Guarding Democracy

September 24, 2008

Democracies serve the will of the people. But without ceaseless vigilance, democracies can start serving the will of the few who are willing to turn them into something else. Putins can subordinate the will of the people to their own, and then convince them that they like it. Mugabes can embezzle their very mandate. Bushes can succeed Bushes and Gandhis can follow Gandhis to the throne. Democracies can be possessed by lobbyists, governments turned into funnels for personal fortune. But worst of all, democracies can cease to function at all. Legislation can be smothered by partisan bickering, the greater good can be sacrificed in favor of parochial myopia, democracy itself held hostage by pernicious politics.

The ancient Athenians used an astonishing last resort to guard their nascent democracy against such threats. If a politician came to wield too much power, started taking the people for granted, or became just too big for his boots, the Athenians could call for a special referendum on the errant leader. If two opposing leaders or factions paralyzed the work of government by ceasing to cooperate and compromise, the Athenians would hold the same special referendum on both, to break the deadlock.

On the appointed day, Athenian voters would head to the voting pens set up in their city square, the Agora. Next to the pens they would find stacks of pottery shards known as ostraka, which served as their ballots. Voters would take a shard of pottery and scratch the name of a candidate on its undecorated side, frequently including rude drawings of the candidate and other pithy commentary. They would then throw the shard into the waiting ostraka pen, with election officials watching closely to ensure they didn’t cheat by voting again.

If the citizens had voted to break a governmental logjam, the leader who lost would find himself banished from Athens for a period of 10 years. It was better for the government to do something, the citizens felt, than to do nothing at all. If the citizens had voted on a politician who had become too powerful, or a politician they were just plain sick of, he too could be banished from the Athens for 10 years. The Athenians strongly believed that a little time away from home would take care of the excessive influence, the cults of personality.

In this way, Athenians used the power of their ostraka to ostracize their fellow citizens at annually held ostracisms. Ostracism, they felt, could help restore and protect their democracy. They were only partially right. For although banished and excluded from direct involvement in the democracy, the rich and the powerful lost neither their wealth nor their networks of influence. The state did not confiscate any wealth or property, nor discriminate against the ostracized politician’s family in any way. The rich remained rich and could exercise their power, albeit weakened, at a distance.