Democracy: Greece vs America

The question raised in this section of the documentary is how does the democracy practiced by the ancient Athenians compare to what we in the United States refer to as democracy. There are clear differences, from how representatives are selected, how much power they have, to how they are removed. The Athenian system places much more power directly into the hands of the people; they are the final and direct decision makers. So the question then becomes, why is the democracy we practice in the United States so different? The answer to this is in two parts: origin and practicality. The origin of American democracy can be traced to the enlightenment ideas that the founders of our country were well versed in and where they got the idea of democratic government in the first place. However, where the Athenian system places the people on top, the American founders clearly did not trust the common people at all. This is evident in how the system was set up with representative rather than direct democracy. The restriction of voting early on to only landed white males ensured that only those with a lasting stake in the region could participate, traders and merchants were too transitory to be trusted and women and people to color too inferior. Few also realize that initially only members of the House of Representatives were elected, Senators were chosen by the state governments (changed by the 17th Amendment in 1913). They did this because the founders only wanted men of a certain class and education to be Representatives as only they could be trusted with the business of the nation. Even the now despised electoral college was a safeguard against populist uprisings, taking the power from the people if those in the political elite think their choice for president was unwise. So, American democracy is founded on a base of simply not trusting the people. The second reason for our democracy being so different from Athens is practicality. This is the argument most will give today on why we cannot have a direct democracy. Fairly counting the vote of every man and woman when any piece of legislation needs to pass in a country of over 300 million is simply not practical. We can hardly get people to vote every 2 years let alone vote every 2 weeks as would be required to run the states and the national government effectively, not to mention the cost involved, and electronic online voting would be too susceptible to hacking and fraud.  

While no reasonable person would argue that what is practiced in the United States is a true democracy, it is a great model of a republic. Of course it needs to function better; partisanship and gerrymandering have done great harm to the democratic aspects of our republic making it harder for politicians to be removed from power and disenfranchising millions, especially minorities. So to conclude, no, Athenians would not consider the United States to be a democracy. However, I believe they would be glad to see that the arts they lay the foundation for drama, comedy and the rest still play a prominent role in shaping public opinion and criticizing politicians.


National Geographic, The Greeks; Chasing Greatness (2016)


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