Are Americans now the losers,
compared to Athenians who established democracy 2500 years ago?

At present in America we have a complicated, time-consuming and very expensive system to elect our representatives who will then govern us. Does this system give us the best possible representation in terms of competency and integrity? Perhaps not. What if, instead, we simply picked our representatives at random from the telephone book? Or the Voters' Roll? At first glance this is crazy.
And it
is, isn't it? Or is it?

Ancient Athens is considered to be the "Cradle of Democracy" and all modern democrats are proud to be "continuing the democratic tradition". But are they? An Athenian time-traveler transported to modern America would find almost nothing in common between Athenian democracy and the American system. What is more, he wouldn't be impressed. Certainly a step or two above rule by a king or an aristocracy, but a long slide back from the fuller democracy of those ancient Greeks. When they established their democracy 2500 years ago, they had already gone through rule by kings and nobles (as America did with King George and the House of Lords) and then, with election from among the rich and influential (as America has with the Rockefellers, Kennedys, Babbits, and others).

Athenians, through a series of accidents of history, developed what they regarded as democracy. The word they coined was, and now seems again, downright radical, once you look at the political concepts behind it. The Greek word demokratia is a marriage of demos , the people, and krateein, power or rule. The citizen was paramount and participated directly in all matters appertaining to the running of the State.

The Athenian Assembly was at the top, and was the final voice on all matters. It consisted of all voters who wanted to attend, and sat from dawn to dusk forty times per year. The Council of 500 was the Executive and Administrative body. It supervised and coordinated the running of government. It also set the agenda and wrote the bills for debate and passage in the Assembly. It consisted of 500 members selected by lot from voters 30 years old or older who put their names
down for the one year full-time term.

The old practice of selecting a representative by election was not totally thrown out, but seems to have been regarded with deep suspicion, and only used when they absolutely had to have someone with certain skills and abilities, such as a general, an architect, or a ship designer, but always with a committee of 10 or so voters selected by lot overseeing and reporting to the Council of 500.

The legal system had magistrates, some of whom were elected, but most, selected by lot. Also, every year 6,000 jury members were selected by lot. They did not serve on just one case as now but on all cases throughout their one-year term as needed. The number was not fixed, but varied from 10 to more than 1000 on important cases.

Perhaps they didn't get everything quite right even for their time and place but they got enough right and there was enough flex to change with changing circumstances so that their civilization with all its arts and sciences flourished for 200 years until events, in the form of Alexander the Great, who is renowned for his conquests, but not his love of democracy, overcame them.

Not all of Athenian democracy is applicable in the USA and other "modern" democracies today, but let's look at its fundamental principles to see if we can answer two questions ~

1) Have we moved away from the original meaning of democracy?

2) If we have moved away, is our "modern democracy" progressive or regressive?

Athenian Democratic Principles:
The Citizen was paramount. He voted on all matters.
The Citizen participated directly in all matters appertaining to the running of the State.
USA Today (or anywhere that calls itself a Democracy):
In theory, the Citizen in still paramount, but in reality this is only true at the moment of casting the ballot. The London Times bluntly summed up the reality of modern democracies on election day 1997, by writing, "On this day politicians .... are our servants not our masters."
After election day, the Citizen reverts to being a supplicant when it comes to the running of the state. ("Write your Congressman!")
Today, citizens' direct participation is limited to "Yes" or "No" on the few (if any) Referendum or Initiative questions put to them. Otherwise, citizens are limited to indirect involvement in state matters: promoting a candidate, voting for him, and then, when he is in, trying to "lobby" him into voting the way the citizen wants.

Power of the people, or power of the PAC?

To sum up the state of our "modern democracies", we have ended up with a minimal (or sometimes no) direct Citizen involvement and therefore with representatives whose decisions are primarily based, not on the good of the electorate, but on staying up on the greasy pole of power .

Democracy might be an old principle, but it isn't old-fashioned. Around the world, those without it, actively wish they had this best form of government.

They, and we (whose democracy is eroding) just need to find the means to achieve it.

"Democracy is the best social system. There is no such thing as a Western or Eastern system as long as it's best for the people." Wei Jung Shei, Chinese Democracy activist, 30 December, 1998

So how do we win Democracy back?

We need a democracy that involves the citizen in the democratic process itself, to make sure that legislation is in the public interest, and not the private domain of those with better access.And we need good leadership, for representative democracy to act with foresight, public spirit, and courage, rather than just to stay in power.

So we need a political reform that is a harmonization and balance between direct democracy and representative democracy, to get the best out of both.

We believe that the Ratifiers system achieves these ends. The "Body of Ratifiers" is appropriate for democratic systems around the world, and is not culturally restricted to any one country. To visit our example of how the Ratifiers would work in the USA, visit Ratifiers for Democracy at:

Ratifiers for Democracy

We invite your comments:

democsay at
ratifiers for democracy
dot net

© Ratifiers for Democracy January 1999