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What’s Wrong with Democracy?

What’s Wrong with Democracy?: From Athenian Practice to American Worship

Loren J. Samons
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 327
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pptc6
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  • Book Info
    What’s Wrong with Democracy?
    Book Description:

    Fifth-century Athens is praised as the cradle of democracy and sometimes treated as a potential model for modern political theory or practice. In this daring reassessment of classical Athenian democracy and its significance for the United States today, Loren J. Samons provides ample justification for our founding fathers' distrust of democracy, a form of government they scorned precisely because of their familiarity with classical Athens. How Americans have come to embrace "democracy" in its modern form-and what the positive and negative effects have been-is an important story for all contemporary citizens. Confronting head-on many of the beliefs we hold dear but seldom question, Samons examines Athens's history in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. in order to test the popular idea that majority rule leads to good government. Challenging many basic assumptions about the character and success of Athenian democracy,What's Wrong with Democracy?offers fascinating and accessible discussions of topics including the dangers of the popular vote, Athens's acquisitive foreign policy, the tendency of the state to overspend, the place of religion in Athenian society, and more. Sure to generate controversy, Samons's bold and iconoclastic book finds that democracy has begun to function like an unacknowledged religion in our culture, immune from criticism and dissent, and he asks that we remember the Athenian example and begin to question our uncritical worship of democratic values such as freedom, choice, and diversity.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94090-1
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. LIST OF MAPS AND ILLUSTRATIONS
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. xix-xx)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    It is the purpose of this book to present and foster criticism of modern democracy. I wish to emphasize that I mean criticism of, and not simply “debate about” or a “discourse concerning” democracy. This criticism will be aimed at the philosophical foundations of democracy, the popular conception of democracy, the practice of representative government through democratic elections, and the social and intellectual environment generated by democratic thought and practice in contemporary America.

    Of course, every student of political science knows that the American system of government codified in the United States Constitution is not actually a “democracy” as that...

  7. ONE Athenian Society and Government
    (pp. 19-40)

    The history of athens during the period of classical democracy (ca. 507–322 B.C.) cannot be appreciated without a basic understanding of Athenian society and government. This chapter therefore attempts to describe the basic structure of Athenian government, to show how it resembled the governments of other Greek city-states, and to outline the intricate relationship between “society” and “government” in ancient Athens. Historians or classicists already familiar with Athenian government may wish to jump immediately to the discussion of voting and election in chapter 2. For others, I hope that this preliminary examination of the Athenian polis will make the...

  8. TWO Democracy and Demagogues: Election, Voting, and Qualifications for Citizenship
    (pp. 41-71)

    In this chapter, i seek to test the modern democratic faith in election, voting, and low qualifications for citizenship.¹ Analysis of the Athenians’ practices in these areas will demonstrate the negative impact of their reduction of property qualifications for full citizenship and of their use of the vote to determine policy, while outlining the positive effects of continued noneconomic qualifications for citizenship. An examination of Pericles’ career will illustrate the benefits and dangers of charismatic leadership in an environment of popular rule. I hope to suggest that the vote—especially in an environment with few social restraints or civic responsibilities—...

  9. THREE Public Finance: Democracy and the People’s Purse
    (pp. 72-99)

    Most american politicians and citizens (of whatever political persuasion) seem to agree that the national debt and the government’s frequent budget deficits threaten the economic well-being of the nation. If economists disagree about the extent to which such debt presents a significant economic problem, Americans and their leaders oftenspeakas if deficit spending were potentially harmful.

    This situation seems counterintuitive. For how can a people in basic agreement that there should be no, or at least less, public debt continue to support political leaders or policies that create or tolerate it? To address this question, I wish to show...

  10. FOUR Foreign Policy I: Democracy Imperial
    (pp. 100-116)

    A student once said to me, “The peoplenever want war.” However, fifth-century history repeatedly illustrates the martial tendencies of the free Athenian citizenry, a group possessing vast resources and driven by an intense nationalism, self-confidence, and the desire for public enrichment. Although compelled by the Persian threat to become a great military power, the Athenians then used this threat as a pretext for the construction of a Greek empire. While Athens’s citizens compelled their “allies” to remain part of an ostensibly anti-Persian league, the Athenians themselves rejected their alliance with Sparta and made agreements with states that had assisted...

  11. FIVE Foreign Policy II: The Peloponnesian War
    (pp. 117-142)

    The Peloponnesian War stretched on for almost three decades and arguably inflicted a mortal blow on the system of independent poleis that had dominated Hellas for three centuries. The war necessitated revolutions in military tactics and strategies, and its conclusion unleashed a mercenary generation on Hellas. If scholars continue to debate the war’s ultimate causes and precise effects, it is indisputable that it and the civil strife it inspired ended the lives of tens of thousands of Greeks and deprived fourth-century Athens of many valuable leaders and citizens.¹

    As a result of the war, the Athenian empire and its revenues...

  12. SIX National Defense: Democracy Defeated
    (pp. 143-162)

    The history of Athenian foreign policy in the fourth century is complex and sordid. It reflects, almost down to the very moment before Athens’s defeat by Macedon in 338, an understandable, if unjustified, Athenian confidence in their status as an independent, sovereign, and democratic polity. Having survived the Persian invasions and the Peloponnesian War, few Athenians seem to have worried that Athens might actually come under a foreign power’s sway. Alliances were made and then ignored or dissolved with unsettling swiftness. The Athenian people, at first attempting to protect themselves from Spartan hegemony (395–371), then sought to assist Sparta...

  13. SEVEN Democracy and Religion
    (pp. 163-186)

    Modern rules of etiquette once suggested avoiding the topics of politics and religion at social occasions.¹ This (admittedly often violated) convention suggests that these topics share the ability to provoke unpleasant controversy because of passionately held views or irreconcilable differences. If the dialogues presented by Plato and Xenophon bear even the faintest resemblance to the social events (likesymposiaor religious festivals) at or around which they are sometimes set, the Athenians had no such convention governing polite discussion. Moreover, the Athenians’ tragedies and comedies, which were performed in part at public expense and on the most public of occasions,...

  14. Conclusion: Socrates, Pericles, and the Citizen
    (pp. 187-202)

    This book has sought to set aside ancient (and modern) opinions about democracy in order to focus the reader’s attention on Athenian history and the relevant lessons it offers for modern society and government. However, for a moment I would like to address two of the most well-known ancient characterizations of Athenian democracy and society, namely, Pericles’ Funeral Oration and Plato’sApology of Socrates.

    For several years I have asked my Greek history students to write essays criticizing Pericles’ oration (Thuc. 2.35–46) from the standpoint of Socrates as expressed in theApology(or vice versa). The topic is fruitful...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 203-278)
  16. SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 279-296)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 297-307)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 308-308)