Democracy — Too Much of a Good Thing?

ANDREW SULLIVAN’S RECENT New York magazine essay, Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic, rattled many a reader and provoked a heated debate that spilled over to the pages of The New York Times, among other publications (see here). Sullivan’s provocative thesis is that the United States, in this election year of the Trump candidacy, may be perilously close to a collapse into tyranny precisely because it is too democratic — drawing on Plato’s critique of the instability of a “government by the people.” To the exact contrary is the view of LARB contributor Roslyn Fuller, whose recent book Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose takes the American system to task for modeling itself on the Roman Republic instead of the Athenian democracy; that is, for not being democratic enough. We invited Roslyn Fuller to offer a riposte to Sullivan’s views, and gave Andrew Sullivan an opportunity to reply — which he embraced. What follows is Fuller’s all-out attack on the notion that we may be suffering from a surfeit of democracy and Sullivan’s reply.

— Don Franzen, Los Angeles Review of Books‘s Law Editor


America Needs More Democracy, Not Less
by Roslyn Fuller

It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and nowhere was this more apparent to me than when reading Andrew Sullivan’s recent article in New York magazine. In it, Sullivan uses a smattering of knowledge about ancient Greece to declare that the United States is falling apart because it has too much democracy. In Sullivan’s view, just like the ancient Greeks, we have become a permissive and disorganized society, incapable of passing any judgment on ourselves and decaying from within. The final proof: Donald Trump.

It would be a much more convincing argument if ancient Greek democracy had decayed from within or if it had looked anything like what passes for democracy in the United States of America. But while Sullivan complains about others’ lack of judgment, he falls into the opposite category — judging in ignorance.

So, first, let me explain a bit about the ancient Greek democracy that the United States is allegedly copying. The Greek democracy we know the most about is Athens. In Athens:

  1. generals and treasurers were elected
  2. other official positions were chosen by an elaborate lottery process that every adult male citizen was entitled to participate in
  3. none of these officials had very much power to make any decisions
  4. decisions and laws were passed in Assembly, which was a gathering of citizens anyone could turn up to
  5. anyone could speak to the citizens at Assembly and seek to sway them to their point of view
  6. legal matters, including constitutional matters, were decided on by large numbers of lottery-selected citizens
  7. elections were regarded as undemocratic and to be avoided wherever possible
  8. the Athenians paid people for participating at Assembly and on juries

Now, correct, me if I’m wrong here, but I’m pretty sure that laws in the United States are passed by Congress and the president, and not the American people sitting in Assembly. I’m also fairly certain that the Supreme Court is not staffed by, say, a randomly chosen 10 percent of the American population. And as far as I’m aware Generals McChrystal and Petraeus were not elected by the general public.

In other words, the democracy that Sullivan alleges degenerated so badly in ancient times has never existed in the United States, a country that runs its politics in an entirely different manner.

Sullivan goes on to allege that in their wisdom the Founding Fathers altered “democracy” to prevent the horrors of Athens from repeating themselves, by building “firewalls” to prevent “democratic wildfires” (like Trump) from sweeping the country. The Founding Fathers did indeed not desire majoritarian rule, but they were explicit in the fact that they were not tweaking democracy for the sake of stability, but rather simply not instituting a democracy at all for the sake of protecting their wealth from “wicked” projects like debt cancellation. I’m not an originalist, but when someone says they don’t want democracy and what they create looks nothing like a democracy, you may want to give that some consideration.

Now to get back to Athens itself: it is a cliché among would-be elites to declare that Athenian democracy was an unruly form of government that could not possibly work, and Sullivan serves this one up yet again. But how does he know? Because one man — Plato — said so.

Plato’s main argument — according to Sullivan — is that democracy would degenerate in its later stages to some kind of carefree, nonjudgmental egalitarian society, devoid of the authoritarian elites that Sullivan thinks are so vital to keeping the rest of us from running amok.

However, we don’t have to rely on what Plato speculated would eventually befall Athenian democracy, because we know what did happen in the democracy that really did exist in Plato’s time. Despite penning nearly 8,000 words on the topic, Sullivan preferred to take Plato’s speculation, as he didn’t have time to go into all the “wrinkles and eddies” of Athenian politics, so allow me to fill in the gaps.

Most of our factual information about democracy (as opposed to Plato’s lengthy if erudite rant) comes from Aristotle, who decided to do something useful with his life and write down the details of Athenian state organization; Thucydides, who recorded a large chunk of Athenian history; the comedic plays of Aristophanes; the preserved speeches that Athenians made in the law courts and Assembly; as well as an assortment of pamphlets, memos, and other paraphernalia.

Now let’s examine those sources — and here’s a piece of advice I’ll give you for free: this is often a good idea before you write an article about something.

Some of Plato’s work is presented as a transmission of his mentor Socrates’s teachings, so it can be difficult to really know where one of them ends and the other begins or where each thought originates, but we can say with some certainty that they both loathed democracy. The thing both of them hated most about democracy was that it allowed ordinary people to have a say in politics, as people were directly participating in decisions in the law courts and Assembly. Socrates/Plato complained that the Assembly was chock-a-block with fullers, shoemakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, farmers, merchants, and traders.

Check out my name at the top of this article. That’s right, I’m a Fuller. My ancestors fulled, which I am told is a process for making felt. And due to this wretchedly low birth, even if I were a man, my place in the Socrates/Plato worldview would be to shut up and put up. Forever. And so, likely, would yours. Socrates/Plato also complained that the Athenians were so lenient to their slaves that you could hardly distinguish between slaves and free people in Athens.

So to sum up, in Plato’s mind some of the main problems with Athenian democracy were that people were allowed to participate equally in politics regardless of income class and they were marginally more humane to the helpless than other societies of the time.

Not only is it hard to see what is so objectionable about this, but I haven’t met too many Americans who complain about the overabundance of political equality in their society, nor have I caught myself contemplating such pressing issues in the early hours of a San Francisco morning as commuters step over rows of homeless people sleeping in the subway system while sipping their overpriced Starbucks. My God, if only we could find some way to exclude these people from participating in our society!

Not only are the “problems” that Plato diagnosed with Athens nowhere in evidence in the United States, but they didn’t seem to cause too many issues in Athens, either. Contrary to Sullivan’s assertions, the Athenian democrats were quite good at law enforcement, extremely pernickety about granting citizenship, prone to harshly punish wrongdoing of the high as well as the low, and fastidious in their religious observances. It is telling that while the Athenians had nothing against having a little fun, many of Athens’s most-respected citizens, like Pericles and Phocion, were admired for their conservative and sober lifestyles. The Athenians believed in protecting property, had a developed banking system, and you could take out insurance on your ships’ cargo. In short, despite the fact that Athens was a very participatory society, it was also very organized.

Suppressing this information and simply repeating the unfounded claims of one of democracy’s most determined enemies has been used to cut off meaningful debate on what democracy is and what we are trying to achieve with it for centuries. This oversimplistic view often leads to many seemingly irreconcilable contradictions, such as Sullivan’s concern about an alleged rise of fascism centering around Trump because of too much democracy, and seeking to buttress this argument with reference to Plato/Socrates who were two very committed proto-fascists. Their recipe for an ideal state started with an end to fits of laughter, and went downhill from there. Socrates’s students actually tried to forcibly implement this state at one point, during a brief period known, for very good reason, as the Thirty Tyrants.

One thing is certain: it was impossible for Athenian democracy to “slip” into tyranny, as Sullivan claims, because there were no offices to win and no institutions to take control of. There was no “president” of Athens; there were just a lot of ordinary citizens standing around together making decisions.

So, there are two lessons to take out of this: a) democracy in the United States is nothing like democracy in ancient Greece, and b) democracy in ancient Greece was nothing like what Sullivan claims it was.

The society Sullivan is thinking of, the one that experienced a late-stage decline from within is actually Rome. Now mixing up the late Roman Republic with Athens is like mixing up the 20th-century United States with 17th-century France, but leaving that aside, one very interesting point here is that the Founding Fathers explicitly decided to found a republic as opposed to democracy and deliberately copied the Roman institutions in doing so, including the practice of election to powerful office, the institution of the Senate, and the adoption of the eagle as their symbol. The legal system reflected this with a formal Constitution guaranteeing a limited number of rights vis-à-vis the State. This was much celebrated, just as the Twelve Tables, the Roman equivalent, was celebrated in its time.

The key here for us is really the election bit though.

In Athens, if you wanted to be someone, you had to get down to the Assembly and convince your peers that whatever you had on your mind was a good idea. In Rome, you had to win high office, but after that you could do what you liked. That meant that you had to get your billboards up, you had to hand out favors to your nearest and dearest to make them a little nearer and dearer still, you had to invite the influential down to the theater for a spot of entertainment, and above all, you had to not tick anyone powerful off, as that was a one-way ticket to character assassination, and, in the worst case, real assassination.

I trust this sounds more familiar than the Athenians’ little lottery arrangement.

Unlike the Athenian system where people were paid to participate, the Roman system was really only feasible for the rich who used money to stay in power and used their power to ensure that they kept their money. As a consequence, power and wealth became increasingly centralized commodities. If an opponent was spending one million sesterces on an election, you had to spend two. If they threw a banquet for the entire neighborhood, you had to hold one, too, and make it more exotic than theirs. These were not optional activities, because in an election, the winner takes it all.

At the same time, the Romans did become more permissive about everything else in life, with extravagant parties and luxury goods that would not have been permitted in earlier days becoming the norm among the elite. The Romans conquered more and more territory, acquired more and more slaves, had wilder and wilder parties, and conducted more and more lavish campaigns to win high office, a position from which they could grant themselves and their friends favors. The poor, of course, got poorer, with increasing numbers of the middle-class slipping into poverty, but with a few notable exceptions, the rich couldn’t have cared less.

Then one day a brash individual came along, a man of the elite but with the common touch. That man was Gaius Julius Caesar. Caesar was a fairly flamboyant character. One famous anecdote tells of an incident in which a youthful Caesar was kidnapped by pirates. He convinced the pirates to more than double his ransom, while simultaneously assuring them that he would kill them all as soon as they released him, a promise he kept. His three consecutive wives also didn’t stop him from having a robust extramarital love life. And to cut a long story short, he and his heir Octavian put an end to the Republic.

Caesar may have been a significantly less tawdry and therefore somewhat more palatable version of Trump, but the essence of what they stood for and the context isn’t all that different. They both shook up the elites of their day by appealing directly to the common person in a pact that understood that power for one would entail material improvement for the other. Just to be clear, this pact is no more democracy than holding elections is, because it entails neither political equality nor widespread participation. It is merely a nondemocratic reaction to a preexisting system of non-democracy. But it can deliver power for some. Caesar and Trump’s supporters have reacted to them in much the same way. For most people, Donald Trump can screw as many supermodels as he wants, as long as he gets them a manufacturing job back, just like Julius Caesar could loll around with Cleopatra as long as he kept up the bread and games.

Sullivan sees this bit quite clearly, although he falsely attributes it to too much democracy, before choosing the worst possible way of dealing with it: crush Trump and turn back to our treasured elites, even if that means subjecting him to a double standard that would not be applied to others.

According to Sullivan, “those Republicans desperately trying to use the long-standing rules of their own nominating process to thwart this monster deserve our passionate support, not our disdain.”

But thwart Trump on a technicality and it may well be the last thing you do. In fact, this is exactly the tack the Roman elite tried with Caesar and it backfired there.

The constant suppression of societal dissatisfaction, rather than dealing with people’s grievances as they arise is what creates the Trumps among us. Anger and frustration may be ugly things to deal with and they may manifest in forms we don’t approve of, but the willingness and ability to deal with them was what made Athenian democracy strong and resilient. The unwillingness to deal with these grievances, to dismiss them as illegitimate and seek to suppress their expression by marshalling forces to defeat them in election is what made Rome a brittle Republic. It was not too much democracy that made Romans willing to accept an enlightened despot in Caesar, but rather too little.

If the United States were a democracy, it would have no need for Black Lives Matter, because any citizen would be able to report police brutality to the Assembly at any point and have a judgment rendered immediately instead of suffering in silence. If the United States were a democracy, it would not run for-profit prisons, because companies would not be allowed to collude with a special group of lawmakers behind closed doors to get their predrafted laws passed. If the United States were a democracy, there would be no “money in politics” because there would be no one to spend the money on. If the United States were a democracy, it would be devoid of mass media demagoguery, because anyone would be entitled to address the public in a public sphere anytime they wanted. I’ll even give the benefit of the doubt and say that if the United States were a democracy, it may not have perpetrated so many wars on other people.

For some reason, however, Sullivan persists in seeing “we the people” as the problem, claiming “we need them [elites] precisely to protect this precious democracy from its own destabilizing excesses.”

Curiously, the vast majority of American people (much like the Romans before them) have participated in exactly zero of what Sullivan terms the country’s “destabilizing excesses.” From the Congresspeople who repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, to the Supreme Court justices who ruled on Citizens United, from the bank executives who bundled up subprime mortgages, to the architects of the World Trade Organization, this was elites from top to bottom.

In excusing the “elite” wholesale for these transgressions on the grounds that we need them to save us from Donald Trump, a phenomenon they created, Sullivan engages in exactly the kind of permissive nonjudgment he accuses democracies of. But it is exactly on these public issues that we should feel free to judge. The Athenians got things right: they judged the public decisions that had a bearing on their own lives, and tried to avoid pointless altercations over the private sphere. There was little point to judging your neighbor’s sex life, but quite a lot of point to judging a case of embezzlement.

Republics, like the United States, self-implode because they create a dynamic where money equals power and power equals money. The elite power game is essentially a form of musical chairs, in which everyone scrambles for increasingly centralized power and money, which means less and less left over for everyone else. The system also contains no way to address grievances but in the all-or-nothing power contest that is the election held every few years. Democracy, on the other hand, is durable, because it contains mechanisms that allow grievances to be addressed publicly on an ongoing basis. This creates many small conflicts and few really large ones. Democracy, unlike electoral politics, is not all-or-nothing; it is a form of government that gets buy-in from people by allowing them hands-on participation in meaningful activities instead of relegating them to the role of cheerleader. It forces them to confront each other in a common arena on an ongoing basis and to reassess their previous decisions in the light of results achieved. It’s also a form of government that has never been tried in the United States.

Sullivan’s contribution is but one more libel on what is really the only system that offers any hope for meaningful change in the United States and a path out of poverty for most Americans. It’s an attempt to bury deep the powerful truth about what we can do together, the good news that things really don’t need to be this way.


A Brief Response
by Andrew Sullivan

I am grateful for Roslyn Fuller’s lengthy treatment of some of the themes of my essay, and find her description of Caesar’s Rome an interesting historical allegory for Trump’s United States. But I fear we may be talking at cross purposes. It was never my intent to describe American democracy in 2016 as reflecting the historical events in ancient Athenian democracy. That would be an entirely different essay, demanding an exacting historical analysis of both systems. Fuller’s critique is therefore of an essay I didn’t write.

The piece was, rather, a meditation on Plato’s imaginative and theoretical linking of late-stage democracy to the rise of tyranny; and even then I described Plato’s views not as a history but as a “vision,” fueled in part by Plato’s and Socrates’s own experience and bias. My goal was to explore the themes of Plato’s rumination on democracy as a form of government — beyond that of Athens — and see if his startling view that democracy is the only system to generate tyranny had any resonance today. I specifically mentioned the vast differences between Athenian democracy and our own.

Instead, in my own subjective way, I attempted to construct a narrative that showed remarkable echoes of Plato’s theoretical themes in our own predicament, especially his acute understanding of democracy as an interplay of psychology and culture. And the core of my argument for hyper-democracy was the very recent democratization of online media, which creates a uniquely 21st-century intensification of what worried Plato about democracy’s preference for feeling over reason, and for the mass over the individual.

There is, to be sure, an argument to be had about the power of concentrated wealth over our current democracy. I find the argument for money’s overwhelming power in determining policy unconvincing, but didn’t fully attempt to explore what would also have been another essay. I should merely point out that the influence of big money in politics does not seem to have had any effect on this populist presidential season (or the last two presidential elections), nor to have generated any amalgam of law or policy over the last few decades that was directly against the majority will. Yes, big moneyed interests lobby government and distort policy in some areas because of their access. But the impact of the masses is more pronounced. In fact, we have a massive debt built, since the 1980s, on the premise that popular entitlements, popular tax cuts, and initially popular wars can be extended beyond any fiscal reason. To see the trees of corporate influence rather than the forest of democratic demands seems to me to be a diversion from the core problem we currently face.


Roslyn Fuller is a research associate at Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland. Her latest book, Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose, was published by Zed Books in November.

Andrew Sullivan is a British author, editor, and blogger. Sullivan is a conservative political commentator, a former editor of The New Republic, and the author or editor of six books.