Peace and Justice Files

Of the people, by the people, for the people

By SKIP MENDLER
Posted 9/21/21

I figure it must have been a very hot day in the Athenian Agora, twenty-five hundred years ago or so. Guys in togas hanging out under some shade trees, trying to stay cool, and discussing the state …

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Peace and Justice Files

Of the people, by the people, for the people

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I figure it must have been a very hot day in the Athenian Agora, twenty-five hundred years ago or so. Guys in togas hanging out under some shade trees, trying to stay cool, and discussing the state of things… like, for example, who should be running the government?

Aristos, a wealthy merchant, has some very clear opinions. “It’s obvious,” he says. “There are those of us who have better minds, better education, and more resources. We know what’s going on in the world, we are wise and benevolent, we alone can be trusted to manage the affairs of the state competently. The rest of you simply don’t have the ability to govern yourselves.”

“That’s a load of Minotaur kaka,” says Demos. He’s a big, burly stonemason, and he’s had a bit of wine. “You’re no better than I am. I’ve seen you drunk, buddy—you can make selfish, stupid decisions just like anyone else. All Athenians should be able to share the responsibilities of governing—and the rewards!”

“Hey, what about us?” says Xenos, an immigrant from Syria. “Athens attracts people from all over the world. We have rights too! We work here, we contribute, we obey the laws—our voices are also important!”

Stratos, a military officer from Sparta, laughs in contempt. “You Athenians. So soft. You need the discipline of the army. Strength! Power! And the willingness to use them ruthlessly! That is the key to ruling!”

As the discussion goes on, Plutos, the banker, listens intently “Hmmm,” he thinks to himself. “If I play this right, I could make a fortune…”

This is, of course, a grotesquely oversimplified version of a discussion that has been going on for centuries, and not just in the West. Is democracy—“government of the people, by the people, for the people,” to use Lincoln’s famous formulation—even possible, much less desirable? Or should we ordinary folks just let the rich and powerful call the shots? And if democracy is the goal, what measures should we take to achieve it—and maintain it?

The answers aren’t as straightforward as one might imagine. For many in my generation, which was raised on a narrative that painted the world as a vast struggle between American “democracy” vs. Soviet/Red Chinese/Communist “totalitarianism,” it may seem a strange question indeed to even question the value of democracy—but it turns out that not all people, not even all Americans, think that way. Certain interests are troubled, it seems, by the prospect of being held to account, and of citizens successfully demanding increased regulation and taxation of their businesses—and are therefore doing their level best to cripple and dismantle America’s democratic institutions.

These thoughts are prompted by the recent laudatory visit—one might say pilgrimage—of FOX News headliner Tucker Carlson to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Quite a few commentators (see for example this article in the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/why-conservatives-around-the-world-have-embraced-hungarys-viktor-orban) have noted how Orbán’s protofascist rule—antipluralistic, pseudo-religious, and repressive of dissent—seems to embody and exemplify the worldview and desires of many in the American conservative movement.

The next three years, including the 2022 and 2024 election cycles, will determine whether they succeed. Those of us who believe in greater democracy have an awful lot of work to do.

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