Tag Archives: Athens

Is Participatory Democracy Possible?

When I was in City Hall, a very long time ago, I had a discussion with John Sweezy that made an indelible impression on me. John  was then the Republican County Chair (and a man who regularly reminded his “troops” that “good government is good politics” Times were different then, and so was the GOP.). I was complaining that a local political gadfly didn’t have a clue how government worked or was supposed to work.

John said he’d long thought that citizens should be required to work for government for at least two years–and prohibited from working in government for more than four. Long enough to understand the challenges and realities, but not long enough to become part of the problem.

I might quibble with the time limits or the implicit lack of appreciation for expertise, but I thought then–and think now–that John was on to something.

That long-ago conversation came to mind when I read a recent article in Aeon, arguing that democracies fail when they ask too little of their citizens.

Modern states are plagued by the problem of ‘rational ignorance’. The chance that any individual’s vote will make a difference is so vanishingly small that it would be irrational for anyone to bother taking a serious interest in the issues and candidates. And so, many people don’t – and then fall for implausible rhetoric. In this way, democracy has come to mean little more than electing politicians on the basis of their promises, then watching them fail to keep them.

This was not the case in the Athens of two and a half thousand years ago. Then, democracy – rule by the people – meant active participation in the running of the state, if not continually, then at least periodically throughout one’s life. As Aristotle put it: ‘to rule and be ruled in turn.’ This participation was a right but also a responsibility. It was intended not only to create a better state, but to create better citizens: engagement in the political process was an education in the soberingly complex realities of decision-making.

The author noted that (male) citizens were expected to serve not only in the army and on juries, as is the case with some modern states, but also to attend the main decision-making assembly in person.  Some public offices were elected, but many others were selected by lottery. He acknowledged the vast differences between ancient Athens and today’s governments, but argued that we should nevertheless seek ways to make our government “radically participatory.”

For example: legislative bodies could be wholly or partially selected by lottery. Even better might be separate assemblies summoned to review each proposed new law or area of government. This would hugely increase the number of people involved in the legislative system. The ancient Athenians managed exactly this; today, digital technology would make it even easier.

I’m dubious. But on the other hand, the way we choose our Representatives and Senators clearly isn’t working. (Ted Cruz’s old college roommate was recently quoted saying that picking a president at random out of the phone book would be preferable to a Cruz presidency, and everything I’ve ever heard about Cruz suggests he’s right.)

Even a cursory look at the House of Representatives suggests we could hardly do worse than we’re doing now….

Lottery, anyone?