Sunday, November 26, 2000

Democracy Goes Out With A Wimper

As GW Bush is named 43rd President of the United States, it would appear that democracy is in some trouble.

We don't much care that he lost the popular vote. If the Electoral College was good enough for Imperial Rome, it's good enough for America.

Nor are we concerned that Governor Jeb, who happens to be the son of an ex-CIA chief, delivered Florida for his brother. It's nice to know folks can still depend on family when the going gets tough.

No, it's worse than that. What's got our knickers in a knot is that we can't seem to remember the day before yesterday, and are thereby doomed to repeat. Doomed to repeat. That's how history is.

The title for World's Longest Running Democracy, of course, goes to Athens, which threw in the towel after a mere 280 years. This has the normally optimistic staff of Classics Corner wondering whether we perhaps might be due.

When democracy collapsed in Greece, no one really much noticed. It was unspectacular. The wealthy just became more and more central, until one day, well, they were back in charge. Of course, the rituals of democracy persisted in a most reassuring manner. Citizens continued to gather and vote, officials were elected, and democracy was celebrated long after it had in fact ceased to exist.

The rise and fall of Athenian democracy is story that begs to be told.

As ordinary people in the ancient world accumulated wealth, the wellborn began to lose control. The first challenges came from fellow aristocrats, who found that power over their peers could be had by playing to the people. These proto-Perot's were some of early antiquity's more enlightened rulers, and beginning about 700 BC, opened the road to democracy. By around 550, the people had gained enough power to approximate the real thing.

By the Fifth Century, all of Athens' free male citizens had a direct vote in the affairs of government, and they seemed to like it. Of course, all this rabid democracy rested upon empire and slavery, but that's another story for another day.

Just when things were going well, the Peloponnesian war broke out, and democrats and oligarchs did their best to do each other in for more than 28 years. Through a series of stupid but democratic decisions, Athens lost. There were several bloody attempts to restore oligarchy, but the people prevailed and democracy was restored.
Alexander the Great, who conquered most of the ancient world, was a big fan of formal democracy, but the real thing soon vanished.

When democracy worked, a balance of power had been maintained by soaking the rich to support the arts and the military. After Alexander, this became voluntary. The kings, posing as democrats, bolstered the power of the rich. The wealthy gained in power, and deployed their assets to suit their own interests. Before long, only the wealthy held major political office. Average people could still speak, but money talked much louder.

Yet, they still called it democracy. They always will.