This being an election year it’s an appropriate time to think about our wonderful democracy, its origins, great powers, rewards and its problems.
Christopher Janus
I have written this column with the help of the excellent reference department of the Wilmette Public Library and lengthy discussions with Professor John N. Kalaras, the president’s educational adviser and UNESCO’s 1999 Professor of the Year.
The word "democracy" combines the elements of demos, which means people, and kratos, which means power. In the words "monarchy" and "oligarchy" the special element arche means rule, leading or being first. It is possible that the term "democracy" was coined by its detractors who rejected the possibility of, so to speak, a valid "demarchy."
Whatever the original tone, the term was adopted wholeheartedly by the Athenian people, where democracy was invented and flourished five centuries B.C. So, if we go back to the etymology of the word democracy we have:
Demos = people; kratos = power. In other words, the people have the power.
The question we need to ask is: In today’s democracies, around the world and in our beautiful U.S.A., do the "people" have the power?
Does today’s democracy function the same way as it did in Greece during the golden century of Athens? The answer is rather obvious, no.
What are some of the differences?
As concerned citizens we shouldn’t only look into the differences but also explore why. What could some of the reasons be? Does the population size play a role in the effective functionality of democracy?
Every political system relates "directly" to an economic system. For instance democracy = capitalism, communism = totalitarian and so on.
Could the economic system have an impact on democracy?
In a capitalistic system you have a choice and freedom; in a democratic system you have a choice and freedom. You have a choice and the freedom to purchase or not to purchase something. You also have the choice and freedom to vote or not to vote for someone. Are such choices and freedoms executed rationally, equitably?
If you ask an average person about the selection and election of our political representatives, he or she will tell you that indeed we apply a democratic process. Do we really? I don’t think so. If we go back to the initial etymology of the word democracy, which was "the people have the power to make the decision," I have strong reason to believe that it isn’t so. The average citizen looks only at the end of the process and says: "I have a choice, I can vote for whomever I want; I can vote Republican, I can vote Democrat or even independent. I have a choice."
What they don’t really understand is that the "presumed" choice is dictated to them. Here is what they are missing.
In a pure democratic system the people take part in the selection of their representatives. And once they are selected, they go to the "people" for the final vote.
What we have in a "democracy" is that such initial selection is always made by a group of people, the Democratic caucus or the Republican caucus. Therefore, a. select group, whose motives I would question, "selects and appoints" the representatives they want you to "approve" by voting for them. Is that "selection and appointment" democratic? How much input do the "people" have in this? None. The "party" decides who will run.
However, one may argue that every qualifying citizen has the right to run for office, any office.
Theoretically, this is correct. Practically, it’s almost impossible.
Along with the issues I present here, have you ever thought how much money it takes to run for a high offices such as the office of the U.S. Senate, office of the governor or any such office? It takes millions of dollars; usually $10 million to $15 million and, in some cases, even more.
Now, here is a simple thought. A senator gets paid approximately $200,000 per year. And so does a governor. They are elected for five to six years, so, in the best case scenario, they will make in the form of salary $1.2 million.
Now the critical and unexplain-able question: Why would anyone spend more than $10 million dollars to make $1 million in salary over five to six years? If nothing else, this should raise some ethical questions. Of course, you will argue that the $10 million to $15 million spent by each candidate isn’t their own money, it’s raised by the people. Is it really "the people" or possibly "special interest" groups such as lobbyists?
And if it is "special interest" groups, why do such groups con-tribute-invest such big money? Is it always because they like the candidate or because they expect some preferential treatment?
So much for the problems of democracy.
In conclusion, following is an account of the developments and the future of ancient history in Greece where it all started.
Athenian democracy developed in the Greek city-state of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica around 500 B.C. Athens was one of the very first known democracies. Other Greek cities set up democracies, most but not all of them following an Athenian model but none were as powerful or as stable (or as well documented) as that of Athens.
It remains a unique and intriguing experiment in direct democracy where the people did not elect representatives to vote on their behalf but voted on legislation and executive bills in their own right. Participation was by no means open but the in-group of participants was constituted with no reference to economic class and they participated on a scale that was truly phenomenal. The public opinion of voters was remarkably influenced by the political satire performed by the comic poets at the theaters.
Solon (594 B.C.), Cleisthenes (509 B.C.), and Ephialtes of Athens (462 B.C.) all contributed to the development of Athenian democracy. Historians differ on which of them was responsible for which institutions, and which of them most represented a truly democratic movement. It is most usual to date Athenian democracy from Clesthenes, since Solon’s constitution fell and was replaced by the tyranny of Peisistratus, whereas Ephialtes received Cleisthene’s constitution relatively peacefully. Hipparchus, the brother of the tyrant Hippias, was killed by Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who were subsequently honored by the Athenians for their alleged restoration of Athenian freedom.
The greatest and longest-lasting democratic leader was Pericles; after his death, Athenian democracy was twice briefly interrupted by oligarchic revolution toward the end of the Peloponnesian War. It was modified somewhat after it was restored under Eucleides; the most detailed accounts are of the fourth-century modification rather than the Periclean system. It was suppressed by the Macedonians in 322 B.C. The Athenian institutions later revived, but the extent to which they were a real democracy is debatable.
Christopher Xenopoulos Janus is the founder and publisher of Greek Heritage, The American Quarterly of Greek Culture. He has written many articles and books, including "The World of Christopher Xenopoulos Janus" (2008).