“…if people are given a choice to vote for a politician who says something will be costly and difficult, or a politician who says, ‘Trust me this is the path to wealth and greatness,’ they will go for the promise…, and not the prudence….”
Long Now Boston Conversation April 5, 2018
A little over a year ago, Long Now Boston held a conversation on Athenian history and democracy featuring Professor Lauren Samons II of Boston University. Given the debates taking place in our country today, it is worth reviewing the key findings from that prescient talk. Below are some notes on the talk, followed (in italics) with my own added commentary.
Why Did Athens Fall?
Athens was a small city-state that faced significant challenges from powerful neighbors including Persia. Bonded together by a culture that honored the commitment of its citizens to worship the Gods, honor their parents, pay their taxes and serve their country, the Athenians were able to defeat the Persian army and become the defender of the (nearby) world.
This must have been what the American colonists felt like — to face a much larger enemy at impossible odds, and to win! Two centuries later, the United States had indeed become the dominant world power, and the defender of freedom and democracy for all (at least in the minds of many.
The less powerful Greek states were glad, for a while, to pay tribute to the Athenians for their services, and Athenian democracy became a model of fair governance, at least for its citizens if not its slaves. However, as the threats faded for Athens, and the tribute continued to roll in, a sense of privilege and entitlement grew and the culture of virtue faded. Pericles, as a populist, was able to capitalize on those changes and rose to power under the banner of greatness, and partly on the proposal to pay citizens for their services, first as jurors, and, later, for voting.
This reminds me of a recent claim that was made that we needed to build a wall between the US and Mexico – and make the Mexicans pay for it. It sounded good, and the politician was elected. Yet the claim was always a complete fraud. Who did the Athenians think was going to pay for the benefits they were voting themselves? And yes, the USA is paying for the wall.
The tributes to Athens from its neighboring cities, ostensibly held for future contingencies, were re-deployed to the building of grand monuments, temples and gold statues for the Gods, with the full support of the Athenians. Pericles later escalated the conflicts with neighbor Sparta, resulting in the Peloponnesian Wars. To pay for the war, the citizens of Athens invented sovereign debt by voting to borrow gold from the statues of Athena. The debt was never repaid.
Read the full blog post here: The Fate of Democracy USA | Spiral Inquiry