Athens, as every school child learned, was the birthplace of democracy, specifically a political system where the people vote for (or against) political issues directly. Those same school children were also told that Athenian democracy and philosophy contributed greatly to American political culture. This, like so much of what we learned as children, is only partially true. While Athenian philosophy contributed considerably to the foundation of our culture, the Founding Fathers wanted very much to avoid anything like Athenian democracy and for good reason.
Like all of the Greek city-states, the Athenians had an established aristocratic political class that squabbled viciously for political power for centuries, resulting in a long succession of kings and queens. Very much like the American colonies would do over two thousand years later, the Athenian people, with the military support from the Athenian nobility’s enemy, the Spartans, overthrew their aristocratic rulers in a bloody revolution. Understandably suspicious of their landed elite, the Athenians adopted a democratic form of government.
Freed of the tyranny of their aristocracy, the Athenians quickly reached the heights of their political and economic influence within a matter of three generations. They established themselves as a dominant sea going nation, trading with the far corners of the Mediterranean. Their wealth and influence multiplied, allowing massive growth of culture and architecture. It’s during this period that the Parthenon, arguably the most iconic of classical structures in all of Greece, was built.
Even though they could no longer appeal to their “noble heritage“, the Athenian political class discovered that they could instead tout their “piety and patriotism” to gain the support of the common man. Once they had enough support to form a consistent majority, they began systematically eliminating their political rivals and silencing their critics. In the span of just a single century, barely a blink of the eye in terms of human history, the Athenians went from subjugation, to freedom, to wealth, back to subjugation again.
The crown jewel of their great culture, the Parthenon, stands now as a crumbling echo of the failure of their experiment with self rule. How did the Athenian democracy fail so completely?
“The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead.”
Some will blame the rise of political neighbors, such as Thebes and Macedonia, but the truth is much simpler. The Athenian democracy failed because the deposed political class never stopped seeking power and soon realized that they only needed a simple majority to get it. They didn’t need to appeal to well educated Athenians who usually knew enough to oppose them. All they needed was to convince the gullible and thick headed to support them. The more gullible and thick headed, the better.
Appealing to “piety and patriotism” was incredibly effective at getting common Athenians to support the elite’s political causes. So long as the common people believed what they were voting for was “good” and that anyone that opposed them was “bad“, no logic or reason could shake their support. Because it’s human nature to be suspicious of the new or unfamiliar, the first one to get their idea to the people wins. Since only the elites had the means and resources to exert that much control over information, they won.
In the end, the very democratic system that was meant to check the power of the political elite, became the very tool the political elite used to reassert their power. The Athenian experiment proved that those who wish to enslave a democratic populace can best do that by simply using the very democratic values that they wish to violate. Democracy, as it turned out, was worse than the tyrannical systems that the Athenians overthrew. Even with free and equal a democratic elections, Athens rose and fell in the span of human life span, even if a long one.
“A republic, if you can keep it.”
Like the ruins of the Parthenon, the American Electoral College remains a crumbling echo of the republican form of government that the Founding Fathers thought necessary to protect the liberties of the people. While many people correctly point to elements such as the Electoral College as evidence that we were not founded as a democracy, they miss the point that the Electoral College is the only republican element of our government remaining.
Representatives in the House are, as they have always been, democratically elected by the voters of their home districts. Senators, however, were once chosen by their state’s legislatures, now they are elected democratically by voters in their states. Along with the President, once to be chosen by electors, the Senate was intended to act as a constitutional check on the democratic House. This was why the republic’s Senate, not the democratic House, confirmed appointments to the Supreme Court and to the President’s cabinet.
What we see when we look upon the remains of our once strong republic is but a cracked and empty shell, hanging by a thread over the boiling madness of democracy beneath. If we truly wish to save our republic, then we cannot ignore the very same lessons of ancient Athens that the Founding Fathers themselves saw and understood. Democracy is worse than tyranny, because it couples injustice with volatility and ensures the demise of a nation.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that the very things that may make something popular are also often the very things that make it wrong. It’s time to seriously look at who we allow to choose our politicians, keeping in mind that it is possible to allow people to have a say in their government without necessarily going full Athens.
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