MOMENT OF TRUTH
Athens Saved Its Democracy. Will America?
Facing collapse after an invasion gone wrong, a military defeat, and two coups legitimated by the assembly, Athenians raced to build a new body of law. We could use that approach.
I was mulling over Jeanine Pirro’s triumphant return to Fox News Saturday night—she cut right to the chase and demanded punishment for the “traitorous, treasonous” investigators of Donald Trump—when, while noodling around on Google, I tripped across a short academic paper (pdf) by Yale political scientist Daniela Cammack about some legal reforms undertaken in Athens in the fourth century B.C.
The parallels to our situation aren’t exactly precise. But there was enough there to make me stop and think about this nonstop madness we’re living through in a more historical context—to see these Republican and Trumpian incidents not only as the individual outrages they are, but as events with historical weight that are leading somewhere. These were not comforting thoughts.
In the closing years of the fifth century B.C. a series of traumas led prominent Athenians to believe that the legislature had too much power and the courts not enough, so they set about redressing the imbalance. In 12 short years, Cammack writes, “Athens’ entire body of law was revised, recodified, and reinscribed, and a new public legal archive was established, making it easier to bring cases to court.”
The specifics of the changes are neither here nor there for our purposes, nor the recent scholarly dispute about the impact of the changes (although it’s interesting if that’s your sort of thing). What’s important for us is why Athens made these changes. It did so in response to cataclysms that threatened the democracy—errors by the leaders that the existing mechanisms for correction proved incapable of fixing: a major military invasion resulting in defeat, failure, reduction in prestige, and loss of allies; final defeat in a long-running war against the Peloponnesian League; two coups, one in 411 and another in 404, both legitimated by the democratic assembly.
I couldn’t help but make certain associations in my mind while reading about the above. The major military invasion leading to defeat (I suppose that label is technically arguable about Iraq, but it sure wasn’t victory) and loss of prestige and allies sounds awfully familiar. There is perhaps no direct parallel in today’s United States to Athens’ defeat in a second long-running war; we’ve “only” been in Afghanistan for 17 years, not the 27 the Athenians spent battling the Peloponnesians, but all the same, we’re pulling out now, not precisely in defeat but not in anything close to victory.
Two coups? We think of coups as those things that happen in poor countries where the rebels storm the capital and take over the state television station. But coups can take other forms. What might we call it when two of our last three presidents lose the popular vote, make it to the White House, and immediately start governing as if they won in landslides—one starting the aforementioned wars, the other pursuing a host of deeply unpopular and radical right-wing policies?
What else from among these tumultuous events we’re living through might historians someday include on a list of key events in the collapse of American democracy? How about an election that every intelligence agency concluded was corrupted by Russian interference, producing an outcome that at least half the country views as tainted?
An election that was won by the candidate who publicly begged Russia to interfere, and who then, as president, denounced the investigation into Russian interference on a weekly basis. And whose servants—Pirro, Lindsey Graham, many others—are now setting to work to punish some of the people behind this investigation.
What kind of day will that be in the history of this republic—the day former FBI acting Director Andrew McCabe goes to jail, which is the outcome some of these people want, for the crime of striking at the king (whatever charge they drum up against him, that will be his real crime)? They administered justice more surely and swiftly in Athens, admittedly, but the impulse is the same: They’re out to destroy him, and to silence others like him.
Now that Robert Mueller has finished his investigation and has apparently not found evidence of a prosecutable conspiracy to rig the election, we’re entering into a potentially dangerous new period. The president and his supporters are going to try to do two things. First, they’re going to try to quash and discredit Mueller’s findings. Attorney General Bill Barr originally said he’d release the Mueller report, but with grand jury proceedings redacted. Then he added a couple more categories to the material he’d redact. What’s he going to add this week? How much of Mueller’s evidence are we ultimately going to be allowed to see?
Second, as mentioned, they’re going to go after the people they hold responsible for the “witch hunt.” The idea that this was any kind of witch hunt is laughable. It was an obviously legitimate investigation; the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting alone was enough to spark a probe. But rather than entering a period of reckoning, we’re more likely entering a period of revenge, at least if Trump and his people have their way.
It’s amazing to think that 2,400 years ago, the people of Athens had the capacity to recognize democratic failure and correct it. They saw that their institutions had been corrupted to the point that they were no longer capable of sustaining democracy.
Do we have that capacity today? Over this next year and a half, we’re going to find out. In Athens, it was the courts that saved democracy. But sadly, we all know better than to look to the courts to save us today (and speaking of events that belong on some future historian’s list of signal moments in democratic decay, how about the shockingly unconstitutional theft of a Supreme Court seat?). The legislature, or at least one house of it, is trying. But we’re approaching the edge of the cliff.
This period we’re entering, from now until the next election, is the most perilous the country has faced in 160 years. We’ll see if we have the capacity for redemption that Athenians showed more than 2,000 years ago.