On the novel topics of voting and democracy

But what of voting? Voting is a relatively novel concept. One might argue that it is based on a more democratic allocation of power, and those who prefer to allocate on the basis of capitalism might find it profitable to have the people confuse economic with political choice.

Jeff Goldblum What GIF by The Late Late Show with James Corden


Democracy did fall out of favor because of the plague for quite a while. And they did live in a socially stratified society that excluded women and slaves. However, they did use the power of collective action against at least one author.


This is so confusing I don’t even know which plague you’re referring to. The one during the Peloponnesian war, which contributed to the specific democracy in Athens being suspended but restored very soon afterward? Something later? Regardless, voting has been around for a long time…centuries even if you don’t count anything from antiquity.


Well, yes, I was counting from antiquity. If one does that, it does seem like an old idea that had fallen out of fashion, and then revived, somewhat gingerly at first, as an alternative to absolute monarchy,. feudalism and other more common models.

Thucydides recorded it sliding into discord, folly, and demagoguery. Only someone of Pericles’ intelligence and integrity, Thucydides wrote, “could respect the liberty of the people and at the same time hold them in check.” His death left Athenian democracy in the hands of self-serving scoundrels such as Alcibiades, who later promoted an oligarchic coup, and bellicose demagogues such as Cleon, whom Thucydides scorned as “remarkable among the Athenians for the violence of his character.”

Now, it is true that parliaments could vote, and could sometimes thwart the schemes of a hereditary monarch, but if membership in those parliaments was restricted to those of a certain class, or those who owed their seats to patronage of one sort or another, it stretches the limits of what a democratic vote means.

My working model of what is democratically legitimate rests on the conception of all being able to vote, and all voting with theoretically equal power-- thus a system in which the present government chooses it’s electorate is not legitimate. Voting by counties, instead of by the principle of “one man one vote” present similar challenges to legitimacy.

Neoliberalism can be understood in a myriad of different ways, but the public choice route conceives of the devolutiion of power from an institution that may well be democratic, to a market society. It takes power from an instition that should allocate power equally, and gives it to institution that allocates power on the basis of buying power, or on the basis of capital-- both of which are allocated rather unequally in our present society.

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Yeah, so, Thucydides is an amazing source but not the beginning and ending of history. Your source talks about the democracy breaking down under the pressure of the plague and Spartan opposition, but it was restored in 403 BC, just one year after the war ended. It also was not the only democracy in ancient Greece and its surrounding colonies. So no, sorry, dead wrong there.

Defining precisely what is and isn’t a democracy isn’t simple. The original things called that of course did not let women vote, and nobody lets non-citizens vote. That’s maybe not a big deal when it’s a handful of visitors and a much more significant one when it’s a permanent slave caste like in ancient Athens or early America. The truth is it probably makes a spectrum, how much power is distributed to people on the whole. I don’t see how that at all translates into voting being a novel concept though. That’s dead wrong too.


Which plague, when? I’m unsure of the timeline you’re using here. Greek “democracy” was long gone by the time of the Justinian plague, even by the Antonine Plague. By the time of the Black Plague, kings were voted into that role in areas of Western Europe, but that wasn’t democracy in any sense of the word.


Great Plague of Athens.

I’ve found three stories about, all by different authors, all appearing around the same time, all sort of advancing a similar thesis.

and of course the new yorker story

weird huh? “Great” minds think alike about the same fairy tales.

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The Athenian democracy did run into trouble from the plague and war with Sparta, but it was also restored in 403 BC, literally only one year after the end of the war and its overthrow. It was also not the only democracy in the Greek world. So sorry, but you’re simply wrong here. Ditto with voting being novel, which is not the same thing in any case.

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Yup. For all we know that’s how Neanderthals decided on which wall of the cave the paintings went.


So, red hand prints were votes?


Ya know, that’s a workable theory!


Who, though, has a right to leave a handprint?

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