Its reputed inventors held that the rule of the people should be exercised by all citizens. Athenian citizenship, however, excluded women, slaves, foreigners, and men under 20 years of age.
Was that because the contemporaries of Pericles considered those categories not people? Far from it, as women were heard in court and were considered already too influential — remember Xanthippe. Slaves and foreigners had ways and opportunities to become free citizens, and young men sometimes just grew up.
The clue, to the main reason for those exclusions, is in the age limit for young men. By their 20th anniversary, men were supposed and quite likely to have taken part in some armed combat, defending the interests of the polis. In modern terms, they had put their arses on the line for their country. They had learned to cooperate and to place the life of their brothers in arms above their own. They had practiced some form of effective communication and had received a modicum of education — at least enough that they could be an asset to the community. They had learned the price of citizenship.
There was the extra benefit of natural selection. The weaklings, the antisocial, the cowards, the parasites had mostly been weeded out. That was a time when soldiers wore nothing under their armour: when wounded, they preferred a clean cut that would not embed filthy fibres to fester in their flesh. They also had to provide their own armour and weapons, out of the family’s savings.
The Ancient Athenians thought that surviving veterans, who had invested life and fortune for the good of the State, would be more likely to exercise common sense when making laws and selecting commanders.
We, with our post-Enlightenment civilisation, have come a long way from those brutish times. We no longer expect our young folks to risk their lives in order to become citizens. How we got to this stage, though, is not such a pretty tale. It started with the idea of Empire: large armies, conscripted or paid by the Imperial treasure, fed by levies and taxes. Those eventually became the cannon-fodder of the three centuries of endless conflict, from the Thirty Years’ War to the Second World War. Whatever recruitment posters and Hollywood may depict, all those wars were fought by slaves — compelled by law or public shame — who had no choice but to wash the pennons in their blood.
It was the age of impersonal warfare, of projectiles and bombs killing from a distance, of pulling triggers at anonymous targets pointed out by officers. The minority of truly dedicated and heroic soldiers would never justify the belief that all veterans must be imbued with civic spirit.
The great filter of placing society above self, at least for a while, is gone. In its place, we have universal suffrage. There is the great improvement of inclusiveness to be considered, as we have no more discrimination of gender, race, religion, or social class. Every citizen can vote in a modern democracy, and most countries do not impose too many barriers to a foreigner’s becoming a citizen.
What we have is the power of sampling. We believe that, if a large enough number of citizens bother to cast a meaningful vote, then the representatives best suited to that particular stage in society will be elected, the best laws will be enacted, and the common good will be served.
That is clearly not what has been happening for the past thirty years. The second decade of the 21st century seems set to end with the most noxious mix of populist idiocrats around. Think Trump, Johnson, Putin, Orban, Maduro, Duterte, Bolsonaro… long list of people no sensible person would ever consider when looking for a second-hand vehicle. And there are plenty more idiocrats lurking in the shadows, ideologues of all colours waiting their turn, or inciting revolution with facile promises to the gullible masses.
Why are those clowns elected? How do they manage to convince enough voters, with their empty promises and blatant lies? How do they get re-elected, after obvious mismanagement?
The Athenians knew it from the start: only irresponsible idiots will vote for an incompetent leader or a potential tyrant. So the key to power is getting enough idiots to vote for the would-be king of the dunghill.
Before the days of mass communication and social media, getting to the useful idiots meant going out to meet them — which had significant costs and a certain degree of risk. Rotten eggs and tomatoes had their place in the natural selection of committed representatives. These days, starting with tabloids and ending — so far — with Facebook and Twitter, we have low-cost, negligible-risk ways of swaying the gullible. It is not even necessary to present anything close to a true picture; what matters is exposure. The more a name is mentioned and a picture flashed, the better chance a dangerous clown has at the ballots. Content does not matter, only that the message carries the presence.
Citizens who can carefully weigh the pros and cons of any issue, against the common good of society, and cast a constructive vote, are always the minority in any country. The ideal voters will have the skill to read and select credible news; the intellect and education to make sense of those credible news; the civic spirit to think about society and not only about their selves; the courage to make choices that may go against previously held beliefs; the honesty to concede defeat to a better cause; the honour of working to implement legitimate decisions of their peers.
As current numbers go, each vote cast by one of those mavericks will be swamped by ten votes of people who only care about the latest face seen on the telly, and how the sound bites somehow come closer to their perceived personal circumstances. Elections are now won by apathetic faceless numbers in the audience, voting for populist talking-heads.
Is the number of informed, responsible voters likely to increase, soon enough to prevent universal idiocracy? There are very few governments in power who even pretend to maintaining an enlightened electorate; most are actively working to dumb the masses even further. They don’t even have to be competent at this dumbing down of their voters, as each generation will naturally seek an easier time than its predecessor.
Prospects look bleak — there is no educating stupid, and Dunning-Kruger Syndrome is no joke. We need to reconsider the true purpose of democracy: not to please everyone, with a gratifying sense of common retributive power, but to empower those with sense to postpone gratification in the name of the common good.
There are some initiatives that can improve the quality of the vote, even in our current system of universal suffrage. First, let’s remove economic pressure by implementing Universal Basic Income: people who have enough food, shelter and security tend to higher thoughts and purposes — we cannot demand neutrality of social consciousness from the homeless, nor postponed gratification from those already starving. Then let’s improve health and education; seriously, not as populist window-dressing under patronage. Help people up Maslow’s Hierarchy, and their decisions improve dramatically.
On top of that, would it be enough to apply some universal test, making the vote an earned privilege, instead of a natural entitlement? Give the suffrage only to those of IQ 110 and above, for example? It would be a start, but with no guarantee of success. We need to look for civic spirit in our voters, to complement intellect and education.
We could restrict the vote to citizens in a position to make it meaningful. That means that those with a grudge, such as convicted criminals, would be barred until rehabilitated. Same with those with obvious self-interest, such as active civil servants, serving politicians, serving military and the police — all those that can benefit immediately and personally from political decisions.
Ultimately, the vote could be a privilege of those who have volunteered service to their communities, and of those who have demonstrated their capacity to act selflessly for the benefit of society.
Maybe those restrictions would reduce the number of voting citizens to fewer than a tenth of the current electorate, and even below that in some countries. More importantly, it would reduce the number of crooked and incompetent politicians to a very small fraction of what it is now. Populism would end, patronage would vanish — and political campaigns would cost practically nothing. In fact, they could even be banned altogether. If the electorate is well informed, a simple mailing of a CV to each voter should do the trick.
Such a restrictive system would do away with the electoral circus we have now, where far fewer than ten percent of the citizens really decide who rules — by misinforming the opinions of the gullible masses. We are learning, at an extremely high cost, that there is no transparency from that selectorate, nor any guarantee of their civic spirit.