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.

The Women’s March

Today is one of those days when Facebook really serves a purpose.

Take a look at your Facebook page this morning, as I did mine.  You’ll probably see photos of some of your Facebook friends and family members out marching yesterday.  In Washington, D.C., Cleveland, San Antonio, California, and many other places across the country, women, and men, were out expressing their views, wearing their knit caps and serving notice to the new Administration that they would be watching.

womens-march-on-cleveland-8601595cb6a134a9It was an impressive display, and it makes a powerful statement about the strength of participatory democracy in our country.  When hundreds of thousands of people get off their duffs on a weekend and go out to protest, it shows they care in a way that a phone call or sending a form letter to a Senator or Representative can’t really express.  And speaking as someone who served my time working in a Congressman’s office in Washington, D.C., the politicians will take notice of this display, and think about what it means and how it should affect what they do going forward.

Regardless of our political views, we should all applaud this kind of exercise, where the ordinary people of the land see fit to act.  Our governmental system depends on people voting, of course, but it also depends on people actually paying attention — watching our elected representatives, learning about what they are doing, and holding them accountable when they err or stray.  We should all worry when the people are too bored, or apathetic, or trusting to keep track of the politicos.  Similarly, the news media doesn’t do its job when it’s too cozy with the inside-the-Beltway bigwigs and becomes a willing participant in the government’s desired messaging.

In the first days of his Administration, Donald Trump has already accomplished something important that he may well not appreciate:  he’s gotten people engaged, pro and con, in a way that simply didn’t exist before.  It’s a good thing.

Long Lines In Ohio

When I got to my voting place at the Schiller Park Rec Center today, I found the longest line I’ve ever seen at a voting place.  This is just the end of it — inside it winds around the corridors of the building like a line for an amusement park ride, where you find a new section of line just as you think you’re getting to the the end.  Total wait time is estimated at 45 minutes to an hour — but everyone is waiting patiently and with good humor.

This is my first presidential election at this voting place, so I can’t make a turnout comparison to past election.  I can say that it makes me feel good to see so many people exercising their franchise, even in an election like this one.  Democracy is a wonderful thing!

Government By Referendum

Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has shocked the world and rocked the stock markets.  Any American who has a 401(k) retirement account has felt the ripple effects — which shows that, Brexit or not, the world remains a pretty interconnected place.  (Incidentally, is anyone else tired of hearing the word “Brexit”?  It’s such a clumsy, awkward construct for a really significant issue.)

In the wake of the Brexit vote, the Washington Post carried an interesting article questioning whether a popular referendum was the best way to decide whether Great Britain should remain in the EU.  The article noted, for example, that some voters regretted their votes as mistakes and that some of the promises made in the weeks leading up to the vote turned out to be false.  The Post article has been mocked by some people as suggesting that the Post, and the liberal elites, harbor deep anti-democratic impulses and an innate fear of an active, engaged electorate.

That’s not quite fair.  There has long been a vigorous debate about precisely how governments should be structured to allow people to exercise their democratic rights.  Those who remember their civics class will remember that the American Constitution was the product of a lively debate in which the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, were adopted to provide checks on what the will of the majority could inflict on the minority. Determining public policy by popular referendum became commonplace only in the 20th century — and my guess is that, in many states, the shackles and unintended consequences imposed by broad, often poorly worded “propositions” often end up being regretted by many of the voters who supported them in the first place.

This is not to stake out a position on whether the decision to exit the EU was good or bad for Great Britain, only to note that it’s entirely legitimate to question whether a complicated issue, having so many ramifications that can’t be fully captured by electoral sloganeering, is something that should be resolved by a popular referendum.  I imagine the American Founding Fathers would have had a very vigorous debate about that question.

Remembering Tiananmen Square

Sometimes, a simple gesture breaks through the jaded shell of our cynical world and touches a nerve.  So it was, I think, with the lone Chinese protester who bravely faced down a column of tanks in Tienanmen Square, 23 years ago.

Unfortunately, not every such gesture produces immediate results.  Today is the anniversary of the Chinese government crackdown on the pro-democracy protesters at Tienanmen Square — a crackdown that reportedly resulted in hundreds of Chinese civilian deaths — and the Chinese government commemorated the occasion with a mini-crackdown of sorts.  Some activists were arrested, others were placed under increased surveillance, and searches on social media sites that could produce information about the Tienanmen Square protests were restricted.

These actions demonstrate that, whatever China is right now, it is not a free and open society where citizens are able to do and think and speak as they please.  To that extent, the Tienanmen Square protests failed.  But people remember, and memory can be a powerful force.  The recollection of the hopeless courage of those protesters, coupled with the increased interaction with other nations that is the result of China’s increasingly capitalist economy, may yet gradually move China away from totalitarianism and toward democracy and freedom.

As an ancient Chinese saying goes:  “The oxen are slow, but the earth is patient.”