government by the demos – is an old idea that always sounds great, in transparent practice works better than any other form of government that’s been tried. And yet, for some reason rooted deep within the demos themselves, it lacks staying power of the more dreadful forms of government.

The Athenians didn’t fundamentally see themselves as a people of conquest but people of the soil, on land made forever fertile by their patron. They didn’t claim a divine lineage, but were just folks making the best of what the gods had tossed their way. Although, it wasn’t as beautifully pastoral as all that. Like the high-strung Spartans to the south, their Haves screwed the Have-Nots with wild abandon. When faced with a social melt-down, the Spartans went full military dictatorship, turned the peasantry into effective slaves called helots, and crush the remaining individuals into a cohesive, uniform hive.

In Athens they took a different tack. In one of history’s great ironies, democracy wasn’t the collective brain-child of the demos rising against the tyrants, although that is the way they’d put generations later. Democracy itself was an enforced reform enacted by an Athenian elder statesman called Solon, who was given complete control over the city in crisis. He was generally considered the wisest Athenian by noble, merchant and peasant alike – but hadn’t been elected. He wasn’t a revolutionary, either. Solon was put in power by the elites who were pretty sure the hoi polloi was about to rise up. In short, a dictator invented democracy and imposed it without asking anyone.

Solon’s brilliant argument was that the peasants were slipping into serfdom due to their debts to the nobility. This was a shame in an egalitarian sense, but there was a more practical point. Serfs don’t generally fight well for the homeland because they’ve got no skin in the game. No small consideration as the Greek city-states were always at each other’s throats. Down in Sparta, no one was trusting the helots with weapons.

Solon needed the peasants to buy into the Athenian system, so he cancelled their crushing debts, gave them legal recourse against the abuses of the powerful and, crucially, gave them a vote in the leadership of Athens. He sold this to the nobles by ensuring that while the poor could vote, they couldn’t actually hold office. Thus, the rich still held onto political power, but had to answer to the voters.

The modern equivalent here is that in Great Britain, Members of Parliament were not paid until 1911 for the same, if more roundabout, reason. George Washington didn’t think the President or congress should be paid. And given their late performance, I’m starting to agree with the man.

Democracy, a government of the people, was pure and brilliant in its simplicity: the administrators were accountable and for the really big issues everyone just voted and majority ruled. Well, every man. Or, to be precise every Greek male not currently enslaved or too foreign. Perhaps it wasn’t a pure as advertised. Regardless, the problem the Greeks ran into was that it was a little too simple. In practice, direct democracy just isn’t as straight forward as it sounds in theory: It is very hard to get people to agree on anything except more. Direct democracy led to paralysis for the Athenians, and would later turn Muammar Gaddafi into a Libyan Sun King, and lead to bankruptcy for California because the mob will always vote itself more and will never vote itself a bill.

The new system worked well enough, but the problem with any new system is that it lacks the historical weight of normalcy. It might have become normal but Solon, seeing his good work, decided to retire and go on a ten-year cruise along the Mediterranean. Before leaving, he decreed that all the laws he’d enacted as head of state remain in place for 100 years. After that, people would just accept that democracy was just the way it was normally done. Why he thought that there wouldn’t be a power struggle as soon as he left is one for the gods. The old guy had barely sailed out of sight before the old nobility started fighting for the spoils of civil leadership.

Some when raising a beer to freedom on the 4th, or a glass of wine on the 14th, remember that democracy doesn’t run on auto-pilot.


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