Britain with its Westminster system of democracy has claimed to be the exemplar of good democratic practice. Many countries, most commonly in the former British colonies have adopted the Westminster practice of government. However classical Athens home of the first democracy provides a terrible warning of what happens when the practice of democratic politics becomes corrupted. Tragically Athens provides a template for the systematic corruption of democratic government, a model that Westminster appears to be copying.
While the primary cause for its abrupt end was a brutal foreign conquest, it was already rotting from within. It was the poor behaviour and discreditable practices of its leaders that caused it to lose popular support. According to one source, democracy was so discredited that few of the citizens could not be roused to defend it. What is true, is that after the destruction of Athens by Sulla and his Roman army, no attempt was made to restore democracy.
Given that democracy in Athens involved the demos or the all the citizens how did it become so unpopular. Leading politicians increasingly used informers to discredit their rivals. These informers were planted within the households of their rivals with the purpose of gathering information to discredit their rivals. Often these informer stories were fabrications, but so artfully put together that they put an end of their rival’s careers. Politics became the amphitheatre in which your rivals were discredited and destroyed through a process of character assassination.
In the UK the tabloid press and social media perform a similar function to the Athenian informer. The informed source always claims that there scurrilous stories are in the public interest. What they mean is that by revealing discreditable stories about politicians, they are stopping this rogue from achieving public office, where he would abuse the power of that office. Strangely it’s is only politicians of the opposing party who behave so discreditably. No doubt the same justification was claimed by the Athenian informers.
This has three unfortunate negative impacts. Citizens become disillusioned about the practice of politics. Increasingly they come to believe that all politicians are rogues. The disillusioned people withdraw their support and involvement in the democratic process, so it loses legitimacy. Only a certain type of politician can thrive in these circumstances, that is the rogue. Only the rogue is immune to stories about themselves. They care little for discreditable stories about them, stories that would destroy an honest politician. In fact they claim that the open displays of their roguery demonstrates their honesty. They unlike the other politicians are the prepared to be open about their failings. Unfortunately an people are becoming disillusioned about politics believing that all politicians are rogues a liars. Finally when the practice of politics is reduced to little more than character assassination, politicians are incapable of raising to the occasion when a crisis threatens. They simply don’t what to do.The cheats, the liars and purveyors of scurrilous story are helpless, they have nothing to offer apart from dissimulation. Government policy degenerates into a search for scapegoats on whom to deflect the blame for their failing policies.
There is another minor vice that is beginning to pervade Westminster democracy. The intra party struggle for ideological purity. A struggle in which the enemy is not the opposition party, but perceived opponents within the party. Each of the main political parties has embarked on a Soviet style purging political deviants. The consequence of which, is the unedifying spectacle of seemingly endless civil war within the party. Debates on issues of national importance become secondary to the internal party debate on matters of ideological purity.
One consequence is that if the British experienced the devastation wreaked on by foreign invasion, they would be as unwilling as the Athenians to restore their old discredited democratic system. Athenian democracy was never restored, they remained content to accept domination by a remote central government either in Rome or Constantinople, in preference to government by their own local leaders.
As an incredulous student I remember a lecture by Professor Oakshott in which he said the poor behaviour of the Athenian politicians has discredited the idea of democracy for centuries, and the rehabilitation of democracy and its procedures was but a recent historical phenomenon. I fear that the bad practice which masquerades as democratic politics in both the USA and the UK, will as did that of the Athenians, again make democracy seem the least desirable form of political governance.