To Vote, or Not to Vote, that is the Question:
An ancient Greek perspective
We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t vote, it just encourages the bastards.”
As an aside, in 2010, this saying was used as the title of a book which concluded that politics and politicians are a barely necessary evil.
According to Fair Vote,
“Voter turnout in the United States fluctuates in national elections. In recent elections, about 60% of the voting eligible population votes during presidential election years, and about 40% votes during midterm elections. Turnout is lower for odd year, primary and local elections.”
This means that roughly half the population, chooses to discourage the bastards, and are happy to let the other half of the population choose the political leaders who will shape the society they live in.
The origins of democracy
The ancient Greeks helped shape our society. They replaced supernatural explanations with the concept of a universe governed by laws of nature. Philosophy, religion, art and science flourished. Much within ancient Greek culture was noble, but it was a product of its time that entailed animal sacrifice, occasional human sacrifice, slavery, the subordination of women, discrimination against non-citizens, and copious drug use. Many of the core values of Western civilization can be attributed to the Greeks, including democracy and the right of individuals to have freedom of speech.
In the year 507 or 508 BCE (depending on the source consulted), the Athenian stateman Cleisthenes [Kleisthénēs] introduced a system of political reforms that he called demokratia, or “rule by the people.” He reduced the power of the Athenian aristocrats who had long monopolized the political decision-making process, and increased the power of the Athenian citizens’ assembly, the middle- and working-class people who made up the army and the navy. It was their discontent that led to the reforms.
While definitely a step towards true democracy, Cleisthenes’ system limited participation in the democratic process to male Athenian citizens who were older than 18. Athenian citizenship was conferred to men and women, both of whose parents had also been Athenian citizens. Thus, in Athens in the middle of the 4th century, about 40,000 men could participate in the democratic process. Excluded were about 60,000 citizens (women and boys), about 10,000 resident foreigners and 150,000 slaves. This amounts to a mere 15% having a say in the political process.
Interestingly, a number of positions were chosen by lot and not by election.
“This was because, in theory, a random lottery was more democratic than an election: pure chance, after all, could not be influenced by things like money or popularity. The lottery system also prevented the establishment of a permanent class of civil servants who might be tempted to use the government to advance or enrich themselves.”
Some things never change as there are still civil servants and career politicians profiting from the government.
Athenian democracy did not survive long in Greece and around 460 BCE, under general Pericles [Periklēs] Athenian democracy began to evolve into an aristocracy. Cleisthenes’ democratic ideals and processes continue to influence politicians and governments today.
What is very clear in the Athenian situation is that there was a powerful ruling class who were forced to share their power with middle- and working-class people but in the end managed to wrest power back. Is there perhaps a lesson in this?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of democratic government is:
“a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”
A comprehensive summary from Stanford University states:
“Democracy is a system of government in which a country’s political leaders are chosen by the people in regular, free, and fair elections. In a democracy, people have a choice between different candidates and parties who want the power to govern. The people can criticize and replace their elected leaders and representatives if they do not perform well. The people are sovereign—they are the highest authority—and government is based on the will of the people. Elected representatives at the national and local levels must listen to the people and be responsive to their needs. …
The key role of citizens in a democracy is participation. This takes many forms. Citizens have an obligation to become informed about public issues, to monitor the conduct of their leaders and representatives, and to express their own opinions. Participation also involves voting in elections, debating issues, attending community meetings, becoming involved in private, voluntary organizations, and even protesting. However, political participation in a democracy must be peaceful, respectful of the law, and tolerant of the different views of other groups and individuals.”
The problem has been that “supreme power” has been vested in some, but not all, people.
In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed, and the right to vote during the Colonial and Revolutionary periods was restricted to property owners – most of whom were white male Protestants over the age of 21. This is very reminiscent of the Athenian democratic prototype where voting was restricted to Athenian males over the age of 18, both of whose parents were Athenian citizens.
From then, it was a struggle to obtain the right to vote for those who were excluded on the basis of their religion, women, African Americans, Indigenous people (Native Americans), and Asians (especially Chinese and Japanese).
The struggle to vote continues. Particularly worrying are the voter purges, which are ostensibly to preserve electoral integrity:
“Nine states with a history of racial discrimination are more aggressively removing registered voters from their rolls than other states, according to a report released Friday [July 20, 2018].”
Millions of black voters are being purged, often illegally:
“Voter Purges, a new report by the Brennan Center, highlights the systematic purging of voters from rolls by state and local officials around the country. These are not random, isolated cases. It is a methodical effort that disproportionately affects minority voters. … Almost every type of voter purge disproportionately affects black voters and voters of color.”
At the risk of stating the obvious, Native Americans are the only non-immigrants in the country. If anyone deserves the right to vote, it should be them. However, according to ACLU, the Supreme Court has enabled the mass disenfranchisement of North Dakota’s Native Americans:
“On Tuesday [October 9, 2018], the Supreme Court chose to stand by and allow the war against voting to continue. Just a little less than a month before midterm elections that will determine control of Congress, the court decided not to block North Dakota’s restrictive voter ID law, which will make it harder for people in that state to cast their ballots.”
Politifact maintains, however, that Native Americans will still be able to vote but it will be more difficult:
“North Dakota’s law does pose obstacles for many tribal citizens who don’t have street addresses. However, through the work of voter rights advocates and officials with the Secretary of State’s office, there are ways that Native American voters who have PO boxes instead of residential street addresses will be able to vote. The law does not mean they are losing their right to vote altogether.”
What would Cleisthenes do?
If in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” the boys had returned with Cleisthenes rather than Socrates, and asked him about voting he’d have explained just how important it was. We are very lucky to be living in a democracy where we have a say in the political process. We should take full advantage lest our right to vote be taken away by the ruling classes.
So, we should all do our research and vote for those candidates whose values most closely align with our own.