If Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos were alive in fifth century Athens, Greece, it’s possible they’d be subject to exile per “ostracism,” one of the many ancient Greek processes New Paltz professor of political science Jeff Miller discusses in his new book. Titled “Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens,” Miller examines various methods from the world’s first democratic government and considers whether versions of them should be applied in the United States.
The book, which began as a COVID-19 project for Miller, examines core conflicts liberal democracies around the world face right now, including the rising threat of alt-right fascism and new dictatorships that seek to destroy democratic norms and increasing isolation and polarization amongst people. Miller, an ancient Greek political theorist, was interested by the vibrant and durable Athenian democracy that was resistant to internal and external challenges about 2,500 years ago. While he understands that “we’re not anything like ancient Athens,” he believes that “we can look at those institutions and think around the boundaries of the way that we consider politics to work today.”
“It’s sort of a book of political imagination,” he explained. “There’s not just one way to do democracy. There’s lots of ways to do democracy. Let’s look at some of the things the ancient Greeks did.”
One example Miller discussed is elections.
“If Socrates or Plato or Aristotle were in here, and you asked them what a democracy was, one of the really important things that we think is inherent to democracy would not be on their list, and that’s elections,” he said. “They’d say elections are oligarchic. Why, who wins elections? Well, the powerful, the people that already have substantial power in the society.”
Miller paralleled this with the fact that in the United States, wealthy white men have historically won elections, then he tied it back to Athens.
“Elections, they’d say, are oligarchic institutions,” he explained. “If you do things on the basis of elections, then you’re probably on the oligarchic side, not the democracy side.”
The basis of the book is looking at some of the processes that the Athenians used instead.
“Some of them we can think about adopting, or adapting in some sort of way. Some we have to reimagine completely in a contemporary context,” he said.
The book does not aim to offer concrete policy proposals, but rather suggestions on how to reform democracy in the U.S. He hopes that readers of the book, particularly New Paltz students, start to look at what they can do to reform our democracy in the long term. “Let’s experiment a little bit at the state level and gain some acceptance for some of these ideas,” he said.
He emphasized resetting the balance between freedom and equality, “We’d like to think that freedom and equality fit together really well but they don’t… The United States tends to favor heavily the freedom aspect of things, not the equality aspect. Not that we want to eliminate freedom, but we want to reprioritize economic equality, social equality, gender equality.”
“Don’t despair,” Miller said. “But do think outside of the box, right?”