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Birth of Democracy

What Democracy Isn't


Before we start yammering about what democracy is, let’s first take a look at what democracy isn’t. Picture the most anti-democratic person in history that you can think of. I am guessing that person has a mustache. Perhaps a big bushy walrus-type stash? Or maybe a little toothbrush number worn by a raving lunatic? Yeah, Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler make for great models for evil dictatorships.


That’s why we 21st-century folk love our democracy so darn much.

Or at least we think we do. But you'd be surprised how many millions of people on this blue planet don't realize that their "democracy" is, in fact, a Republic. At least not one that the ancient Greeks would have redefined it. And hey, I think they would know because they were the ones who invented it.


In a republic, people vote for candidates who do their voting for them. Afterwards, many voters feel cheated that the politicians they elected seem to have forgotten all about them after the election is over. But hey, it’s still a far cry from having a proverbial gun put to your head in the polling booth, but it’s still not a democracy.  


The men who started the great 19th century democratic revolutions didn’t trust that the average Joe and Joan were smart enough to make good decisions. And had they known about Reality TV, they might not have let us vote at all.


Back around the time of the American and French Revolutions, giving power to the “unruly mob” was seen as just plain nuts. A radical experiment that would plunge humanity into the abyss of absolute and total anarchy! Cue the sinister music.


So now that we have spent five paragraphs telling you that everything you’ve learned in civics class has been one big lie, let’s get down to the dirty business of defining democracy as the ancient Greeks knew it.  


In a City-State Long Ago and Far Away...


Way back in ancient times, Greece wasn’t the unified country that we know and love today. Rather, it was a collection of hundreds of city-states who loved nothing more than a good scrap. In ancient Greece two things signaled power: land and a strong army and both of these required lots of cash to maintain. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that only the rich were able to hold power. This form of government is called an aristocracy, where power was maintained by a few rich families. It’s easy to imagine how many ways this form of governing could go wrong. That’s why around 500 B.C.E. the people of ancient Athens decided to throw their own dictator out on his pissino and start their own experiment in self-representation. 


The city-state of Athens was the first and largest of the Greek democracies. Historians know that there were others, but only the records from Athens have survived the past 2,700 years.   The government that the Athenians created was really something special. The ancient Athenians didn’t vote for someone to do their voting for them. Instead, they did their own voting. Athenian democracy was big, and chaotic, and messy, but it worked.


America’s founding fathers might not have trusted democracy. Ben Franklin once called democracy “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch”. But the ancient Greeks seemed to have more faith in the common man than that. The Greeks understood the danger of giving too much power to one person. After all, they’re the ones who coined the term tyrant. To keep power in check they devised an ingenious system of checks and balances. 


How Democracy Worked


The biggest check in preventing one person from holding absolute power was to give every citizen a chance to hold power— even if it was only for a day. In ancient Athens, all free citizens, from the richest to the poorest, could be called up for duty at any time. Elections to every office were kept simple— through a lottery drawing. No empty campaign speeches, no spending obscene sums of money, no nasty attack ads on your opponent. If your name was drawn, you were expected to serve your term, with pay of course.


Athenian democracy made certain that every citizen got a chance to get down and dirty in the arena of politics. Through a lottery drawing Athenians could be called to serve in the legislature (known as the Boule), or as jurors to decide a criminal case. Your qualifications, fancy law degree, or experience didn’t matter. The only professionals that the ancient Athenians seem to respect were the Rhetors, the ones who had the talent for making a good speech.


The most important office in Athens was the Boule which had the responsibility of deciding which laws would go before the people for a final vote. Like all offices, any citizen could be chosen to the Boule. But the Athenians did put one restriction on membership; you had to be a citizen in “good standing”. The Athenians didn’t want a bunch of criminals creating the laws.  Hmmm, perhaps we should try this.


The Boule was made up of 500 citizens who met daily. To prevent any one person from gaining too much power the leadership of the Boule was constantly rotating with one member being chosen to the highest position for only a single day. The Athenians also placed term limits of one year of service to prevent career politicians.Once you served your term you were barred from serving for a minimum of ten years.


The Boule was democratic in that any member could propose a law to the Boule that would be debated. If the proposal passed the Boule it would be sent on to the Pnyx (the Assembly) made up of 6000 citizens who would vote the law up or down. The Assembly could not vote on any law that had not first cleared the Boule. Think about the last time you were allowed to stand up in Congress and freely speak your mind.


“Electing” the Assembly was done a bit differently than in the Boule. It would be insane to hold a lottery every day for 6000 people. Therefore, the first 6000 to show up at Pnyx were considered to be the lucky winners. The Greeks also had a solution to deal with those election dodgers too. In the event that 6000 people couldn’t be found, soldiers were sent into the marketplace with a red rope to round up as many as were needed to make the quota.


The Athenian legal system worked much the same way as the Boule and Pnyx. There were no judges or lawyers. Just a panel of your peers who decided your fate. Their massive size, the trial of Socrates had 501 jurors, could be overwhelming but it prevented bribery and smooth-talking lawyers from swaying justice. Anyone could file a charge against anyone else. The burden of proof being on the accuser to prove that what they said was true.


Without a fancy lawyer to do your talking for you, the accuser served as his own prosecutor. His job was to convince the jury that his argument was better than the defendants. The stakes were high. For you as well as the guy on trial. If you lost, meaning the defendant was found not-guilty you would have to pay a hefty fine. 


Preventing Corruption


Athenians were fiercely proud of their government and looked down on monarchies and aristocracies like that of Sparta. Not only did democracy promote equality but it promoted peace. In the long-run, the city-states with democracies were far more harmonious than those of their non-democratic neighbors. The class warfare that had once defined life in Athens was ended by giving power to even the poorest of citizens. In the bad old days when the aristocrats ruled things the rights of the poor were trampled on so severely that revolutions and civil wars were common. In an aristocracy, the rich used their power to make laws that benefitted only themselves. In a democracy, the people had to look out for each other. After all, you are not likely to abuse your neighbors if you knew they were going to be the ones holding power the next year.


But some people make the mistake that democracy is majority rule. That isn’t democracy. If you don’t respect the rights of the minority what you have is a tyranny of the majority. The Athenians had an answer for preventing the tyranny of majority too. Those ancient Greeks thought of everything!


Any Athenian citizen could bring an accusation against his fellow man. In the Boule, if you were suspected of bringing an illegal law to the floor, you could be called out for it in a process known as graphe paranomon (an indictment for violating the law). Any citizen could block a proposal in the Boule by making an accusation of graphe paranomon. The case went to trial to have a jury decide the matter. Like other court cases, if you were found guilty you would pay a fine. If your accuser was found to be lying, they would be punished.  This prevented people from filing frivolous lawsuits.


There was one final check against the abuse of power. Once a citizen left office his records and conduct would be put through rigorous scrutiny in a process known as euthunai, which literally means ‘setting things straight’. If you were accused of abusing your power or cooking the books you could be brought to court to stand trial. Also, if your fellow citizens thought that power was getting to your head they could vote to banish you from the city for a period of ten years. This is where we get the concept of ostracism. 


Hey, Nobody's Perfect 


But Greek democracy was far from perfect. Like most modern democracies, it didn’t represent everyone. Non-citizens were expected to pay taxes but were not allowed to participate in politics. Women too were thought too simple to participate in politics. Well-born Athenian women were expected to keep their mouths shut and faces hidden inside their homes. With the exception of Sparta, most Greek women had little power and no voice.


Athenians, like the British and Americans, were a bit hypocritical in their democracy. While they were proclaiming the greatness of their democracy, they also kept slaves. Greek slaves were gained as captives in war and were made to do the dirtiest jobs like servants and working in the silver mines. Like women, they had no power, status, or voice. Although unlike women, a male slave could buy or win his freedom although he would never be considered a full citizen.


The Athenians were pretty selective on who they considered citizens. You had to be a freeborn male whose parents had both been Athenians. That meant that out of a population of about 250,000, only 40,000 men got to participate in politics. Because the numbers were kept small, direct democracy in Athens worked like a charm (except for a short-lived revolt in 411 by the aristocrats) for almost 300 years. That is until the Macedonians swept down the Greek Peninsula, crushing every city-state that stood in the way. At first, the Macedonians tolerated limited democracy. But those Greeks wouldn’t give up on their hope of regaining their freedom. Greek democracy died when they rose up in revolt against Alexander the Great. After Alexander came the Romans, then the Byzantines, then the Ottomans. Greece wouldn’t see another democratic government for over 2,500 years.   


For centuries, people used the failure of Athenian democracy as a reason why democracy couldn't work. They argued that like communism and all-you-can-eat buffets, democracy was a nice theory but could never work in the "real world". 


But the lesson here is that democracy did work--and for longer than it has in the United States and France. Democracy isn't perfect and if you want it to succeed it takes massive amounts of effort. Democracy is not set in stone but is a work in progress. People are sometimes left out and must fight for their rights. These struggles are what makes democracy strong. 

"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."
Winston Churchill

Voting was done by disks. Everyone was given two disks, identical from the top to ensure a secret ballot. One disk had the word no and the other yes. 

Athenians came up with a pretty powerful check on abuse of power: Ostracism. Which gets its name from the type of pottery (Ostraka). Names of the guy you wanted ostracized would be written on the shards. In this case the unlucky guy is Aristeides the son of Lysimachus. If your name came up enough times then you would be banished for ten years. 

Alexander the Democracy Crusher?

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