Monday, April 18, 2011

Towards an Athenian Democracy in America

Author's Note: When I was in graduate school (yes, hard to believe, I know; in anthropology, thank you very much!), whenever I read a paper that began with the word "toward," I knew full well that we were never, ever going to get there. The final destination so tantalizingly described in the title would continue to exist, just over the horizon. But we were going to head that way anyway, damn it.  Warp speed, Mr. Sulu! With that in mind, I lay at your feet this humble proposal and welcome your discussion of what I hope could be an exciting journey. Enjoy!

I've been thinking about Athenian Democracy for quite awhile, ever since the expansion of the Internet to a broad spectrum of citizens in The United States.  What is fundamentally broken in our political system in the United States is the failure of our elected representatives to follow the true will of the People.  A great difficulty, as I see it, is the time it takes to replace elected officials (2 years for Representatives, 4 years for Presidents and 6(!) years for Senators). These times are far too long for this modern world.  Our problem isn't term limits, but term lengths!

Back in 1800, when information traveled at the speed of horseback, longer terms were necessary. The deliberative process took longer, access to accurate and timely information was restricted by time and distance.  But today, this simply breeds an institutional contempt for the People whose only recourse in a non-parliamentary system, is a recall.  And the corruption of money from business, concentrated on a few hundred, mostly rich, white men, means that the People's work isn't getting done.

What was Athenian Democracy?
The School of Athens, by Rafael
Athenian Democracy was a political system that originated in... wait for it... Athens!  It was back in 508 BC that the Athenians embarked on an experiment in direct democracy that would last until 322 BC when the Macedonians, an external force, eliminated it.

In the United States, a Constitutional Republic, we practice some small forms of direct democracy. For instance, the proposition system in California allows direct democratic voting on important legislation.  Recall elections of officials deemed to be in violation of their commitments is another.

The Athenian government consisted of three principal institutions: The Assembly of the Demos, the Council of 500 and the People's Court (no, Judge Wapner did not preside).  There were other elements to help with the administration of the legal system, but these were the three principal components.  The Council of the Areopagus, the Archons and the Generals also served functions in the government.  Finally, legislation involved both the Assembly and the Council of 500 and various ad hoc boards of "Lawmakers."

Within the Athenian democratic system, not everyone had a vote (women & slaves for instance), but nearly everyone was entitled to speak on any issue.
It was with such conduct as this in view that the lawgiver expressly prescribed who were to address the assembly, and who were not to be permitted to speak before the people. He does not exclude from the platform the man whose ancestors have not held a general's office, nor even the man who earns his daily bread by working at a trade; nay, these men he most heartily welcomes, and for this reason he repeats again and again the invitation, “Who wishes to address the assembly?” (Aeschines, 1:27)
This open invitation to address the assembly was the defining characteristic of the Athenian Democratic system. Every man had this right to make his voice and his views heard on a wide variety of issues.

There were rules of order. In Athens, people over 50 were entitled to speak first on issues.
After the purifying sacrifice has been carried round1 and the herald has offered the traditional prayers, the presiding officers are commanded to declare to be next in order the discussion of matters pertaining to the national religion, the reception of heralds and ambassadors, and the discussion of secular matters.2 The herald then asks, “Who of those above fifty years of age wishes to address the assembly?” When all these have spoken, he then invites any other Athenian to speak who wishes (provided such privileges belongs to him).(Aeschines, 1:23)
These rules of order existed to ensure that the wisest and most knowledgeable people would have first say in any issue and through their wisdom, frame the debate.  But these two elements, universal participation in direct democracy and an set of ordering rules to manage chaos are sufficient for our discussion here.  For more very detailed information about Athenian Democracy, I encourage you to consult Christopher Blackwell's excellent article Athenian Democracy: A Brief Overview.

Internet Access in The United States

Now that we have a foundation in Classical Athenian government, let's move forward 2500 years to the present day and review the state of Internet connectivity in America because this will become a key part of our discussion on how to implement an Athenian Democracy in America.

Certainly Internet access in America is not universal, but it is broadly available. Other countries have surpassed us in the breadth of their distribution of high-speed Internet service to their citizens.  In the United State, the figure is about 77% penetration. By contrast, Norway has over 90% penetration, Denmark, 86%, Sweden, 93% and Iceland with a whopping 97% penetration (note: these are all countries with strong social democracies).  Access consists of dial-up, broadband, WiFi hotspots, and smart phones. There are Internet cafes, libraries have public Internet access. It's hard to find a corner of the US where you can't get some form of Internet access in one form or another. 

The distribution tends to be skewed to urban rather than rural populations.  Obviously there is a socioeconomic component to this question.  Older Americans, poor Americans and minorities are disproportionately underrepresented in the Internet space. Why am I starting with a discussion of the Internet in an posting about Athenian Democracy? Because I believe the time has come for a radical reorganization of the way America is governed.  We need to leverage technology that the Founding Fathers couldn't possibly imagine to remake our nation as a true Democracy instead of the corrupt Republic that it has become.

Athenian Democracy in the Information Age

Now we come to the heart of the matter: Is it possible to conduct an Athenian Democracy in the information age utilizing technologies that facilitate the recreation of the Assembly, the Council of 500 and the People's Court?

It is my belief that not only is this possible, it is essential if America is to survive past the 21st century. We need to work diligently to eliminate indirect representative government in The United States and replace it with an Internet powered Assembly.  This is not as crazy as you might think.

Today, millions of people use and rely on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.  It's a short step to take this technology and turn it into a new old form of democracy.

There is a small movement on the Internet called e-Democracy which seeks to explore the use of the Internet in the direct democracy process.

Imagine citizens engaged directly in the business of determining the direction of their government. Participation would be voluntary, of course, and people could choose the issues or policies that they care about most and contribute to those.

I don't have the answers, but I welcome discussion as to the pros and (multitudinous) cons of the idea that Americans can manage their own affairs without the intermediary of a system of representation.

The masses can be set free!


  1. Let's ignore the more obvious issue of logistics here, because frankly that's the most uninteresting aspect of this idea.

    In a true Athenian democracy, rather than a republic like we have now, how does one institute checks and balances to safeguard the rights and interests of the minorities from being over-ruled by the majority?
    I mean of course, we have this issue even in our present form of government, that not all have truly equal rights or equal opportunity, but there seems, to me anyway, a greater risk of majority rule at the expense of minorities.

    Of course the obvious problem would be how to ensure accuracy and legitimacy of votes, especially via electronic forum without a paper trail, but assuming that weren't an issue, what would it mean for a society to do it's governance online...?

    Would it mean giving up the concept of town hall meetings, and the exposure to the humanity behind opposing views that that (should) engender?

    Would citizens really WANT to be that engaged, if it were made optional without some radical upheaval in the way citizens view government...? Granted, an institutional change in this way I think would have to be seen as so huge that it would require a dramatic restructuring of government ANYWAY... But I still wonder about the level of engagement. If engagement even in a supposedly "true democracy" is only 40%-- is that really better than a representative government?

    And what would it mean for people if their experience with participating in government were distilled down so dehumanized and surreal an act as clicking the "like" button on Facebook?

  2. The question of the "tyranny of the majority" is certainly the toughest issue to resolve in any direct democracy. But can we learn from the checks and balances in the existing republican system we have now? For instance, the filibuster and supermajority in the senate ensure that it takes much more than a simple majority to pass legislation. Something similar could be implemented for certain bills.

    The biggest struggle I see in this system is the need for an executive branch of some sort. Would that be elected parliamentary style so that, if need be, it could be recalled easily? I don't know how to resolve the question of what an executive branch would look like in this form.

    As for participation, it is my contention that current levels of discontent stem precisely from the sources I outline above, principally that the current system does not really serve the needs of the people. Representative government stopped representing people as soon as corporations turned into persons.

    This fantasy of mine is also predicated on an electorate that is interested in determining the direction of the country, beyond what's on TV tonight or who won the NASCAR race on Sunday. It is a transformation that would take a century to accomplish (at least) primarily because it has to grow from the bottom up. The advocates of such as system must establish small victories in cities and towns to prove that it is possible to move beyond representative government.