What the Past Teaches About U.S. Democracy

This article examines how American elites have expanded an empire constantly at war while ignoring the needs of the vast majority at home. It sketches the present political moment centered on President Barack Obama’s first 18 months in office, then looks at ancient Athens in order to pick up concepts that Athenians debated, such as citizenship based on democratic equality and freedom, as well as its oligarchic opposites. Drawing on Athenian ideas and practices of democracy by politically empowered citizen-peasants, artisans, and casual laborers can deepen our understanding of the many anti-democratic features of the U.S. political system. Similarly, we may gain a better perspective on the persistence of imperialism in our own time by seeing how Athenians forcibly acquired foreign economic, political, and geographical assets in order to enhance the power of their city-state, often violating law and their own moral norms in the use of military force.

Obama’s Presidency

Obama promised a return to the rule of law, openness in policy decision-making, and a transformative change in government. Instead, he continued the Iraq occupation, ordered the largest ever escalation of the illegal ground war and an aerial assassination campaign against Pashtun resistance forces and remnants of al Qaeda in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan. Concurrently, he escalated covert operations by U.S. Special Forces and CIA personnel inside Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The president has said nothing about his condoning of torture-by-proxy or his personal ordering of assassinations—a war crime under international and U.S. law. However, he has defended his multiple Afghanistan “surges” by falsely claiming that the war was just, lawful, defensive in nature, and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. 

Meanwhile, Obama has tightened economic sanctions and stepped up war preparations against Iran, continued enabling and defending apartheid Israel’s war crimes and occupation of Palestinian lands, and is shoring up traditional U.S. imperial relationship with Latin American and Caribbean nations in order to undermine independent, populist governments that pursue pro-people policies in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Cuba. The Obama administration secretly contracted with the Colombian government to use seven military bases for Pentagon operations throughout South America. It sided with the coup regime in Honduras and increased the Pentagon’s presence in Mexico, which earlier had been placed under the authority of the new “Northern Command.” Obama is continuing the Bush policy of expanded weapons sales and direct military involvement in at least six African countries facing domestic insurgencies.

To staff his “Transition Economic Advisory Board,” Obama chose individuals who were complicit in corporate crimes. One of them, Timothy Geithner, the former head of the New York Fed under the Clinton administration, was a serial tax-evader who had also helped set the stage for the global recession. Playing roles on Obama’s Advisory Board were two leading proponents of economic deregulation—former Secretaries of the Treasury Robert Rubin (who enabled the criminal activities of Enron leaders and numerous other CEOs and directors of private companies, banks, and hedge funds) and Lawrence Summers, Clinton’s deputy treasury secretary who, together with Ruben, played an instrumental role in repealing the New Deal’s chief piece of banking reform legislation, the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking. Obama soon made Summers his top economic advisor and Geithner his Treasury Secretary. Geithner had just been involved in covering up his secret negotiations to bailout the giant insurer AIG, Inc. so that AIG could then use taxpayers money to fully repay the banks it had borrowed from.

When it came to picking an attorney general, Obama appointed Eric H. Holder who had justified Bush’s illegal program of spying on the private conversations of American citizens through warrantless wiretaps on the grounds of protecting state secrets. Holder answered calls for inquiry into past acts of presidential lawbreaking by rejecting the Nuremberg principles pertaining to heads of state who committed war crimes and CIA and military torturers who claimed to be following presidential orders. Having affirmed impunity for Bush, Cheney, and their torture-justifying lawyers (including Jay Bybee and John Yoo), Holder announced his intention to establish what constitutional scholar Glenn Greenwald called a three-tiered justice system, with jury trials in a federal District Court for some illegally-held and tortured detainees, special military commissions for others who are also being held illegally, “and indefinite detention without charges for…the rest” who are going to be moved to the first preventive detention prison established on U.S. soil.

Thanks to Holder’s efforts, the Senate extended the PATRIOT Act for another year, which allows the president to, “treat…human rights advocates as criminal terrorists, and threaten…them with 15 years in prison for advocating nonviolent means to resolve disputes.”

In 2009-10, these issues came together during congressional discussions of the relationship between the “free enterprise,” predatory capitalist economy and the public’s need for health care. Most Americans wanted the government to move to a single-payer system or, failing that, at the very least a “public option” or some form of Medicare for all. But Obama opposed any proposal that shut out the private, for-profit insurance industry. The new law does not make health care universal, or more cost-effective, efficient, and affordable for millions of middle-income Americans. It guarantees hundreds of billions in windfall profits for the radically corrupt pharmaceutical companies that charge exorbitant prices for drugs because the government refuses to negotiate costs with them. And it allows the insurance industry to continue setting rates and enjoying exemption from anti-trust regulation.

The incompatibility between democracy’s ethical ideals and the rationale of unregulated capitalism is a problem Obama inherited. But he became president partly because he operates on the same Reaganite assumption as the Republicans: namely, that in order for a capitalist market economy to further its goals, the majority of citizens must be prevented from realizing most of their social demands. Keep the public ignorant of what officials are really thinking and doing; deny them information on how decisions are made and who benefits most from them; and build non-accountability into the financial system, so that when things go wrong, the losses are borne by the public, not the “too-big-to-fail” banks.

In assessing America’s domestic and foreign policies, a clearer view of the relationship between imperialism, war, and democracy can help us see the connections, besides being interesting in their own right. Bearing in mind that historical experiences are unique, time is multi-dimensional, and comparisons from different eras can be pushed too far, let us turn to the example of ancient Athens, where democracy was a form of city-state that fully empowered all free-born male citizens.

Perspectives from Antiquity

Well over 2,000 years ago in Athens, Greece, in a city-state about one-eighth the size of Massachusetts, the democratic form unfolded alongside an empire of tributary states, controlling people living throughout the Aegean Sea area and along the coast of Anatolia. Broadly speaking, ancient Athenian history teaches that any political form can be fully compatible with imperialism and the worst kinds of violence and the most diabolical methods of inflicting pain on the human body that mortals can imagine. A war-fighting democracy can survive military defeat, remain stable, and strengthen its democratic institutions by retaining a limit on civil office and relying on written law. But even as the Athenians made changes in their politics and economy, they continued their struggle to recover some of their 5th century possessions, until the cumulative effect of repeated wars, mistaken policies, and lack of money led ultimately to democracy’s failure. Athens followed such a course for about a century and a half after losing the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC and going through a short period of impotence. In the late 4th Century BC, Alexander the Great absorbed Athens into the Macedonian empire. Only then did the era of the city-state and of mass democracy as a political regime cease to exist, though the theory of democracy lived on, revived by the English Levellers in the 17th century and advocated by Tom Paine in the late 18th century.

Looking through the prism of our own political situation, we see that in Athens’s decentralized democracy, citizens routinely tortured slaves as part of the judicial process and used torture to promote civic discipline and “reduce…vice.” Americans practice torture as a matter of state policy and share with the Athenians a history of racism, as evidenced during U.S. wars against Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The anti-“barbarian” (i.e,. anti-Asian) racism of the Athenians and their inability to recognize a common humanity in other Greek democracies, may even have contributed to the total defeat of their naval expedition against Syracuse and other city-states on the island of Sicily (415-413 BC), their longest, costliest campaign.

Both Thucydides, who made imperialism, power, and hubris the main themes of his history of the long Peloponnesian War, and Aristotle, the 4th century Athenian philosopher of political forms and their transformation, encourage us to question the conditions under which democracy and imperialism are compatible and the conditions under which they clash. What parts of the population profit from imperialist policies and war and who pays the cost of ruling over or controlling others who wish to be free of foreign control?

Rule by the people conveys the idea that ordinary people (“the many”) actually have the political power to govern and that they strive publicly “to redefine the terms of ruling and being ruled.” For 200 years, from the late 6th through the late 4th centuries BC, the male citizens of Athenian democracy—“the most successful State in Greece”—took political decisions by majority vote and strove constantly to increase their “share of power” and extend it to all institutions. Contrast that with the U.S. where the main institutions of power have tried to suppress democracy from below.

In the Athenian city-state, “democratic or absolute equality” was based on citizenship, which rested only partly on war-generated chattel slavery. Historian Kurt A. Raaflaub observed, since Athenian democracy guaranteed collective freedom, the rights and freedoms of the individual citizen, whether rich or poor, “rarely need[ed] to be stressed and formulated as such.” Ellen Meiksins Wood reminds us that Athenian democracy did not rest primarily on slavery, but rather was the product of a laboring citizenry, composed of “peasants, [urban and rural] craftsmen, and even casual laborers.” The majority dwelt in the countryside, but all eventually came to enjoy both “freedom of speech” and “equality of speech.” Oligarchs, members of the wealthy upper class of property owners, reacted against those who had to work for a living and could not enjoy economic independence. They downplayed the citizens’ political identity and daily life experiences, emphasizing instead higher education and “the personal qualities required for the citizen’s right of full political participation.” But democracy’s defenders rebutted them by insisting on the average citizen’s political expertise, intelligence, and right of free speech.

No wonder that Athenian citizens, in their assembly, council, and jury courts, used freedom of speech to closely scrutinize and control their highest public officials. Their democracy grew out of oligarchy and oligarchs and aristocratic land-owners were always ready to revolt against “democratic methods of organizing power,” even though they seldom contested empire and imperial expansion. Certainly, Americans have far surpassed Athenians where the understanding of citizenship and civil liberties are concerned. But the American way of life and politics, characterized by dynamic geopolitical expansion, constant and forceful meddling in the affairs of other peoples, and denial of “equality of speech” between citizens and corporations, has yet to emerge from oligarchic rule.

Athenian voters, by contrast, understood that secrecy and misrepresentation of policy by those in public office were utterly destructive of democratic governance. So they gave most of their officials the opportunity to exercise power for only one year, then held them strictly accountable for what they did or failed to do while in office. The “elaborate machinery” they evolved to do this included frequent “accountability trials” for non-trivial offenses against the people. Generals, too, could be tried and, if found guilty, executed or ostracized for their decisions on the battlefield. They could also be indicted and examined without being charged.

Athenian citizens appeared to understand that democracy reverts to oligarchy and citizens lose control over their political system when non-accountability prevails among the very highest civil and military officials of the state. In comparison, America’s most important political and economic institutions, as presently constituted, are so utterly incompatible with democracy’s most basic principles as to make nonsense of the proposition that the U.S. is a “democracy.”

In the U.S. Congress, accountability trials for the highest officials are virtually nonexistent. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo attest to this. So, too, does the online video clip of an American war atrocity that was seen by millions of viewers around the world in early April 2010. The classified military film, leaked to the Wikileaks.org website by someone within the Pentagon, showed 2 American helicopter crews murdering 12 Iraqis civilians in broad daylight, including 2 Reuters reporters, and seriously wounding 2 Iraqi children; a nearby American tank came upon the scene and deliberately crushed the body of a wounded Iraqi who was trying to crawl away. The Pentagon sought to cover up this incident, which occurred on July 12, 2007, then lied about it. But massacres of this sort are common occurrences in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as attested by a recent incident on a main highway near Kandahar in which trigger-happy American soldiers intentionally raked a large passenger bus with gunfire, killing 5 Afghan civilians and wounding 18 others. The murders touched off riots against the American occupiers.

Economic Predators

Continuing with our excavation into the deep past, the Athenians had an agricultural economy with a weak “material and technological base.” As their democracy developed, they became economic predators who set justice aside and waged war continuously. Indeed, war and its preparation was Athens’s chief business, just as it has become America’s. But, in ancient Greece, war was transparent rather than covert. For almost three decades non-professional Athenian citizen militia and partially democratized naval fleets fought the Persians, then fellow Greeks, led by Sparta, the champion of oligarchy. Fighting was constant. A small number of “demagogues” skilled in oratory, enlisted the Athenian citizen-militia in military adventures and sustained their support for empire and war. They appealed to the citizens’ honor, pride, and self-interest. But they also justified their policies by stoking fear of external enemies. Fear-wracked citizens then came to view imperialism and its techniques as morally wrong when practiced by others but not themselves.

By contrast, war waged in Afghanistan and Iraq by the U.S and its NATO allies is deeply embedded in industrial, financial, and educational structures. The demagogues’ role is played by the president, Congressional leaders, mainstream media elites, and the corporations that employ them, as well as by Pentagon officials themselves. They keep the public in line, shape perceptions of war in accordance with their policy line and their own beliefs.

Because modern warfare is entirely profit-oriented, mercenaries employed by specialized private military and intelligence companies play a big role in its conduct. This can be seen especially in Iraq and Afghanistan where the Pentagon employs a huge work force of private armed-contractors and gun-slinging thugs who enjoy legal immunity for the crimes they commit. Even citizens who disagree with America’s wars are enjoined to support the standing army and regard as “heroes” and “warriors” all professional soldiers and enlistees who serve in battle zones.

According to Aristotle, Athenians administered their empire with 700 military/civilian officials. His 700 figure indicates a scale of administration that, in the opinion of historian Moses I. Finley, was “relatively larger than the formal administration in the provinces of the Roman empire.” What made Athens’ empire work was naval power, consisting of fleets of “triremes,” crewed by up to 170 rowers (most of whom were citizens, augmented by foreigners). The fleet enabled Athens to control the Aegean Sea and nearly all of its islands, and to collect from its colonies annual tributes, in the form of cash, timber, and grain, or income from land and confiscated mines. Finley also argues that in the ancient economy, the modern forms of colonial exploitation, such as “cheap labor and cheap raw materials,” were not operative. Nevertheless, he stresses that empire’s direct and indirect advantages were considerable. The poorer half of the Athenian population profited most directly and “to an extent unknown in the Roman empire or in modern empires,” whereas the “more prosperous Athenians in the upper classes” paid the most domestic taxes as well as the costs of war and empire.

Democracy Deficit

By comparison, in the modern oligarchic-ruled United States, this relationship to empire is reversed: the poor fight and suffer most from constant imperialist wars and interventions. The rich, the senior military officer class, and many professional politicians, are wars’ chief beneficiaries. And the various stratum of the middle class usually receives material advantages, except when the wars are overly long and unsuccessful. A noteworthy issue that connects Athenian political thought to the American present is the Athenian understanding that inequality destroyed state unity and ignited class conflict. If democracy was to flourish and society remain healthy, inequalities of power and wealth had to be limited. By contrast, the drafters of the U.S. federal Constitution expressed their anti-democratic biases by structuring power in ways explicitly designed to foster economic inequality.

To focus attention on inequality and, along with it, the problem of accountability, one need only contrast Aristotle’s understanding of democracy with James Madison’s understanding of it in the late 18th century. Aristotle regarded democracy as approaching the most enduring, stable, and just form of government, for it was the form most likely to serve the common good of all “free” male human beings or “full citizens” as opposed to the “non-citizens” who lived among them and against whom they defined themselves, such as slaves, women, and resident aliens. As he defined it, democracy, was narrowly egalitarian and meant the judicious management of society’s resources to benefit all full citizens, who, in the political sphere at least, had to be treated equally, “with equal rights to debate and to determine policy.” But, in his Politics, Aristotle also recognized a conflict between economic inequality and democracy. To lessen this class conflict, Aristotle proposed reducing economic inequality in the city-state, so that rich property owners, the educated, those who did not have to work for a living—i.e., the oligarchic class—would be less inclined to take advantage of others internally as well as commit aggression against other societies. For unless there was economic justice for all citizens, not only would the rich behave insolently, but people in general would act indecently toward one another, the political community would fracture, and the middle class contract.

By contrast, as Noam Chomsky notes, the pre-capitalist, chief architect of the American Federal Constitution, James Madison, recognized the same age-old conflict between rich and poor, but proposed the exact opposite solution, arguing, in effect to let the systemic inequalities in American society remain, and reduce the scope of popular participation in government. In the state debates on the Federal Constitution, Madison expressed his contempt for democratic (agrarian) reform by observing that, “in England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place…our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation,” which would be harmful to the wealthy minority.

Although familiar with democracy’s requirements, Madison, like his fellow slave-holder Thomas Jefferson, did everything in his power to enshrine economic inequality, strengthen property rights, and guard against the redistribution of wealth. For if the people had more money to spend on their basic needs and could control their lives, they would want more and would pressure their political leaders to really represent their interests. The problem for Madison was how to contain the leveling threat of the people’s political participation and “reverse the direction of the country, to set it against the democratic and participatory politics flourishing in the states.” He and the other drafters achieved these goals: (a) by means of the Constitution’s structure and balancing of offices, (b) by not granting political rights equally, and, over time, (c) by judicial review by judges appointed for life, so that citizens could not call them to account for their decisions in favor of the propertied. The result was a constitution overflowing with built-in oligarchic features.

Ever since the U.S. Constitutional system was enacted in 1787 to replace the more democratic Articles of Confederation, it has helped privileged elites in their effort to prevent the majority of citizens from participating actively in national politics. Based on oligarchic, as opposed to democratic, political equality, the pro-slavery Constitution institutionalized existing race, gender, class, and economic distinctions. It framed a state that aimed at effective military defense, perpetuated discrimination, and encouraged extreme acquisitiveness. Its complex Electoral College and winner-take-all election system obstructed candidate selection from below and insured the development from the early 19th century onward of a two-party system for selecting presidents, all of whom, from George Washington to Barrack Obama, have been avid supporters of empire and opponents of social democracy. The Constitution, in short, created a constitutional republic that has “permanently condemned” the majority of citizens “to ‘secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of [life’s] blessings,’ which they could never have, though they still might dream otherwise.”

Prompted by this flawed document, the Federalist project advanced into the early 19th century under Republican leadership. In the 1830s the Jacksonians opened up the nationalist, centralizing project begun by the Federalists. Under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, they extended the franchise to all white males, while at the same time intensifying the ethnic cleansing of the Indians. Over the next 50 years, the rise of corporations and private bank companies completed the Federalist project of making America safe for oligarchic rule. Giant corporations, big banks, and the individuals who ran them empowered the enemies of popular democracy in ways the Federalists never even imagined. Corporate leaders and bankers, aided by the media they controlled, became the dominant force shaping domestic law. They used the law to empower managers rather than regulators and to make the courts rather than elected legislators the overseers of corporate profits and behavior. Thus, they insured that American society would continue to function non-democratically, without equal justice and freedom for all people. 

In the USA Today

Jump ahead to the present phase of U.S. imperialism in which the world’s richest nation continues to experience sharply accelerating internal poverty and income inequality. When in 2007 a UN research report ranked market-oriented countries of unequal size in terms of income inequality, the U.S. stood third with the top percentile of Americans receiving the highest ever share of income. Only Hong Kong and the city state of Singapore had bigger gaps between rich and poor, while Israel, Portugal, and New Zealand ranked fourth, fifth, and sixth; Britain and Italy tied for seventh place; Australia was ninth and Ireland and Greece tied for tenth place. 

Why did American income inequality rise so dramatically in the neo-liberal era? Part of the explanation lies in such political and constitutional factors as: the blocking of the majority of citizens from effective participation in public affairs; the repression of trade unions that could protect workers, and the highly class-conscious business elites’ undermining of popular support for unions. Rising income inequality is also related to the unrestrained authority over wealth that Federal and state governments give to top corporate executives, Wall Street bankers, and financiers; and to rampant external and internal militarism, fed by increases to both the size of the defense budget and its annual rate of growth. The military budget is almost as sacrosanct as the financial system, which can never be discredited no matter how many times it fails.         

American policy-makers have long ignored economic constraints on their ambition to refashion the world to their own liking. Under the Clinton administration, when the U.S. economy rebounded from recession and was growing again, the Clintonites encouraged and bribed allies to adopt aggressive capitalist “free trade” policies (NAFTA), which deepened global economic inequalities. They also abetted the financial speculation that led to the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. Many Asian banks were brought to the edge of collapse. Riots erupted in hardest hit Indonesia, undermining, then ending the 31-year-long dictatorship of former army general and mass murderer Suharto.

In November 1999 came the “Battle of Seattle”—the first large-scale street protests in the North against corporate crimes and neo-liberal globalization policies promoted by the U.S. through the World Trade Organization, the IMF, and the World Bank. Critics of capitalism had found their voice, but neo-liberal ideas continued to be the common sense of government policy-makers and most economists; and the myths spread around the world. They started with the false assumptions that “free markets” allocated resources efficiently and, as economist Joseph E. Stiglitz put it, were “self-correcting.” Financial market operations should be unrestrained and unregulated, and corporate-managed trade—called “free trade”— encouraged everywhere.

Neo-liberal ideology spread around the world. It came to Russia at a time when its limited integration into the world economy was just getting underway. After experiencing several years of disastrous financial pillage of its resources and multi-billion transfers of public wealth into private, sometimes gangster hands, resource-rich Russia reorganized itself for economic growth based on energy exports. Russia’s return to participation as a significant player in the world economy, on its own terms, posed no serious economic challenge to American aspirations to total global dominance. Neither did China’s rise to economic power status. Instead, dynamic economic growth in the European Union countries, especially Germany, represented more of a challenge. But what mainly reduced U.S. economic capacities and contributed to the nation’s relative economic decline were the de-industrialization and militarization of U.S. society, and the decision by increasing numbers of American corporate leaders to shift production to low-wage countries like China and India.

As the 21st century opened amid forebodings about the future, the world economy continued to restructure into great regional epicenters of economic power. With no other nation powerful enough to balance the U.S., Bush Junior opted to use military force to control the internal politics of oil-rich Muslim states and to set maximalist diplomatic goals in Eastern Europe, where he tried to expand NATO right up to Russia’s borders while making inroads into the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. It really didn’t matter what the Bush/Cheney administration attempted to do abroad because, as one economist put it, “so long as the dollar reserve system [held], the rules really [were] different for the United States.”

Thus, unrestrained by rivals, the U.S. began spending more on its armed forces than all other nations combined—reaching nearly 5 percent of its GDP in 2009. Embedded militarism at home insured Congressional support for military spending while the global deployment of U.S. military forces and naval fleets, linked by the new information-communication technology, reinforced the illusion of remote control of distant battlefields from within the U.S. The enhanced power that these developments gave to U.S. political and economic elites, almost none of whom had ever directly experienced actual warfare, strengthened their resolve to go on using military power to control the world no matter what the cost to others.

Seven years after 9/11 the U.S.-led neo-liberal economic project, which the leaders of the advanced economies in Europe and Asia more or less followed, brought on a major world recession. As credit markets at home and abroad froze up, starting in December 2007 and continuing through all of 2008, the recession turned into the greatest global financial crash of the post-World War II era. Extreme laissez-faire ideas (i.e. “free market” ideology) and the impulse to privatize most state-functions—just two of many neo-liberal strands of discourse—fell into brief disrepute. After about a year and half of recession, the Obama administration was able to check the financial meltdown by means of massive government monetary and fiscal interventions. He gave tax-payer’s money to banks without conditions (so that they would start lending again, which most of them failed to do) and rewarded Wall Street traders and high level corporate officers, whose actions had caused the succession of crises that led to the global recession. A political crisis of the capitalist system itself, such as occurred in the 1930s, was thereby postponed by creating massive government debt.

In late 2009, investor confidence in the inflated global financial system recovered but the trend of slow economic growth, high unemployment, and declining real wages for most Americans continues. Under the Obama team, unemployment and underemployment, as well as home foreclosures and foreclosure delinquencies continue to rise through 2010, bringing misery to scores of millions of middle class and working families in all walks of life. According to the recent estimates made by the National Academy of Science, which take into account medical costs and geographic variations, there were “approximately 47.4 million Americans [i.e. 1 in 6] living in poverty in 2008, “7 million more than the government’s official figure.

The backdrop to today’s struggles for democracy and economic justice is a nation that has undergone the worst economic setback since the Great Depression thanks to the policies of successive Democratic and Republican governments. One of the great struggle of the 21st century will be to end militarism and check the trend toward unregulated corporate authority over vast wealth. Unless that happens the larceny of bankers and CEOs, corporate shaping of the government’s agenda, plus economically and socially debilitating war and militarism are likely to continue rotting the United States from within. Just like Athens.


Herbert P. Bix, author of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan(HarperCollins, 2000), writes on problems of war and empire.