Sunday, April 26, 2009

Democracy in America? Not According to the Greeks.

What we call democracies in the western world, especially in the United States, would be seen as something less by the ancient Athenians. They would assert that there is very little democracy here because Americans are not able to participate directly in their government.

The first Athenian democracy was created by Cleisthenes in 507 B.C, when the people elected him along with others who were dedicated to replacing the aristocratic oligarchy. This political change was accomplished through legislation, not violence.

The Athenian political system, before the reforms, had many elements of a democratic system, but was heavily influenced by the aristocratic class. The principle legislative body was the Assembly (Ecclesia) which consisted of all citizens who came to the assembly meetings. Because of the unwieldy character of so large a group, a council of 500 was created to debate and consider new legislation before it was brought before the assembly. Governmental administration was handled by ten senior magistrates, called Archons, who were elected by the people. When an Archon’s term of office ended he could become a member of the Areopagas, an aristocratic council of elders who acted as a court of appeal. Lastly, there was a elected board of ten generals who were in charge of commanding the army and navy during time of war. Aristocratic influence was seen in the Council of 500 which was heavily tilted toward the upper class. Archons, themselves, were wealthy aristocrats, and the Areopagas was made up of former Archons.

The new laws sought to break the aristocratic hold on high office by removing their influence. Candidates for Archon were now chosen by lot from the Council of 500. A system of ostracism was introduced to prevent accumulation of power. Any senior official deemed to be corrupt could be banished for ten years by a vote of the Assembly. Other changes included limiting the power of the Areopagas to appeal for murder trials, and transferring supervision of the conduct of government to the Council of 500.

This great Athenian democracy thrived through the time of Pericles 462-429 B.C, but was degraded during the Peloponnesian War, which ended in 404. The Athenians were defeated by Sparta and would never again experience the great democracy they had invented.

If we agree that the definition of democracy is anything we want it to be, then I suppose America has a democracy, but it’s funny how the term has be used by feminist types to suggest the Greeks didn’t have a democracy because women couldn’t vote. In their view, only contemporary America would meet the true definition. How absurd! Democracies are defined by the ability of people to have a say in government, not whether one class or the other has equal rights.

A political system will only be strong if informed citizens vote. That is citizens who are intelligent enough and motivated enough to analyze the issues before voting. Those who vote without knowledge of the issues or support candidates because they are told who to support are corrupt. Quality government comes from quality votes, not the number of them.

The other problem we have in the United States is that the people’s power ends with their vote. Because they elect representatives and do not participate in government themselves, their surrogates are open to the kind of corruption that makes them beholden to the rich and powerful rather than the people they represent.

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