America’s democracy makes a turn toward Sparta
Since the current presidential campaign seems to have slipped its moorings and drifted to a place on the seas where ancient maps showed only an abyss filled with monsters, perhaps looking at history will help restore our bearings. Not recent history; ancient history.
If asked which Greek state had the more democratic form of government, Athens or Sparta, most people would probably answer Athens. But the answer isn’t so clear-cut. Sparta, not Athens, elected its government. But only those with property got to vote. Aristotle said that elections were oligarchical when owning property was a prerequisite for participation. Athens, in the philosopher’s view, was a true democracy because it chose its government by a lottery of all citizens. This method, known as “sortition,” led to a much more representative form of self-government.
What would Aristotle make of democracy in the United States today? Well, he might place us closer to Sparta than Athens. While the United States has no property requirement to vote, we have allowed the steady growth of a massive political-industrial system. Many Americans perceive that this system has become an oligarchy run by and for a small group of elites. And this alienation and anger explains the embrace of candidates who want to tear down the status quo whether it be in government or finance.