Experiments in Democracy

Years ago, probably in civics class, I was taught that the old Greeks (actually the old Athenians) developed democracy.  As I grew older, and read more, I realized that the Athenians didn’t so much develop democracy as they looked for a better form of government than the empires around them – Egypt, the Hittites, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Persia, etc. had.  Since those neighbors seemed to be ruled by god-kings, plunging into democracy seemed like a good idea.

Now the Athenians didn’t just look at elections – around 508 BC, they decided to turn over all of their governmental functions to one man – a guy by the name of Cleisthenes.  Cleisthenes set up what seems to be experiments in democracy.  He established the council of 500 – a group which became the main legislative body of the state.  Here’s the kick – the members of the council of 500 weren’t elected to the office.  Instead, they were selected, kind of like back when we had the draft lottery, or like we get with jury duty, but back then they hadn’t developed many ways to dodge the draft, or to get out of jury duty.

Instead of an elective, representative democracy, Cleisthenes set up an actual democracy – the random selection process gave every citizen an equal chance to serve on the council.  The way it worked out, every Athenian was likely to serve twice on the council of 500 in his lifetime (remember, women weren’t citizens in Athens – the pronoun is correct).

Still Cleisthenes did include an election – it was just a bit of a different sort of an election.  Once a year, Athenians voted for the man they wanted out of the city.  If more than 6,000 votes were cast, the “winner” would be exiled from Athens for the next 10 years – if he came back to town before ten years, he was to be executed.

This election, called an ostracism, had each vote cast on a broken piece of pottery called an ostrakon.   Since, at the end of the election, all of the ostrakons were gathered up and dumped in a hole, we have pretty good evidence that the ballots were stuffed and the elections were rigged, even in those early days of democracy.

So I got to thinking – our technology allows us to handle this without even needing to break any pots.  Real Clear Politics has worked it all out for us – though this only lists eight politicians, we can easily see that Nancy Pelosi and Mitt Romney still merit inclusion on the list.

Favorability Ratings: U.S. Political Leaders

Joe Biden41.551.7-10.2
Donald Trump38.055.1-17.1
Ron DeSantis43.838.6+5.2
Kamala Harris39.051.0-12.0
Kevin McCarthy24.738.7-14.0
Hakeem Jeffries25.524.8+0.7
Chuck Schumer26.839.2-12.4
Mitch McConnell20.252.0-31.8

So, just glancing at the unfavorable column, on the first year, Donald Trump would win ten years of ostracism.  The second year, Mitch McConnell.  On year 3, Joe Biden would get his ten years of ostracism.  Then Kamala Harris would get her ten years out of the country. 

I can see how the founding fathers missed putting this into the constitution – getting the data together took a lot of time back then.  But I suspect politics was every bit as divisive – I’ve read about Adams and Jefferson. 

Cleisthenes’ Council of 500 just might be applicable to the US – draw 435 names at random to serve in the house, 101 in the senate (the vice-president chairs it) and send 536 unwilling draftees to Washington DC to run the government for the next year.  Since the statistical likelihood of even one serving 2 years back to back approaches zero, we just build a dormitory for each drafted legislator, and pay each at the median US salary.

After all – democracy is an attempt at achieving better government – and shear randomness may work a lot better than raising funds for elections . . . and then, if we’re going to have election chicanery anyway, we might just as well save our elections for ostracizing unpopular politicians.

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