Like many Baby Boomers, I recently had a colonoscopy. This week our republic is enduring a similar procedure. What the full cleanse will reveal is not clear, but one hopes at least for a return to normal function, with few lingering after-effects. The impeachment prosecution of Donald J. Trump has been justified as essential to the defense of “democracy,” understood as government in the hands of “the people,” against a would-be king or autocrat. In classical Greece, so often cited as the seedbed of democracy, tyrants were pretty common: the name initially meant little more than a party leader, often one sprung “from the fringe of the aristocracy,” whose rise to the top was resented by the established political elite. A tyrant might gain support “in the name of the oppressed,” but he usually did it by relying on family ties or fanning existing social grievances. Sound familiar? The predictable denouement of impeachment is depressing at best. Do we yearn for a better outcome than constitutional constipation? I suggest reviving the Greek practice of ostracism.
As it happens, Athens, the “birthplace of democracy,” was not the birthplace of American democracy. The popular image of toga-clad candidates vying for office in hotly contested elections belongs to our other classical forbear, Rome. Athenians were less concerned with how you got power than how you exercised it. Adult citizens (only free-born males–the US managed to sidestep this issue for quite a while) were chosen for jobs by lot rather than being elected. When duty called, they were expected to serve a year-long term in one of the assemblies and also to serve on juries, whose members might number in the hundreds. Thus “the people” shouldered the responsibility of governing, like it or not. In general, citizens voted for laws not leaders.
The influence of demagogues–another Greek word–came to be seen as illegitimate, especially by their political rivals. And Athens embraced a means of restoring what was seen as a proper democratic balance: ostracism. Each year, the male citizens were invited to gather and cast a ballot in secret, naming an individual who should be sent into exile for ten years. If 6,000 votes were registered–this was about 12%-20% of the total possible–then the politician receiving the most was ‘ostracized’. The name for the custom comes from the ostrakon, or potsherd, on which the voter scratched the name of his special un-favorite.
What a difference having ostracism as political tool could make now! The circumstances of the present case positively beg for it. For example, there are 100 members of the jury; not as big as the one that convicted Socrates, but it will do. How many of the current elite, if given the chance to vote in secret, might in fact favor sending the incumbent on a ten-year vacation? He would have to leave the country, of course, but exile to, say, Trump Turnberry, can hardly be construed as harsh (except maybe to the Scots). Moreover, it turns out that the principal charge against Trump, “abuse of power,” was the practical definition of “tyranny” in classical Greece. Removing this one person might not only placate Democrats who have staked their future on “restoring democracy” but also liberate those many Republicans who would like to discuss actual ideas for a change. Alternatively, Speaker Pelosi or Leader McConnell might top the poll.
Ostracism was Athens’ collective way of saying “we made a mistake” and, at least potentially, remedying it. As such, it presents an option worth considering for today’s America. But, one might argue, such action would “undo an election,” and therefore negate the key distinction between Greek democracy and ours–the citizen’s voice at the ballot box. Leave aside the debate over foreign interference in our elections, there is already sufficient question about the process of Congressional redistricting and the all-encompassing power of money to lessen one’s confidence in the sacred ballot. Operating on its own terms, the Electoral College perverted the result of “democracy”–Trump lost the popular vote.
Still, elections are what we’re used to in Anglo-America. Even when they don’t provide a solution to political gridlock–Brexit has passed, at last, but who would argue the issue is resolved?–they do provide a touchstone of popular involvement. And it must be admitted that ostracism, however attractive it might appear, was not foolproof. In 416 B.C., two Athenian pols figured out how to game the system. After ginning up hostility towards a third man, the hapless Hyperbolos, and getting him voted out, they happily returned to attacking each other. The result was politics as usual, and in a disastrous context: the long-running Peloponnesian War against Sparta. Failure to end this conflict after it had dragged on for fifteen years allowed it to reignite, eventually bringing Athens under Spartan rule and Macedonian conquest. The Golden Age was over.
So, my fellow citizens, gear up for a trying year to come. The election of 2020 might just afford an affirmative answer to the challenge posed long ago by Benjamin Franklin. As one retiring Congressman poignantly reminded us, in his parting shot against Trump, the USA was founded not as a democracy but as “a republic, if you can keep it.” For this Boomer, that would be enough.