The First Democracy

It’s Election Day in America. It’s time to head to the polls, exercise our franchise, and foolishly hope that the results will be accepted by all and will quash the bitterness that seems to accumulate, election after election, at every point on the political spectrum.

We’ve got the ancient Athenians to thank for all of this, of course. To be sure, during the ancient tribal times there might have been an election or two among members of the tribe to choose a new leader–although the strongest or cleverest member of the clan might have had something to say about that–but the Greeks were the first group to institutionalize democracy as a mechanism to govern a political state, at some time during the fifth century B.C.E. The Greeks believed that all citizens (a category limited to adult males that excluded women, children, and slaves) should participate in governance of the state. The word “democracy” comes from the combination of the Greek words demos (the people) and kratos (rule). Citizens had the ability to serve in an assembly and vote on new laws.

So, were the Greek elections friendly exercises that were less negative than our modern American version? Not really. In fact, the Athenians had a formal process called ostracism–the basis for the modern word “ostracize”–that allowed voters to vote to expel leaders from the city-state for 10 years, and they could do it for dishonesty, misrule, or just general dislike. (Imagine if the modern American system had such a process!) And the Greeks (and Romans, too) weren’t shy about attempting assassination of tyrants, either.

In reality, democracy, either in its pure or republican form, has always been a bit messy, with heated feelings, negativity, and vigorous denunciations of purported tyrants and fools–but it sure is a lot better than the authoritarian alternatives. Today, I hope Americans of every political persuasion get out and vote, so the demos can kratos.