George Bush is not smart enough to be President of the United States.
The presidency, which is the head of the "executive branch", is the most difficult, powerful and scary executive job in America (I will not be presumptuous enough to say the world, though it may be.) The man who can send in troops, launch missiles, and make quieter decisions resulting in the life and death of his constitutents and others, should have a mix of qualities, in my opinion. Intelligence is first, because its a complex, chaotic job, where difficult and dangerous decisions have to be made in real time, and where the consequences of doing the wrong thing are enormous.
I want the president to be learned. A serious grounding in history at a minimum, would allow him to avoid commiting old errors in current situations. A broad study of ethics might spur him to think carefully about actions that harm some group of people to benefit another (which include most of the decisions he makes.) And to refrain from lying to the American people. We may not have had a president who avoided lying since Harry Truman (and I'm not sure who the last one was before that.)
I also want the president to have heart, because there can be no ethics without it, but that is not today's subject.
By my criteria, George W. Bush is a man of mediocre intelligence and learning, and not qualified to be president. He is the son of another such man, who was also not qualified, as I thought the American people had figured out in 1992.
It gets you thinking about Republican candidates, and if you go back as far as Eisenhower, you realize that Republicans have always preferred men of moderate intelligence, with Richard Nixon as the only exception (he was smart but crazy.) Neither Gerald Ford or Ronald Reagan were capable of threatening anyone in a duel of wits.
Why would Republicans prefer dim leaders, and why have they been so successful with them? I have an "internal" and an "external" explanation.
Internally the Republican party is structured like a social club for the very rich. A friend of mine from the upper social reaches of Los Angeles commented years ago that she found New York refreshing, because young men at parties here asked what she did for a living, while back home they asked what her daddy did. Social clubs run on a fabric not of merit but of "mana", meaning a psychic value that objects and people acquire through placement, position, relationship to other objects or people, and the multigenerational patina of money. Great mana can be acquired through proximity to old blood and money, without any personal merit; and systems that work this way create such a support network for the people who inhabit them that it is almost impossible for them to fail. At the same time, it becomes difficult to determine if they have any personal merit at all (intelligence, learning or heart), because the system so completely spares them from having to show these characteristics.
Early in my career as a businessman, I used to eagerly hire people from IBM on the understanding that they would bring to my small company some grander experience from a twenty year tenure at a huge, successful company. What I learned was that someone can "succeed" at IBM (meaning hang in place in the social web there for twenty years) without acquiring any of the skills necessary to survive in a small, dynamic environment.
George Bush looks and sounds to me exactly like an old line IBM executive (and so did his father.) Strong chin, easy command of the unique collection of cliches which is the language of mana, and precious little evidence of an independent thought process taking place behind the sculptured New England brow. People like George Bush are admitted to Yale because their ancestors were (a form of affirmative action that should be outlawed with the other if we want to be consistent). When they go into business, people step forward eager to supply them with money (if they lack any) and with the intelligence they themselves do not have. George Bush has been "rescued" this way a number of times in his career as an oilman and sports team owner. They are spared the struggle of the entrepreneur, the three o'clock in the morning night sweats about making the next payroll.
Struggle is a much better school room for learning how to be president than privilege. Why Republicans want privileged people who have never struggled, to be their president leads to the second, external reason for the Republican choice of mediocre candidates.
I don't think the powers-that-be in the Republican party (and there are some highly intelligent ones, behind the scenes) want a smart president. They want a congenial, easy-going one who goes along to get along, and never forgets to whom he is obliged for his mana. They want a figure head who will never arrogate to himself the authority to make a tough decision rather than relying on his handlers. In fact, translating the Jeffersonian tenet that the best government governs least into current terms, Republicans don't want an executive heading the executive branch.
Texas is the model for the America Republicans want. The legislature only meets every other year; its members are poorly paid and they maintain other full time jobs to get by. Though it is a huge state, the governor's office seems designed to be as weak as possible, with much of a governor's usual authority assigned elsewhere. For example, when Governor Bush ("Governor Shrub" as he's known locally) claims that he does not have the authority to grant clemency to a death row prisoner, he is telling the truth. Though clemency is handled (very terribly too) by a board of his appointees and the governor, in theory, has some influence there, Texas law allows him to grant only a temporary reprieve. Once. The rumor that the governor doesn't have a lot to do with his afternoons is one I find easy to believe. While other states may be bloated with bureaucracy, Texas is stripped. The state has no tradition of services, and no comprehension of why other people want them. Poverty is regarded as being somewhere between an endemic condition and the severe and punishable fault of the poor. I will never stop telling the anecdote of my friend the venerable and respected Texas lawyer who once unwisely offered me his solution for the homeless problem in New York: drop them all off on an island somewhere and supply them with drugs, guns and knives. (If we'd thought to sell the television rights to that one!) This man, with whom I am still friendly, is the perfect paradigm of Texas and of Bush's support machine (he is also much more intelligent than the governor.)
The relative intelligence of the candidates is not accepted as a legitimate part of the debate, except in terms that are either highly coded or highly partisan (and the sober, deliberate, coded voice of the press is nonetheless accused of being highly partisan.) It would be refreshing if we could for once have a national discussion of what the presidency is, and accordingly whether we need someone intelligent to occupy it. Instead, political candidates are routinely and always packaged as being what they are not. An excellent example is the repellent packaging of Governor Bush--the man who mocked Karla Fay Tucker by imitating her pleading for mercy before her execution--as the "compassionate conservative". Compassion is regarded in Texas (as by the far right and libertarians everywhere) as a baffling, alien quality. For someone who has never felt it, it is very hard to understand what compassion is, and therefore easy to assume that it is a weak and dangerous quality of Easterners and liberals.
Packaging George Bush as compassionate indicates that someone--the handlers--thinks it will not harm him with his real constituency (because they know better), while it will fool an American majority for whom "compassionate" is the modifier necessary to make "conservative" palatable.
If Americans fall for this manure, then there is always the question of whether they are intelligent enough to support democracy. After all, as Thoreau observed, there is a tide in each of us which could float the British empire like a chip. No government on earth, not even China's, could withstand the impact of all of its citizens standing up and calling for its replacement. It is true that people get the government they deserve, and not just because they don't resist force; but because they are complacent, because they have been fooled, because their attention is elsewhere.
The question of whether Americans are intelligent enough for democracy is not a new one. It is the fundamental, the threshold question, in the formation and evaluation of democracies everywhere. It was already at play in the debates of the framers of the Constitution, and the winning team in that fight was of course the Federalists, who believed that "we" (the privileged) needed to be protected against "the people".
Before launching into the Federalist Papers, let's define our terms. Like "compassion", a term which is meaningless applied to George Bush, "democracy" is an over-used word. It has become quite simply part of the baggage of twentieth and twenty-first century society, along with certain other concepts like "equality" and "God", which are used most frequently as a substitute for thought, instead of the way words are supposed to be used, as a sign embodying an idea. An idea should begin--begin only-- with a word; it would be good if all words were open systems, used only tentatively, constantly admitting of consistent extensions and logical evolution. When a word is the death of an idea, as it so often is today, then we are sliding away rapidly into the world of Triumph of the Will (an idea I'll discuss more in a little while.) "Democracy" like "God", may actually be a coded way of saying, "Stop asking questions."
We are all familiar with countries using "Democratic" in their name which are anything but and elections taking place in meaningless contexts of one party states or massive election fraud engineered by the government (as in Peru recently). Democracy has become one of those terribly attenuated words which in context may not mean anything more specific than "good". One of the curses of our century and the recent last is the heightened hypocrisy of large collections of people--nations, even the world--agreeing to endorse certain signs. Half of the endorsers then work to observe the underlying idea, while the other half work to defeat it.
For example, it is very hard to find anyone "mainstream" who will argue today against human "equality" or the related concept of "equal opportunity". Endorsing it, but not believing in it or working to protect it, has become one of the American "givens". The problem is that so many of the people paying lip service do not believe in it but will not say so. I would personally rather face an open adversary with a knife in his hand than the smilers with hidden knives. Almost all politicians today fall into this latter class.
A democracy is a form of government in which the will of the people is exercised either directly, as in Athens, or through representatives, as in most democracies today. I get testy email sometimes which begins, "This is not a democracy. It is a representative republic...." But what does the word "representative" mean to you? Without getting too caught up in semantics, the issue is whether the will of the people was intended within our current system to be effective always, sometimes, only a little, or never.
A reading of The Federalist suggests that the answer lies somewhere between "sometimes" and "a little":
Here is Federalist No. 63, claimed by both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison as their work:
[T]here are particular moments in public affairs, when the people stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful interpretations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.
In Federalist 55 (authorship also uncertain, between the same two men) the argument is made that any large deliberative body is likely to assume a mob mentality:
In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.
And in Federalist 10, Madison wrote of the dangers of "faction" as the ailment that destroyed all prior democracies:
[A] pure Democracy, by which I mean, a Society, consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
What is really remarkable is that finding passages of this kind in the Federalist is a surprise, even for a reasonably well-educated American, because this distrust of the people as an emotional, impulsive and not very intelligent multitude is inconsistent with the glorified but rather meaningless story of "Democracy" we all learned in school.
A personal history of democracy
From earliest childhood I remember being fed a story of Democracy which implied that it was the best and truest form of government precisely because it best assured both the primacy of the people and personal liberty. The Gettysburgh address rang in our ears year after year, with its stirring affirmation (ironically, in the context of forcing a group of people who wanted to leave, to remain part of the Union) that government of, by and for the people, must not vanish from the earth.
The choice of words is very interesting, because "by" means something very different than "for" or "of". I can manage "for" and "of" without the least concern for the opinions of the thing under management. I can, for example, determine the diet and exercise of horses without worrying too much about what they want to drink and eat, or whether they wish to gallop, and in that sense I may managing them wisely, therefore managing "for" them. Even if I am starving them, it is a form I suppose of management "of" them. So the only word in the trio which really implies democracy is that "by" --exactly what Hamilton, Madison and Jay thought it was necessary to protect "us" from.
Yet at school we were taught that America was best, and unique, because the people managed their own affairs. As a child I did not see it at the time--though I knew something was lacking--but we were constantly told how wonderful the country was, but never shown, and certainly never asked anything. I remember one of my friends realizing in high school that his entire life until then he had been treated as a sort of intelligent pet by his teachers, while his opinion had never been solicited about anything. And I was proud to say that without being asked, I had already offered mine.
I hope that even public school has changed somewhat since then, but the real purpose of our education, despite all the pious talk, was to teach us to obey and not to ask questions. Among the things which were taught, and never questioned, were that the Founders were all perfect men, intellectual, even-tempered, consummate gentlemen, almost demi-gods, and right about everything; so that it was another revelation for me to understand in more recent years the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson.
I used to imagine in high school, though we never did it, our entire class of thirty young people marching in step chanting "free-dom, free-dom, free-dom", and it would have been an impressive display, but rather than illustrating freedom would have proved the opposite.
But we began every day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in dreary unison, which I can still more or less remember:
"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, indivisible, one nation under God, with justice and liberty for all, amen."
Of course, our teachers, though they didn't seem so then, were very young, and even the older ones were for the most part not "public intellectuals." Very few of them (and I remember only a couple of exceptions from 1970 and after) seemed to have any active conception of democracy, much less of personal liberty. It was an era where everyone seemed to want to be, and to expect you to be,just like everyone else. We had a particularly young woman teacher, who was pregnant, and one day she gave us a long impromptu talk about how terrible the Soviet Union was, because you didn't have liberty and they wouldn't let you go where you wanted. And the remarkable thing was that (though there was nothing in her account which offended the Official View) no-one had ever talked to us in such detail of political matters,where even the Bad and Evil and the Things to be Avoided were left very vague, as if telling you too much would make you want them. I suppose the paradigmatic story of the time was the "beans up the nose" story, which I heard in another classroom: A mother, leaving her children alone for a little while, gives them a list of things to avoid, and concludes, "Don't put beans up your nose!" Naturally, when she comes home, her children are both languishing with beans in their nasal passages. (After hearing that I went home and tried the experiment with an uncooked green bean. It wasn't pleasant but I suffered no permanent damage.)
This same young woman, who was unusual because she liked to depart from the lesson sometimes and "just talk", started discussing her pregnancy one day. I told her that I never wanted to have children (a statement which has more or less come true, because though I helped raise a stepson I have never had any biological children, and am not likely to now.) The expression of shock on her face was palpable: "I never even thought of not having kids," she said.
Of course, there were numerous elections (class president, school president) but they didn't seem to mean anything as there were neither issues nor interests. When politics invaded our school in the Vietnam era, one of my friends ran for president of the tenth grade on an anti-Vietnam platform, which was incredibly exciting for us because we had never heard anything other than promises to clean up the school or foster school spirit. The dean of boys, standing by as he made his unexpected speech said, "That's another nail in your coffin," and an hour later he was pulled from the ballot.
The whole concept of democracy which we were taught can be summed up as a sort of prisoner's dilemma in which the linked acts of cooperation were, "We will promise you freedom; in return you will never exercise it."
The first time when I ever felt my voice counted was during the week of May 5 to 10, 1970 when with hundreds of thousands of others around the country I took to the streets to express my opposition to the war and the killings at Kent State. That week began with the killing by the National Guard of five young Americans exercising their Constitutional rights of free expression and assembly, and in the course of the week construction workers beat other young demonstrators bloody on Wall Street while the cops stood by passively. Our intelligent but crazy president, heard later on his tapes ordering the secret service to assault demonstrators, created the moral atmosphere in which the violence waspossible. We have never been as close to losing American democracy (such as it is) entirely than we were in the Nixon administration. (This week--the end of August 2000--the New York Times reported that Nixon's secretary of defense ordered the armed forces not to obey a direct order from the president unless they checked with him first. We were that close to a coup.)
Later, during college, came my one experience working in a political campaign: I supported Congressman Morris Udall for president. (It was 1976, and Jimmy Carter got the nomination.) Everywhere I went, I found a machine in place: storefront clubs in Manhattan and Brooklyn all with names like the "Chelsea Independent Democrats," busy growing tomorrow's judges and machine politicians while immunizing their progeny from prosecution even for rape. Even on campus there were machines. That was the year I learned the phrase that in politics, "there are no issues, only interests." Most of all I didn't like who I was when playing at politics, at the chess game of interests--even though working for a straight but powerless candidate, I only got a rather naive view of the proceedings, as a candidate with no influence never gets into the inner sanctum of those clubs.
In 1972, 18 years old, I cast my first vote, and I have never missed a presidential election since. Here is my record: 1972, McGovern; 1976, Carter; 1980, Carter; 1984, Mondale; 1988, Dukakis; 1992, Clinton; 1996 (I am proud to say) Ralph Nader, who I may vote for again this year. In 1992, I had only ever voted for one candidate who won; after that year, two.
When I stand in the privacy of the voting booth, looking at the little levers, I have a sacred feeling, that this is the moment which makes me free, with control over my destiny. And I imagine all those little levers crashing down all across America, their sound rising to a mighty crescendo. Then I know I am fooling myself, because my voice does not matter; but at the same time I know I will never give up, because I am an optimist, because I'm stubborn, because by acting as if the system worked we keep the possibility alive that it may be nudged back to functionality later. It is debatable that such hope is helpful rather than a self-destructive perpetuation of a system which has definitively failed.
Engineers are taught to avoid designing systems with a "single point of failure" but the framers did not understand this lesson. The system they designed has only a single link which entitles it to the name "democracy"--the effect of the crescendo of voting booth levers on the course of public policy. Once you break that, you have an oligarchy or a plutocracy.
That is what has happened. The sole honesty remaining in the system is dictated by the fact that candidates need our votes to get into office (and it will remain so until massive election fraud is introduced or voting is discontinued.) But once they are there, they are entitled to disregard us entirely. The link between our desires and their performance has been broken by money.
At the time of the framing of the Constitution, modern mass media did not exist, and political constituencies were much smaller. A candidate could get out on horseback and meet most of the electorate. The need of millions of dollars to conduct an campaign, and the corresponding opportunities offered by it, did not exist. While money must always have been significant, it never played the commanding, completely determinative role it does today. The result is that while we elect candidates, they do what the money tells them, rather than what we want.
There is a corollary to this: most politicians believe, cynically but with support from personal experience, that the electorate forgets, but the money never does. Fuck your constituency by supporting a position dictated by the money and they will forget by the next election two years from now. This happens every day. Every once in a while the sluggish electorate wakes up and surprises an incumbent. But in general the politician with the most money usually wins. Its been that way my entire life and probably long before.
Therefore there are two parallel voting schemes: the little crashing levers and the dollars. The levers only allow the candidate entry into the system, and the dollars almost exclusively determine what he does when he gets there.
Ours is a system of legalized bribery. Despite occasional newspaper articles analyzing the effects of campaign finance on public policy, no one ever calls the system what it is. We have a certain complacency if we are doing well, like businessmen under Pinochet who didn't care that people were being thrown into the sea from helicopters, so long as business was good. If we are not doing well, we are too often resigned, distracted by bread and circuses or short-circuited by an inability to imagine something different. If I tell you, "You will vote for Gore, but Occidental Petroleum will determine what he actually does," your reaction will be either be denial or resignation: you will say that I am a wild-eyed radical, or you will shrug and say that that is the way the system works.
Each of the parties has come to have two constituencies, the people of the little lever and of the dollar. The Democractic lever constitituency has continued to include immigrants, union members and the poor. But the Democratic dollar constituency so substantially overlaps the Republicans that it is increasingly difficult to tell them apart from a policy viewpoint. Democrats pose as the protectors of labor but vote for globalism and the flight of jobs abroad because that's what the money wants. Clinton's push to admit China to the WTO is completely inconsistent with his claimed stand as a friend of American labor. But the money decides (the American money, even before you look too closely at the fact that Clinton and Gore both took Chinese money as well.)
It is the tension between the two constituencies which has dictated that American intra-party politics can no longer involve any spontaneity whatever. This would expose the workings of a system where only the money counts. Deal-making or honest debate at national conventions would illustrate the currents and little ripples of dissension within the money, while loudly proclaiming the divorce of either party from the concerns of the lever-people.
The ritual of democracy without the reality is what we saw at the two national conventions this year, with their carefully scripted theater of vague slogans backed by no commitment or meaning. Signs without significance, like Colin Powell and the other minority speakers showcased by the Republicans.
I am deeply frightened by ritual, because it implies mind-numbing repetition, obedience and the mysticism of action without thought. In other words, the world of Triumph of the Will. In order to assume maximum power over minds, the Nazis had to kill language first, creating the grotesque variant of German dubbed "lingua tertii imperii" by historians. Though I believe we are still some distance away from totalitarianism, I see the signs of the same assault upon language.
In ancient Rome, emperors distracted the populace with more than one hundred days a year of circuses, but only in America have we hit on the idea of making the political process itself into the distraction necessary to lead the people away from any real interest in policy. Turn on the television, see Colin Powell endorsing Bush, think to yourself that all is well and turn it off again. The epic miscalculation the power brokers made this year is that the conventions were so boring they failed utterly as spectacle. Hence all the complaints both parties made about television's growing unwillingness to televise them. The networks, while complaining that no-one was watching, are not free to take the radical action of pulling the plug because they are all licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, which has the power to make their lives miserable even if not actually revoking their licenses.
Here's some unsolicited advice to both parties: What you forgot to introduce was any drama. I understand how frightened you are of real and visible adversity. Stage something like a wrestling match. Republicans, find yourself a Pat Buchanan who hasn't left the party, and have him surge out of nowhere and almost take it, with the genial George Bush in a yellow cape downing him with a piledriver at the last minute. Lots of raucous shouting and threats, and the audience will eat it up. Wrestling, to paraphrase Barthes, is the last moral drama of our time.
The framers were so concerned about diminishing the authority of the people that they conveniently forgot to make anyone else take actual responsibility for the way the system ran. Another big failure of our system is that laws are made sometimes without anyone clearly being responsible for introducing them--or fail without anyone being seen killing them.
I can give you two examples in which I took a personal interest. In 1987, without anyone knowing it was even pending, Congress passed a law known as Section 1706 of the Tax Reform Act. It eliminated the right of several hundred thousand American programmers to do business as freelancers, and made them employees of the middlemen who placed them at customers.
Section 1706 was sponsored by Senator Moynihan of New York. The official story was that the law was passed by accident. The Senate had a rule that if you introduced a law which cost money, you had to attach as a set-off a bill that raised an equivalent amount of revenue. A Moynihan aide had reached into a filing cabinet maintained by some Senate committee and pulled out an appropriately sized set off for another initiative of the Senator.
The industry, which consisted collectively of individual freelancers and the small firms which placed them, believed that money had dictated the passage of Section 1706. The big firms, which had large staffs of technical employees, wanted to eliminate their smaller competition, who would fold if they had to put all the freelancers on the payroll. One rumor I heard was that 1706 was actually a project of Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey, who was co-founder of one of the large technical firms.
An organization with which I was involved, the Independent Computer Consultants Association, went to war and almost bankrupted itself. It spent almost its entire budget lobbying Congress for repeal and discovered that it simply didn't have enough money to be listened to, let alone prevail. You can't even get into your congressman's office these days if you haven't paid money. It was a battle of the lever-pullers against the dollars, and the dollars won. But no-one, not even Moynihan, was ever held responsible for the successful surprise attack on the smaller players in the contract programming industry.
The other example is the passage of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Newt Gingrich (remember him?) had sworn that Internet censorship wouldn't happen on his watch, and the House bill had been defeated. Suddenly it re-emerged from the conference committee, no-one knew exactly how. Most Americans probably don't know that House-Senate conference committees can revitalize legislation which has been defeated or add provisions which have never been considered. Here is evidence of the oligarchy working directly, outside any democratic bounds; here the midnight legislator (as we later found out) was the powerful Congressman Hyde, and even Speaker Gingrich was silent.
Authority and responsibility are supposed to be coupled with one another in healthy systems. In ours, the legislature exercises maximum authority with minimal responsibility.
The Athenian direct democracy was the bete noire of the Federalist Papers, mentioned time and time again as a failed experiment. In Athens, the assembly consisted of all adult male citizens; Madison and Hamilton spend much of their breath arguing that this is a terrible way to do things, and that electing a smaller group of representatives is preferable. In Federalist 63, right after the condemnation of mob action given above, the author asks
What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped, if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens, the hemlock on one day, and statues on the next.
The "provident safeguard" described is "the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens"--the genial legislature as savior of the mob from itself.
But Athens was neither as chaotic, or the U.S. as stable, as the Federalist Papers claim. The Federalist's favorite indictment of Athens was the inexcusable murder of Socrates by popular vote; but American democracy has, and in far greater numbers, killed black slaves, native Americans, dissidents of every stripe, innocent people subjected to capital punishment, not to mention Chileans, Guatemalans, and Colombians, despite the "temperate and respectable" body, which has either promoted these actions, or stayed out of the way while the executive or the states performed them.
Contrary to the Federalists, Athenian democracy worked rather well. It had a lot to commend it. People became well-respected experts in particular subjects, and the city came to rely on them. Other citizens never spoke, because they knew they lacked the knowledge or perspective necessary to make a good impression, which was tremendously important to them. Compare our members of Congress, who blather about topics of which they are completely ignorant--because they are not held accountable for their stupidity.
Athenian democracy weathered two coups and was restored afterwards. For most of its existence, it was an internally peaceful form of government, with little of the faction the Federalists feared. By contrast, our own form of republican government has not been faction-free. Our Civil War is a prime example of its breakdown. The assault of the Gingrich Republicans on their adversaries, culminating in the vengeful impeachment of the President, raises doubts as to how long our democracy can remain stable. The Federalist dream may be failing, even characterized as a stable oligarchy. As a democracy, it has definitively failed.
The graphe paranomon was an Athenian innovation which gave any citizen the right to challenge a bad law by suing the individual who had obtained its passage, for money damages. The graphe paranomon would be the perfect solution to the problem I described above: of holding legislators responsible for the Communications Decency Act, for example.
Greek democracy has a undeserved bad rap today, largely because of the prejudice the Federalists bore. Athens had stability, a high level of public discourse, and less violence internally than the United States has seen in its 225 years. Athenian foreign policy was no more barbaric than ours, and for similar reasons.
M.I. Finley wrote in Democracy Ancient and Modern:
Athens therefore provides a valuable case study of how political leadership and popular participation succeeded in coexisting over a long period of time, without either the apathy or ignorance exposed by public opinion experts, or the extremist nightmares that haunt elitist theorists. The Athenians made mistakes. Which governmental system has not? The familiar game of condemning Athens for not having lived up to some ideal of perfection is a stultifying approach. They made no fatal mistakes, and that is enough.
Given a choice between an extremely weak representative democracy, and direct Athens-style government, I would choose the latter in a flash, despite all Madison and Hamilton's fears of the headless and ungovernable mob. I can imagine no more exciting feeling than walking up the hill, ready to take up the day's business in the city and knowing that I was entitled to be there because Athenian. Not because of the money.
The Greek polity was based on the idea we are smart enough to govern ourselves. The American republic is based on the idea we are not. I share the Athenian view.