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Haupt’s Commentary: Athenian Direct Democracy, Our Failed Legacy

“To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers.” ~L. L’Amour

“In a democracy there is, first, that most splendid of virtues, equality before the law.”  This was written by Greek historian Herodotus in 450 BC as he was describing the very unusual form of government that Athenian leader Cleisthenes had invented in 507 BC: “Direct Democracy.”

Greek Parthenon (Shutterstock Image)

Greek Parthenon (Shutterstock Image)

Long before Cleisthenes, Athens was ruled by groups of magistrates called Archons and Areopagus. The members of these committees were generally aristocrats, who ruled the city-states to only satisfy their needs. There was continual unrest amongst the Athenians and countless failed insurgencies.

By 621 BC, Draco, obviously a distant relative of Saddam Hussein, codified a set of notoriously harsh laws that were so unforgiving that even fellow aristocrats rebelled. Today, Draco’s laws are called “draconian,” a term coined after this heinous ancient ruler.

And the only person in history who ever agreed with Draco was Hussein when he proclaimed “Death is the solution to all problems.” (Illustrating how “draconian” Hussein was, during his trial, one Iraqi political leader said “Saddam deserves as many executions as mass grave victims.”)

After Draco’s failed holocaust, Solon, the mediator, came to the rescue of the battle weary Greeks. He reshaped traditional aristocracy and redefined citizenship which allowed every resident the right to participate in the meetings of the assembly. Under these reforms the position of Archon was granted to all property owners while the Areopagus remained guardians of the laws.

Solomon is credited with this major contribution to democracy for setting up the Ecclesia or Assembly, which entitled all citizens to engage in the political process in the Greek city-states. This set the stage for Cleisthenes who established the world’s first real democracy and the Golden Age of Athens that followed in the 5th Century BC, changing the world forever.

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” ~Pericles

This was a system of political reforms that were called demokratia, “rule by the people.” This employed first separation of powers which was comprised of three institutions: the ekklesia, a sovereign legislative body that wrote laws and dictated policy; the boule, an assembly of delegates from the Athenian tribes; and the dikasteria, the people’s courts a place where ordinary citizens argued cases before a group of juryman chosen by lottery.

This was unique indeed, since “Democracy allows men to advance because of merit instead of wealth or inherited class.” (Thucydides)

Statue of Pericles (Shutterstock Image)

Statue of Pericles (Shutterstock Image)

Unfortunately this government only lasted two centuries. After the Spartan’s conquest over Athens in 404 BC, they reformed Athenian democracy. Sparta claimed their form of government had too much citizen influence.

But they acknowledged that a moderate form of democracy would be preferable to any other form of government since the people had been used to participating in democratic rule and would not act favorably if this changed.

And this new government was widely accepted and quickly spread to a number of other leading city-states, despite the authoritarian grip of Sparta on the Greek world. The Spartans realized that “He who becomes a Prince through the favor of the people should always keep on good terms with them.” (Niccolò Machiavelli)

However, Sparta’s dominance was not to last. In 371 BC they where conquered at the hands of the Thebans. And, what had seemed to be the perfect form of government vanished quicker than the US Constitution can be violated by Congress!

But Cleisthenes’ gift of direct democracy was one of the greatest and most enduring contributions to the modern world! It changed history! Years later Pericles, recalled, “It is true that we Athenians are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not the few, with equal justice to all alike in their private disputes.”

Another tremendously important and often overlooked ingredient in the Athenian equation was limited government. Since these Greek “polises” were city-states, there was only one level of government to support. Therefore there was only one system to navigate. And that one assembly was your chance to control your own fate and destiny. Although this was often criticized by political historians as disingenuous for certain minority groups, it did indeed simplify the legislative process for the majority.

“It is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive.” ~Earl Warren

The Athenians taught us that democracy is efficient. When everyone in the country had a seat at the legislative table, they occupied it daily. After years of oppressive rule under Draco, when they were given the opportunity to engage freely in making and amending laws they showed up. They took the time and willingly participated to assure that their voices were heard in the assembly halls!

John Adams stated, “A Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.” And they were aware of the consequences if they failed to participate in the legislative process. They had everything to gain and everything to lose.

James Madison (Shutterstock Image)

James Madison (Shutterstock Image)

James Madison admitted the imperfections in American representative government: “The defining principle of American democracy, as compared to Athenian democracy, “lies in the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity.”

He feared that a government of representatives would promote apathy and non compliance since it moved our citizens too far away from the everyday affairs of government. And throughout our young history this has become more prevalent with each passing year. “[Our form of] Democracy is the most vile form of government.” (James Madison)

The American version of limited representative government has been inadequate. It has enriched and empowered certain specific persons and groups, but that success has failed in remaining limited.

And now the citizens have become complacent and accept this as a matter of fact. They feel they have no voice or power to influence government any longer and have sat idly by and watched this failure. It they vote at all it is out of habit or shame. Obviously “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” (Winston Churchill)

There is only one remaining ingredient left in our democracy that has any resemblance to what our great Greek forefathers bestowed upon us: the initiative and referendum.

That is the only direct government left in America today. Yet what once was a driving force in American politics is fading faster than President Obama can pass an executive order! Citizens who once used this process to pass meaningful legislation that was impossible to get accomplished at any level of government have become disinterested and complacent. We are no longer a “government of, by and for the people”. (Abraham Lincoln) We are a government of politicians, for the politicians not the people.

Samuel Adams stated “There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” But Athenian democracy did not fail due to apathy. It failed because it was unable to share its benefits with the surrounding world and maintain allies to protect it.

This is yet another lesson we can learn from our Greek forefathers. We must not only take charge of our destiny here in our Motherland, we must protect it from the conundrum of foreign influence. What happens in America does not stay in America. “Our form of government is called a democracy because it does not imitate the laws of neighboring states. On the contrary, we are rather a model to all others.” (Pericles)

Or are we?

William Haupt III

William Haupt III is a retired professional journalist, citizen legislator in California for 40 plus years, and author. He got his start working to approve prop 13.

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