I didn’t watch last night’s presidential debate. But while I chose to spare myself the rage, anxiety, and dread of watching live, I was not above rubber-necking the proceedings on Twitter. Even vicariously, the debate was a mess and one would be forgiven for seeing this as the death pangs of a superpower being televised.
Nevertheless, a tweet from from PFTCommenter, made me think once again about the which practices from Ancient Athens might be of value. The tweet made a flippant comment about how the particulars of the debate made a strong case for the Athenian practice of sortition. He describes sortition as drawing a name out of a hat, though, naturally the process was a little more complicated . According the Constitution of the Athenians, the ten tribes of Athens nominated eligible candidates for archon and then the sortition process chose from among those candidates. This is not a bad suggestion, but since final authority at least in theory resting with the Assembly (ἐκκλεσία) rather than with the magistrates so real power lay in the hands of individuals capable of convincing a crowd.
The real virtue of the sortition process is that it does not merely apply to who becomes the chief executive. Instead, almost every magistracy—from the wardens overseeing prisoners, to the clerks, auditors, and chief magistrates—were appointed by lot. Combined with these other mechanisms of government like the courts and the Assembly, sortition was designed to encourage wide widespread participation in democracy.
What sortition gains in civic participation, though, it loses in expertise and this year of all years should teach us the value of that. As a result, my first instinct actually went to a practice of “straightening” (εὐθύνη):
εὐθύνη amounted to an end-of-term accounting for their conduct in office. Any official who handled money was required to submit his accounts for public audit that could lead to criminal charges against him. The United States budget is bit more complicated than Athenian public finance, but the spirit of public accountability is spot on.
Equally useful, therefore, would be the Athenian process dokimasia (δοκιμασία) where appointed and elected officials underwent formal review before taking office. The candidate for office had to answer a series of questions before presenting their references (witnesses) and faced potential charges from the general public before the jury gave a thumbs up or thumbs down. Finally, the official entered office by swearing an oath to uphold the laws and not take presents (bribes) on account of the office.
Some of the questions are not particularly relevant today. Despite the racist allegations made about President Obama’s eligibility, we don’t need to ask who someone’s father is and what deme he belongs to, for instance, and I think we’re okay not asking about their devotion to Zeus or Apollo. But οther questions are still worth asking. According to the Constitution of Athenians, the next set of questions were (55.3):
Whether he treats his parents well, and whether he paid the taxes he owes, and whether he served his military service.
ἔπειτα γονέας εἰ εὖ ποιεῖ , καὶ τὰ τέλη εἰ τελεῖ, καὶ τὰς στρατείας εἰ ἐστράτευται.
What about ostracism, perhaps of a particular individual?
In fifth-century Athens, there was an annual question brought before the Ekklesia, asking whether there should be an ostracism vote. If they answered in the affirmative, then a second vote was set at which time every voter received an ostrakon (a pot sherd) on which they wrote a name. If the votes reached a certain quorum, the leading vote-getter was required to leave Athens for ten years.
Sounds great, right?
In practice, this process was much messier and less suited for today’s situation. For one, recent research into the surviving pottery sherds has revealed numerous votes to ostracize “hunger,” so one might imagine many Americans voting to send away COVID. For another, ostracism fell out of practice in Athens after the vote of 416/15 when two political opponents in an extremely polarized Athens, Nikias and Alkibiades, decided against to minimize the risk of losing a vote by turning their supporters against a third candidate, Hyperbolus. The 2020 election is an extreme example, but this would be the equivalent of Jill Stein “winning” the ostracism vote held in 2016. Some people would have wanted that to happen and others could argue it would be for the best, but neither was she the reason an ostracism was called.
(I jest. Somehow Ted Cruz probably would have gotten ostracized.)
My bigger issue with ostracism is another aspect of the practice. In Athens, ostracism was meant to mitigate the risk of any one politician becoming too powerful. Thus the ten-year exile was designed to remove them from their base of political support but did not strip the person of their property. In a modern globally interconnected world the former is impossible unless they’re somehow banished to a moon of Jupiter while the latter rather misses the point given the reporting about how much money has been leeched from the American taxpayers.
Fantasizing about ostracism is fantasizing for a quick fix, but it is too toothless and fickle an institution to resolve any of the problems facing the United States. The debate stage last night might have had on it a face and a name who has come to embody every one of those issues, but slipping into the wishful thinking of ostracism buys into his cult of personality as though what was on display were not the product of long-developing processes. If we’re going to be learning lessons from the Athenian democracy—and I’m not saying that we should—I think it would be better to look to the mundane procedures of accountability and oversight.
In short, let’s bring back the dokimasia. Who’s with me?