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ATHENIAN GREEKS AND US – CONTRASTS IN DEMOCRACY

July 7, 2016

ATHENIAN GREEKS AND US – CONTRASTS IN DEMOCRACY

I have been an admirer of Athenian democracy and democracy generally since taking my first college course in political science (my minor to an economics major). I am even a greater admirer today, and just a few nights ago I saw a PBS special on democracy which stoked my pro-democratic fires even further.

The special gave us a thumbnail sketch of Greek and other histories of the period in which democracy came upon the scene, noting that it lasted only 179 years before Athens fell into military subjugation. With our recent celebration of our country’s accession to democracy set at 240 years, we have had 61 more years of democratic rule than Athens enjoyed, though our real accession to democracy did not begin, in my opinion, until 1789, after our British overlords had been banished for good and our founding fathers had banished the (states’ rights heavy) Articles of Confederation in favor of a federated constitutional republic. They wisely concluded that the world had had enough of royal and dictatorial rule where those who govern are not responsible to the citizens they are governing, a conclusion straight out of the Athenian democratic playbook, which in its day was the first ever system that called for self-government by citizens, or democracy. Up until then nobody had ever heard of such a form of government.

By contrast, we in this country today are not likely to fall anytime soon to military defeat. As I have recently blogged, our democracy is as of now more threatened by forces from within than those from without, and I refer specifically to the nihilistic libertarian views held by those of great wealth  in this country who are currently buying our politics and our economy in broad daylight, and our democracy along with it.

Democracy’s effects as adopted in Athens included an explosion in the arts and architecture, well-attended plays, sports events, the advent of philosophy etc., as the populace’s ideas and expressions were freed from royal oversight and convention. Innovation soared. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the great thinkers of the day (Socrates is said to have originated philosophy), fed the burst of new thinking.

Indeed Aristotle, perhaps the greatest, was recruited to mentor the non-Athenian Alexander the Great, who succeeded his assassinated father and proceeded to conquer the then-known world, and while he died at age 33 (some say 32), his contribution to non-military history was great as well. He built the  great library at Alexandria, for instance, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and I strongly suspect without knowing that Aristotle had a strong hand in recommending its construction to the young general, who had no new worlds to conquer.

Today some Republican politicians are marveling about how a know-nothing Trump has “tapped into” a hitherto unknown swath of the voting public, as an internet contributor has noted. However, what he has tapped into is what the Founders most feared when they established the democratic republic, i.e., the popular passions unleashed, the “mobocracy.”

Conservatives for years have been warning that government is suffocating liberty, but here is the other threat to liberty that Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about, to wit: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run over the very institutions that were created to preserve their freedoms! Hamilton, for instance, while watching the French Revolution unfold, voiced the fear that what he saw playing out in France (the unleashing of popular passions) could happen here, and that such unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to mob rule and dictatorship.

He and the ancients were right, and in our case today, such views could translate into how fascism comes to America, i.e., not by military subjugation by a fascist dictator (see Hitler) or political intrigue or civic decline but rather as a prelude to an inside job, insidious in character, by wealthy libertarians bent on buying our politics and our economy, which inevitably means loss of our democracy. It amounts to a bloodless (I hope) takeover not by sword or bomb but by purchase cloaked in fuzzy concepts of “free market” economics, capitalism, the acquisitive instinct, and other such propaganda which we are told give such people superior rights to the rest of us in governing ourselves. That was not the case in ancient Athens (where the rich and commoners rubbed shoulders at the agora), and should not be the case here and now (if we are living in a real and not pretended democracy).

So how important is our democracy in practice as opposed to a pretended adherence to democratic principles by those who seek to undermine it? In my opinion, just this: That without democracy there is no good reason to even have a country. Fascism can come to America under many cloaks; it can come through military subjugation; it can come through general decline of society in its morals and loss of civic energy; or it can come through purchase of its government and its economy.

We can learn much from the wisdom of the ancients, the Federalist Papers and mistakes in governing made and not made in this and other countries which led to their decline or accession, as the case may be, but the one conclusion I have arrived at for present purposes is this: That democracy is our most important asset and is to be robustly defended against all comers, including the military, those of great wealth and anyone else who would (under whatever guise) take it away from us. Our democracy, as I often write, was gifted to us by the sacrifices of blood-soaked patriots, and is one of the last few things left worth dying for.

So are rich libertarians the equivalent of Hitler as measured by their intent to remove our democracy with their purchase of our politics and our economy? You be the judge.      GERALD      E

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