Keep Dreaming Democracy: Lessons from ancient Athens on practicing democracy today
We believe reading is a civic duty. The titles getting the spotlight in our #CitizensRead Book Club make their own case for what we can accomplish by reading together.
For one of our first books, we chose Paul Woodruff’s book First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea. While turning the pages of this easy read, we revisited the origin story of self-rule and evaluated our commitments.
Recognizing Democracy’s Doubles
In the first chapter, Woodruff outlines the danger of accepting democracy’s “doubles,” those forms that require too little and offer less. He helps readers get to know democracy again through its earliest proponents and its critics. Insight comes quickly. Most of what we promote as democracy today doesn’t measure up, and that failure has consequences.
This democratic literacy serves a counter force against dark moments when people “turn nasty,” thinking:
…their government is failing them. In anger or fear, they may look for solutions outside of democracy, perhaps in the firm hand of a tyrant, more likely these days in techniques for manipulating voters and deliberations.
This perceived failure makes division the norm and tyranny easy to justify. We begin to understand society as winners and losers. This outcome also relates to the very first imposter, one that we know well.
Woodruff names three doubles — voting, majority rule, and elected representatives. None of these practices say much about democracy without further inquiry. Manipulating the system makes it possible to disconnect voters from deciding what appears on the ballot. A winning majority clears the path and escapes the bounds of the rule of law.
And the tyranny of the majority kills freedom as dead as any other form of tyranny. It’s not freedom if you have to join the majority in order to feel you are free.
Woodruff offers readers two channels for knowing true democracy and how it stands apart from its doubles. We can turn to the work of its defenders, looking for the ideas they celebrated, but we don’t them as well as we know the critics. As for them, Woodruff suggests we look at the ideas they most condemned.
With these two approaches, he identifies seven ideas that make democracy possible.
The first three appear in all ancient theories of good government. Democracy separates itself from other forms of government through the four remaining ideas of natural equality, citizen wisdom, reasoning without knowledge, and education. Each idea that made the list carries its own demands and difficulties. To practice democracy you encounter questions with each combination and permutation of these seven ideas.
Generating democratic questions and evaluating the answers
The practice of democracy requires resisting some answers while adopting others and fashioning those answers into a harmonious system. Flaws, fissures, and failures happen. Democracy does not aim to solve these problems. You can assess commitment to democratic principles in seeing how people respond to these crises.
In the remaining chapters, Woodruff works through the seven ideas of democracy to show how ancient Athens used these challenges to continue developing their democratic practices. They failed at times. They also succeeded in giving the world a model that we aspire to achieve. Their work, as Woodruff presents it, reveals the shortcomings of today’s democratic regimes.
In First Democracy, Woodruff explains that these difficulties make democracy worthwhile. He never argues that democracy is the best system of government. Staying true to his chosen topic, Woodruff practices transparency and offers the criteria in play throughout the text:
In truth, the idea of democracy served the Athenians far better than the Athenians served democracy. Yes, democracy is hard to achieve; yes, it is impossible to make perfect. But democracy is not a utopian ideal, because it takes human imperfections into account better than any other ideal of government.
The stories in the chapters ahead give each of the seven ideas their time in the spotlight. Freedom from tyranny, harmony, and the rule of law will be the focus of our next post. They represent the questions of good government and often seem ancient and intensely relevant at the same time.
Experiences from ancient Athens show that there are no fixed answers to the questions that vex a democratic people. To have the best solution on any single question invites failure on others. The claim that we practice democracy requires this tension. It’s this tension that gives us each “the freedom to exercise our greatest capacities” while also protecting us “from our own worst tendencies.” Democracy is good for us even when we fall short.
Like Athens, democracy might serve us better in those moments of conflict than we would serve ourselves or our democratic principles. We recommend reading First Democracy even if you get no further than this reminder of the human condition: we all have these “greatest capacities” and “worst tendencies.” While reading First Democracy, you will find a long list of questions to ask about our politics today.
Fortunately, you will also find a system for evaluating the answers. You will even understand that these questions and the answers we accept tell us everything we need to know about the state of democracy today.
Thanks for reading. We, of course, would love a “clap” here, but also suspect you really enjoy good questions. Sign up for our Questions of Civic Proportions email and let’s keep thinking together.