Ancient Greeks could teach us a thing or two about democracy

by Karen Topakian

On a recent trip to Greece, I once again became enamored with the political system they developed and codified 2,500 years ago. Democracy. Literally. It means people power.

Of course not all people were included in their newly developed form of governance. Only male citizens of double descent need apply. (Both mother and father had to be Athenians) No women. No foreigners. Certainly no slaves could enter this closed society. But for those who passed the test, they could reap the benefits.

Let’s look at what their democracy had to offer.

In 508 B.C, when Cleisthenes instituted democracy in Athens, he formed Council of Five Hundred, which planned the business of the public assemblies. All male citizens over the age of 30 could serve for two one-year terms in a lifetime. This allowed all citizens to participate in a direct political experience. This rule he thought would guard against citizens conspiring to abolish the system.

What a novel idea. No opportunity for professional politicians. Everyone gets a chance to serve. Sound like a good idea?

The Council seemed to act as public administrators because they “scrutinized the qualifications of officials and the allocation of funds. They looked after the construction of docks and surveyed public buildings. They collected rent on public land and oversaw the redistribution of confiscated property. Members of the Council were also responsible for examining the horses of the cavalry, administering state pensions and receiving foreign delegations. In other words, the Council was responsible for the smooth running of the daily operations of the Athenian city-state.”

Here’s another feature of their democracy that we should try.

Ostracism.

A reverse election, whereby citizens could vote to exile a politician for 10 years. At least 6,000 citizens had to vote to oust the politician for the vote to be valid.

Imagine voting someone out of office not just in. I don’t know about you but I’ve got a short list in my head right now.

A third feature of their system that might be worth emulating: providing government subsidies to poor people for their attendance at theatrical performances and festivals. These indirect payments by the state not only subsidized the poor but also built audiences and supported the arts.

See anything here you like?

Comments

  1. Thanks for reminding us of possibilities to work toward — an important antidote to the amount of “working against” that often feels so necessary.

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