The Magazine

Democracy on Trial

Is the American version destined to follow the Greek?

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By AARON MACLEAN
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Since the mid-19th century, a movement among academic historians has sought to improve this interpretation of Athenian history. The revisionist party has such names to its historical credit as Edward Bulwer-Lytton, George Grote, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, and, more recently, Princeton's Josiah Ober. For them, the crimes of the Athenian people are to be understood as products of their culture and time: The democracy itself is held to be a radically progressive element of Athenian civilization, to be celebrated as a precursor of modern liberalism.

Crucially, the school prefers to focus on Athens's history after its empire was dismantled following the Peloponnesian War. The fourth century, which was traditionally of less interest to scholars than the fifth, has come to be lionized as the golden era of Athenian democracy, a time when the city's old religious prejudices weakened, when a new goddess named Demokratia was established in the pantheon, and new cults, of Zeus and Dionysos Eleutherios (literally "of freedom"), were celebrated. The older school of scholarship preferred to emphasize the initial appeasement of (and ultimate capitulation to) Philip of Macedonia. The new school describes these phenomena, respectively, as "realistic" and "inevitable." Just what was inevitable about Macedon, but preventable about Persia, is rarely addressed.

Given that the ideological lines of this interesting and valuable scholarly dispute have long been drawn --conservatives favoring the darker tale, progressives the revision--it is a telling curiosity of the genealogy and influence of the contemporary center-right that it is now Republicans and the Bush administration who advocate the spread of democracy abroad, cherishing it as the cure to our world's manifold ills, to be administered on a nation-by-nation basis. (That liberals now condemn such a path, despite their ideological sympathy with it in the past, seems a tad opportunistic.)

Loren J. Samons's What's Wrong With Democracy? seems intended, in part, as a caution to those conservatives now in the democracy-promotion camp. In just 200 pages Samons gives us a detailed historical analysis of Athenian history, very much out of the Athens-as-tragedy school. The point of the analysis is to draw lessons relevant to contemporary American policy and society.

This is an engaging, even important, book, catering both to the classicist and the general reading public. It aims to criticize fundamental political and social principles which most Americans, however well read, rarely question. That historical analysis serves as the tool of this inquiry is itself a principled stand, as Samons makes clear in his introduction. He explicitly seeks to avoid the popular left-wing approach (practiced by Princeton's Ober) of compiling a narrow "history of ideologies." On the other hand, he has no inclination to be a Straussian, seeking to imbibe wisdom from a few articulate voices--Thucydides, for example--across the intervening chasm of the ages.

Rather, he seeks to reaffirm, for those who have forgotten, that historical analysis is necessary to an understanding of man's society and politics. (Whether or not it is sufficient is not addressed.) It is possible to see this book as a love song to Thucydides, whose stated aim of creating something both beautiful and useful Samons explicitly sets out to imitate. Indeed, he has harsh words for those among his colleagues who long ago gave up on this.

It is a relief to discover that, as Samons is well aware of the dangers of false analogy, he does not simply seek to tell a cautionary tale, and draw some tortured moral. Rather, his central critique of democratic politics, or at least his most compelling, is fairly subtle. He feels that Americans have lost sight of something that Athenians knew very well, at least in the fifth century: That government is a means to perceived social ends, be they justice, private property, strong families, or other plausible suggestions. Our rhetoric frequently mistakes a means (democracy) for an end. Of course, when we get to thinking about it, we recall that ours is a liberal democracy, designed with at least one end very much in mind: to protect individual liberty (something which would have seemed curious to the Athenians, who did not share our modern notion of a state from which one needs protection, oppression being an intimate, neighbor-on-neighbor affair in those days). This retort does not impress Samons. In his own words:

The idealization of freedom through democracy has led modern America to a precipitous position. Implicitly denying man's desire for a society based on beliefs and duties that lie beyond a system of government and the rights this government (democracy) is designed to protect, we have replaced society's extrapolitical goals with the potentially antisocial doctrines of freedom, choice, and diversity.