A popular topic among those less optimistic about the American Experiment is to compare America to Rome, either the republic or empire. The former camp looks for the Sulla in the past and the Caesar in the future. The latter camp looks for evidence that the American Empire is in its final days, like fifth century Rome. The trouble with comparing America to Rome is it is not a republic. It has not been since Gettysburg and is now something closer to a radical democracy.
The more accurate historical analogy for modern America is ancient Athens. While America is not quite yet a radical democracy, that is the current path. Soon the electoral college will be circumvented, so that presidents are elected directly. The Senate was democratized a century ago. The franchise is universal and will soon extend to anyone currently standing on American soil. The last ragged bits of republic will soon be gone and America will be a radical democracy.
Just as the wealthy and powerful in Athens assumed democracy worked best when they controlled it, the American oligarchs favor democracy because they believe it insulates them from the public. The factions at the top are prevented from open warfare because they have a common enemy, the general welfare. Thus, they are always willing to cooperate in order to maintain their position, even if it means one faction gains at some small expense to another faction.
Probably the most important man in the history of the Athenian democracy was Pericles, the first citizen of Athens, as Thucydides called him. He was a statesman and general of Athens during the time between the Persian and the Peloponnesian Wars, which is usually called the Athenian golden age. He turned the Delian League, which was a federation of city-states, into an Athenian empire and led the fight against Sparta during the first two years of the Peloponnesian War.
What is often overlooked about Pericles is that he is responsible for the structures we now associate with ancient Athens. He began the public works projects to beautify the city, including the building of the Parthenon. Most of the surviving structures on the Acropolis, in fact, were the work of Pericles. It is possible that ancient Greece would have no hold on the western mind if not for those old ruins. What we think of when we think of ancient Athens is mostly from the time of Pericles.
Is there an analog to Pericles in the American narrative? The place to start would be Lincoln, who should be called the founder of America or possibly the re-founder or second founder. Lincoln destroyed the old republic and set the country off on the path of becoming a democracy. In one sentence, thirty words, Lincoln re-positioned the country to rest upon the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution and the history and debates that surrounded its creation.
The trouble is, Lincoln was not much of a democrat and he was no voice of the people, as was the case with Pericles. Lincoln really was not all that fond of the black people he was freeing from bondage. It is not clear that Lincoln fully understood the ramifications of his project. He certainly could not foresee his creation becoming first a continental empire then a global empire in less than a century. He may not have fully grasped the radicalism and ramifications that was contained in his Gettysburg speech.
That’s another important aspect of Pericles that is relevant to this age. He knew exactly what he was doing and he understood the nature of Athenian democracy. He was often accused of being a populist and a potential tyrant by the rich and powerful, because he so carefully courted the approval of the masses. Much of what he accomplished was in the face of resistance from what we would call the ruling classes of Athens. Pericles fully understood his projects and its significance.
Pericles was also committed to the general welfare. His first building project was the walls guarding the city of Athens. This had two consequences, in addition to protecting the city from attack. One is it put people to work. Rather than depending upon the generosity of the wealthy for such endeavors, the people could now count on the state to provide work on these projects. The other is it protected the poor in the city, but left the landed estates outside the city exposed.
The most obvious example of such a politician in American history would be Franklin Roosevelt, as he ushered in the federal public works project. It is easy to forget just how radical the Roosevelt administration was in America. The mobilization of the public in the face of the depression was unprecedented. For close to a century now, it is assumed that the federal government is responsible for the welfare of the people, rather than the states or powerful local interests.
Another interesting parallel between FDR and Pericles is that while both men were high born, from powerful families, they were opposed by the ruling classes. One of the great political dramas in golden age of Athens was the struggle between Thucydides, the leader of the conservative faction, not the historian, and Pericles over spending on projects like the Parthenon. Pericles outmaneuvered and outwitted Thucydides and the conservatives to win public approval for his projects.
Similarly, FDR faced a great deal of resistance to his projects. Factions in his own coalition objected to part of his program, while conservatives tried to bottle up his plans in the courts. Like the opposition to Pericles, the opposition to FDR was also keenly aware that there was a foreign policy element to the debate. The support for FDR’s domestic program was tied to support for his policies toward Europe. In fact, his domestic program was essential to his foreign policy.
Another possible candidate as the American Pericles would be the combined administration of Kennedy and Johnson. The space program is probably the closest thing America has to the Acropolis. The reforms of Johnson, which were largely created by the Kennedy people, haunt us to this day. Given the current unrest and the demographics of the country, it is not unreasonable to think that America will never escape the shadow of the Johnson administration.
Donald Trump, of course, could be the modern Pericles. He is not a great orator, but Trump has an uncanny ability to resonate with the public, both good and bad. He’s also a high-born man who sees himself as the defender of the public. No president has shown a greater concern for the general welfare since FDR. Unlike FDR, but like Pericles, Trump is faced with a ruling class committed to stopping him. As with Pericles, their opposition is strongly linked to foreign policy.
One other way to look at this is that in a democracy of any sort, the Pericles role is an essential one, as is the role of the oligarchs. Lacking the legal structures to balance between the natural factions in society, particularly the rich versus the general public, democracy evolves these roles in the form of charismatic politicians. Whenever the relationship between the people and their rulers gets out of balance, men step forward on behalf of both sides to reestablish an equilibrium
Of course, the other significance of the life of Pericles is that after his death, Athens was plagued by inferior men, inciting the worst habits in the public and only concerned with personal popularity. The inability of Athenian democracy to produce statesmen close to the quality of Pericles marked the end of the Golden Age of Athens and led to defeat at the hands of the Spartans. The run of politicians since FDR, with the exception of Reagan, is another useful parallel to consider.
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