United States Of Common Sense


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Remembering the Meaning of Democracy

In 508 BC, Cleisthenes, an Athenian nobleman, overthrew the existing political order of that Greek city state and instituted an entirely new form of government. It was called demokratia, literally "people's rule", and it was exactly what the name implied. In place of the previous system of hereditary autocratic rule was now substituted the direct rule of the citizenry.

A council of Five Hundred was created. This body ran the state from day to day and also framed the issues, which would be presented to the Assembly for decision. All male citizens over the age of thirty were permitted to serve one year terms on the Council, and no one was allowed to serve more than two terms in a lifetime.

The Athenian calendar year lasted ten months. Each month, fifty of the 500 men in the council, called prytany, were selected to actually administer the functioning of the state. Each day from the 500 was selected a different man to be the prutaneis, or president, who was the overall administrative chief of the city. All members of the Council were selected by lot as was the prutaneis. Campaigning was impossible. Selection was a matter of random chance.

Each male citizen was also automatically a member of the Assembly, which met four times a month on the Pnyx, a hill in Athens. It is estimated that when major issues were discussed as many as 6000 citizens crowded together on the hill to listen to debates and to vote on matters before the Assembly. Matters were decided by a show of hands of all assembled.

It was expected of all adult male Athenian citizens that they would participate vigorously in the democratic life of the city. They would hold office. They would vote. When necessary they would speak publicly. Amongst Athenians, those citizens who did not speak and who did not hold public office were, in fact, known as idiotai or, in its more familiar Anglicized form, idiots.

It has been 2500 years since the Athenians created their demokratia. A great deal has been lost in that time.

I live in the Fifth Congressional District of Maryland. My Congressman is Steny Hoyer. Mr. Hoyer was born in 1939. He was first elected to public office in 1966, 45 years ago at the age of 27. My two United States Senators are Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin. Senator Mikulski was born in 1936. She was first elected to public office in 1971, 40 years ago at the age of 35. Senator Cardin was born in 1943. He was first elected to public office in 1967, 44 years ago at the age of 24.

I do not know any of these individuals personally. I will give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they have the best interests of their constituents in mind and that they genuinely believe in public service. It does not matter. The point remains the same. This is the very definition of a permanent class of politicians, apart from the citizenry and, after decades in office, with little or no connection to it. On the Pnyx shopkeepers and tavern owners sat on stone steps next to aristocrats and warriors and debated the issues of the day. Now our government is controlled by a self-perpetuating class of individuals whose only purpose in life is to hold office.

Increasingly we wrestle with the problem of a government unresponsive to our needs and incapable of tackling the massive problems our nation faces. It is no wonder. We no longer have a government of the people, by the people and for the people, as Lincoln so aptly put it. A system based on the idea that we, the people, are the government, has devolved into one in which power has been usurped by a small subset of society focused not on our needs but on its own.

This class of permanent politicians is kept in place by virtue of a system of campaign finance and political parties that is designed, not to address our problems, but to maintain the status quo and to perpetuate political careers. Breaking into politics and gaining office requires massive financial resources and the ability to navigate election laws and registration procedures that are specifically designed to discourage the creation of new political entities. The bulk of the population is virtually walled out of participation in the political life of the republic.

In Maryland, in order to even be placed on the ballot a party other than the two principal parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, must collect 10,000 signatures on a petition. Those signatures must then be reviewed and accepted by the Board of Elections. In practice, a huge percentage of the signatures submitted on such petitions are routinely judged "invalid". When the Maryland Green Party recently submitted a petition with 14,886 signatures on it, for example, only 5,905 of them were accepted by the State of Maryland. The remainder were disregarded, 1,977 because the signatures were considered illegible, 2,164 for a variety of technical reasons and 6,817 because the signatures did not match exactly the way in which the voter's name was recorded on the state's voting rolls. The Green Party was consequently stripped of its status as a recognized party and its candidates barred from inclusion on ballots in the State of Maryland.

The amount of money spent on modern American political campaigns is almost unfathomable. Barack Obama has already raised $86,215,580 for his reelection campaign. His principal Republican rival, Mitt Romney, still seeking the nomination, has a war chest of $32,212,389. Even my local Congressman, Steny Hoyer, is awash in cash. Mr. Hoyer has raised $1,729,729 in preparation for his upcoming attempt to be elected to the House of Representatives for a 15th term.

It is next to impossible for an average citizen to navigate the thicket of procedural requirements to become a candidate and then compete head to head with opponents who can spend millions on advertising and organization. We have, in short, lost control over our democracy. What began thousands of years ago as a raucous, unruly and glorious exercise in direct democracy has devolved into a system in which career politicians hold office for life and the average citizen grumbles about the situation but feels incapable of doing anything of substance to take power back into his own hands.

How bad our situation has become is demonstrated by the current field of contenders for the office of President. In the entire group, there is only one individual, Buddy Roemer, who is even talking about the need for campaign finance reform. Only Roemer, who will not accept a donation larger than $100, dares address the screaming necessity to get money out of politics and put the people back into it. The remainder of the candidates appears content to roll in their piles of Super PAC money and sell their souls to the highest bidder.

We ought not to overly idealize Athenian democracy, of course. Those 6000 citizens on the Pnyx were all men. Women were excluded. And the voting citizenry did not include the significant numbers of slaves who existed within Athenian citizenry. Still, we would do well to face head on the extent to which we have neglected the legacy those ancient Greeks gave us, and we should be brave enough to answer the obvious questions. Will we allow the status quo to continue or we will we force change? It is our government; will we take it back? If not, are we all now idiotai?

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:29 PM EST | More details


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