(This is one issue of a subseries; see U.S. vs. Democracy for a list of all issues in the subseries.)
What is called the Athenian Democracy began about 2500 years ago, and endured in various forms for around four centuries. Sometimes it was more, sometimes less, democratic. The four hundred, more or less, years of its existence, were punctuated by times when Athens ruled by the aristocracy or outsiders or others, but there were during this time almost continual struggles by some to bring power to the people. There were wars, with victories and defeats. There were times of prosperity and times of economic difficulty. There was constant political skirmishing, but some form of democracy was almost always present. Democracy didn’t simply “exist”, because someone always wanted to take it away from the people, and it must continually be defended. Usually, the greatest threat was from within: from the wealthy or the otherwise powerful, but sometimes the danger was from the outside.
The beginnings of the Athenian Democracy trace back even further, to Solon, who lived about 2600 years ago. At the time, most of the people were effectively enslaved to the aristocracy, but the aristocracy itself had its own problems, mostly in the form of economic, regional, clan, and ideological rivalries. Solon instituted constitutional reforms that required the various interest groups to work together. There is no one point at which Athens became democratic, but after a century or so of challenges to the power of the aristocracy, the institutions created by Solon evolved into something recognizable as a democracy. It was never complete or perfect: for example, there was no time when there were not slaves, who were unable to participate in the institutions, and women, of course, were always second (or lower) class members of society.
The democracy even survived, at least initially, the conquest by Rome around 2200 years ago, although much of the power was transferred to the Roman Empire. For example, Roman appointees came to manage the treasury. There was a brief war against Rome (Athens lost) after a tyrant seized power from the democracy, but the Romans restored the old government after their victory. Eventually, under Augustus (about 2000 years ago), the democracy was replaced by a Roman-style government, with a Senate.
One of Solon’s descendants was the philosopher Plato, who lived about 2400 years ago. He founded one of the first – if not the first – institutions of higher learning in the Western world, his Academy. Plato wrote widely on a great number of topics, and his work is considered one of the foundations of Western civilization. One of his students, in turn, was Aristotle, who expanded on Plato’s works. (Although, it must be noted, Plato and Aristotle didn’t always agree on everything.) Some of Aristotle’s teachings dominated Western scholarship for over two thousand years. Sadly, most of Aristotle’s works have been lost.
Among Aristotle’s writings was Politics, written around 350 BCE. In that book he considered various forms of governance, including democracies, oligarchies, monarchies, and tyranny. He wrote:
The basis of a democratic state is liberty; which, according to the common opinion of men, can only be enjoyed in such a state; this they affirm to be the great end of every democracy. One principle of liberty is for all to rule and be ruled in turn, and indeed democratic justice is the application of numerical not proportionate equality; whence it follows that the majority must be supreme, and that whatever the majority approve must be the end and the just. Every citizen, it is said, must have equality, and therefore in a democracy the poor have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme. This, then, is one note of liberty which all democrats affirm to be the principle of their state. Another is that a man should live as he likes. This, they say, is the privilege of a freeman, since, on the other hand, not to live as a man likes is the mark of a slave. This is the second characteristic of democracy, whence has arisen the claim of men to be ruled by none, if possible, or, if this is impossible, to rule and be ruled in turns; and so it contributes to the freedom based upon equality.
Before continuing, I emphasize that Aristotle isn’t the only authority, and he wasn’t correct in all things. In fact, he didn’t believe that democracy was always the best form of government. I quote him here because he was, over 2300 years ago, only stating the obvious, and we seem to have forgotten the obvious.
Many are accustomed to using the word, democracy, as if it were the current form of government, not only in the U.S., but also in other countries with elections and representatives. Democracy is, of course, a relative thing: it is possible to have more or less of it. However, Aristotle has given us a test to determine if, indeed, a government is or is not substantially a democracy: Do the poor have more power than the rich? Clearly, that is not the case in almost any government of the world today. In other words, there are no democracies, including the U.S. In this series of articles, I will show that, in the case of the United States, this is by design. (You can draw your own inferences regarding other so-called “representative democracies”; I’m going to limit my topic.)
It’s important to get the terminology right, because we can’t have a meaningful discussion about things unless we have a proper understanding of the words we use. For example, when a person – especially one such as a politician – says that we already have a democracy, then there is an implication, since most of us value “democracy”, that things can’t be improved. That dishonest use of the word tends to close off discussion.
Going back to Aristotle, he didn’t have a simplistic notion of politics and governance. He understood that there were various kinds of democracies, and of other kinds of governments, and he recognized that they came with hazards. For instance, there was a danger that, in a democracy, the poor – who had most of the power – would take from the rich; he didn’t think that was a good thing. He discussed various mechanisms and structures to minimize this and other hazards. He had a concept of the balance of powers, so that neither the rich nor the poor had excessive power over the other, and he talked about ways to effect such balances. He discussed term limits, alternative constitutions, payment for jury duty and other civic participation, and even talked about several kinds of welfare systems for the poor. I will go into these things, along with a couple thousand years of thought since his time, in future issues. We aren’t taught about these things, but we need to know that there has been a conversation going on for over two thousand years about them, because, as citizens, we ought to be participating in that conversation. They weren’t simply invented in 1776 by a bunch of rich, white guys at a meeting in Philadelphia. But first, I’m going to jump to the few years before the current United States Constitution, to anchor the discussion at another point.
Immediately after the American Revolutionary War of 1776 to 1781, the current United States Constitution had not yet been written. The U.S. was governed by the Articles of Confederation from their ratification in 1781, which provided a weak union with no tax base to pay off the debts incurred during the War. In 1787, a new Constitution was drafted, but ratification was required by the States. Special State conventions were called. and New York was one of the states with the strongest opposition. To argue for ratification in and by New York, three supporters (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay) of ratification wrote and published a series of 85 essays, collectively called the Federalist, in support of ratification. (Later these essays came to be called the Federalist Papers.)
In Federalist Number 10, James Madison explains that the new government proposed by the Constitution was not a democracy. He explained the disadvantages of democracies, and argued that a democracy would be a bad idea. Madison called the proposed government a “republic”, in contrast. The word, republic, is somewhat more ambiguous than the word, democracy: there is a greater variety in the way republics are formed than in the constitution of democracies. However, Madison explained his terms, and his arguments were reasonable. Federalist Number 10 is an excellent document explaining some of the thinking behind the proposed Constitution. What is important to note, here, however, is that even the founders did not consider the proposed United States government to be a democracy.
Madison had a concept of balancing powers which different from the balancing mechanisms understood by Aristotle. Whereas Aristotle wrote about balancing the power of the wealthy against the power of the poor, Madison wrote more about balancing local interests against national interests, and about the power of the government as a whole to act as a check against the ambitions of a few. It is clear from other writings that Madison was also concerned about disparities in wealth, but he saw the problem differently from the way it was envisioned by Aristotle. This well be expounded later in this series.
Finally, researchers have in the past few years done studies to measure, in some senses, the extent to which the U.S. is or is not, in fact a democracy. The methodologies involve consideration of public attitudes and opinions on various issues over decades of time, weighing them against the actions and policies in fact taken by the government. These variables were reduced to numbers, and statistical correlations were computed. The conclusions have been that the government, in practice, implements the choices and wishes of a small fraction of the people, the wealthy and elite, over the opposing concerns of the rest of the population. In other words, the government is responsive to a few, but not to the majority. The U.S. is not, in practice, a democracy, despite the trappings of elections and representatives. These studies have concluded that the U.S. is an oligarchy, a government of a few of the most powerful, and, when there is a conflict, it ignores the wishes of most of the people.
I have presented three reasons to conclude that the U.S. is not now, nor was it intended to be, a democracy. In the next few articles, I will explain some of the reasons that, despite the franchise being extended to more and more of the people, the de facto power of the people has been steadily eroded since the founding of this Republic.
Thursday 2017.05.11 — Replaced introduction with link to page listing all members of this subseries.
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