Factions And Their Fictions

By Louis A. Ruprecht  Jr.

Every democracy dies by faction. That is a recurrent theme in the “Federalist Papers,” that marvelous collection of serialized writings by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, designed to sell the people on their new Constitution and the novel federalist principles it embodied. The entire purpose of the new Constitution’s design, they insisted, was to work against the natural democratic tendency toward factionalism; the Constitution’s much-touted “balance of powers” was intended to keep any one faction from gaining the upper hand, and thereby undoing the democratic institutions on which the Republic relied. 

These men, all of them steeped in Classical literature and philosophy, took this lesson primarily from ancient Greek politics. And they were astute readers of Classical history and the Classical tradition in deciding to do so. 

The story, like most Classical stories, begins in Athens, a city long-riven by alternating tyrannies, expulsions, assassinations, oligarchic rivalries–in a word, factionalism, in all of its varied and violent forms.  But then, in the sixth century BCE, a new approach to the problem of factionalism gradually emerged: the idea of a radical participatory democracy, one designed to cut against the grain of the major factions and cultural fault-lines then especially entrenched in Athens. 

The first wave of this radical democratic revolution is associated with name of Solon, one of the seven sages of the ancient world. He agreed to draft new laws for the city, but on two conditions. First, the city needed to accept all of them; there would be no line-item veto with regard to Solon’s reforms. And second, the city would consent to his immediate ten-year self-exile, so that the Athenians would learn to associate the authority of these news laws with the laws themselves and not with their author. The idea of radical democracy as a rule of laws was born. 

The second and more determinative wave of this radical democratic revolution is associated with the name of Cleisthenes. Where Solon placed a heavy emphasis on economic justice and the correction of excessive socio-economic disparities in the city of Athens, Cleisthenes turned his attention to the other great fault-lines in Athenian society: the rivalries between the dominant and entrenched families in the city, the long-standing rivalries between the sea people who lived on the coast, the farmers who lived in the Attican plains, and the shepherds and tenders of the trees who lived in the hills. Cleisthenes’s great reforms cut through the exaggerated social hierarchies then entrenched in Athenian life, by attacking them at their root: the social taxonomies that tend to create rivalry, prejudice and faction in the first place. 

The reforms of Cleisthenes cut through the old Athenian social taxonomies by creating an utterly arbitrary new taxonomy and investing it with real political power and importance in the new democratic institutions associated with these reforms. The city was divided into ten tribes, and these utterly arbitrary social groupings were engineered in such a way as to work against the old divisions.  Each tribe had rich and poor, fishermen, farmers, and vintners and the Athenian military structure was re-organized along the lines of these same tribal units. Quite suddenly, the next hoplite (citizen soldier) in your line belonged to your tribe, not to your region, extended family, or voting block. Tribal affiliation, however arbitrary, was made into a matter of life and death for the free male citizenry of Athens. 

It was also built into the daily governance of the city. The central principles of democratic rule were embodied in new and refined institutions at the end of the sixth century BCE. The citizen assembly, or ekklesia (a word chosen by some early Christians, interestingly enough, for the gatherings that we call “churches” today), met every ten days or so on the Pynx Hill, to debate and then vote on matters of general city governance. As many as 13,000 citizens could be seated at any given time.

 The legislation brought before the ekklesia was vetted through the City Council, or Boule, whose rotating annual 500-person membership consisted of fifty persons from each tribe. Each member, selected by lot, served for 35 or 36 days on a rotating Executive Committee (called the Prytaneis) of the Council; they ate together at the Prytaneum and on any given night some of them were housed together at the Tholos, as a sort of Emergency Council given responsibility to take up any sudden business that came up after hours or in the absence of the full Boule. 

Finally (and, for some, most important of all) the system of the people’s courts was significantly expanded, to defend the citizens’ rights of self-defense in bringing charges, and the rights of the accused to offer a defense against such charges before a jury of his peers. These juries, also chosen by lot from eligible members of each of the tribes, could be very large, ranging anywhere from 200 persons to several thousand. 

One of the most striking features about these radical democratic reforms is the large role assigned to chance. Nearly half of the jobs involving city governance were chosen by lot, as were the members of the Executive Council and the juries. On the one hand, this worked against the creation of a professional political class, a perennial concern of all Greek democracies. It also carried with it the powerful and inspiring notion that any citizen is capable of doing politics, and that every citizen has the duty to serve when called upon to do so. Presumably one would be more patient with democratic missteps, if one had experienced the difficulties of the job oneself. 

In the end, that profound spirit of participatory democracy broke down in the face of new rivalries. While there was no professional class of lawyers or police, once upon a time, Athens eventually would be awash in both professional classes. Athens gained the dubious notoriety of being the most litigious city in Greece, as courts of law were increasingly put to punitive uses, enabling fellow citizens to harass one another with frivolous law suits. A professional class of speech-makers emerged, and the ekklesia found itself swayed to vote with increasing frequency on imprudent or unjust measures.  

During the long years of the war with Sparta, the ekklesia would vote to massacre all the males citizens of rival cities, and to enslave all the women and children. The ekklesia would vote to execute its own generals when they lost battles, or failed to recover the city’s dead at sea. If there were no professional classes of military and political leaders yet, the profession of blame kicked into high rhetorical gear. The polis turned in on itself after the great surrender in 404 BCE, first abandoning then later restoring her democratic constitutions. A jury of his peers voted Socrates to death by a slim majority just five years after the end of the war. 

That case is interesting from an historical perspective, in part for the way it played out in the new democratic institutions of Athens (Socrates, who had served on the Boule as well as on several important military campaigns during the war, ironically suggested as his “punishment” a seat in the dining hall of the Prytaneum for life; an aggrieved jury voted him a death sentence instead). But the case is still more interesting for the way it signaled the emergence of a new fault line, and a new source of factional dispute, in Athenian society: religion

Socrates was brought up on a “religion and morals” charge, the concept of “secular” law and “secular” politics decidedly did not exist in Athens. The charges he faced formally in court were three-fold: that he did not honor the gods the city of Athens honored; that he introduced new gods into the city; and that his practice of philosophy served to corrupt the young men of the city. The charges were complicated, and yet his young opponents argued as if they were not, and Socrates’ aggressive and ironic speech in his own defense seemed to turn some potentially sympathetic jurors against him. For some, his death signaled a new and more troubled relationship between philosophy and religion, not just philosophy and the law

Later philosophers like Plato (who was Athenian) and Aristotle (who was not) seemed to opt out of Athenian politics for the most part, and to perform their civic duties on the symbolic sidelines, in new institutions (called the Academy and the Lyceum) they organized on the margins of Athenian daily life. 

In all of this–the radical reforms of the sixth century, the long wars of the fifth, and the gradual undoing of these democratic reforms in the fourth–we can see what the real worry of these democratic reformers had been all along: group-think. The Athenians under Cleisthenes simply created new groups to think about. The very arbitrariness of the new tribal system was designed to cut against the grain of the dominant fault lines in Athenian society. It was an attempt to form new solidarities aimed at serving the common purpose of the city and its people. 

If we were to place this all in a more contemporary idiom and contemporary terms, we might think of the profound fault-lines inscribed by gender, race, sexuality, religion and class in the United States today, then try to imagine what kinds of artificial taxonomies we might manufacture to counteract or neutralize them, artificial affiliations like those created by Greek fraternities, and Greek sororities, or the intense fandom we associate with athletics or certain kinds of musical performance. 

The loss of Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat in January, the President’s State of the Union address, and his unprecedented visit to meet with House Republicans earlier this year all speak to these same concerns. Everyone complains about the rancor and the partisanship of the current political climate in Washington, DC. No one seems to know what to do about it, so they continue to snipe, by and large, as if by default. Our social taxonomies, and the fault-lines they inscribe, seem simply too entrenched to fight.  Republican versus Democrat, conservative versus liberal, conservative Christian versus everyone who is not: these seem to articulate gulfs of understanding and fellow-feeling simply too extensive to bridge. 

The formation of new coalitions around areas of common purpose was the trick the Athenians tried; for a while it succeeded.  Perhaps they failed, given the justifiable pride they felt for their original achievement, to think about how easy it is for new solidarities of aggrievement to emerge. At some point, the Athenians saw their democracy as a finished product, with secure and stable institutions; then they waged increasingly aggressive wars in the defense of these radical reforms. But the previous generation’s radicalism can be turned to anti-progressive purpose by the next. Neither time nor factions stand still. 

One of the last lines of President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address was a cautious reminder: “we came here to serve the people, not our own ambition.” The idea of inspired public service was designed to cut against the “winners and losers” mentality of the current factions. But that line, like the speech, did not play well because it was very hard to hear. President Obama was hailed as the first post-racial and post-partisan president immediately after his election, but as we have seen, neither racism nor partisanship have proven to be prejudices quite so easily overcome. 

Think back to the audience the President addressed as he delivered his State of the Union Address this past January, it was neither an ekklesia nor even a boule with a rotating citizen leadership. Instead, there were professional military personnel, all in uniform designed to set them apart, and all seated together in a block. The room was filled with an enormous number of professionally trained lawyers (the President among them), and those who currently serve as Supreme Court Justices were similarly clad in a way to be set apart; they too sat together in a block. Finally, the room was divided cleanly along the lines of party affiliation, creating the usual visual cacophony of alternating halves of the room rising to cheer some passing remark. This speech, which has become a ritual tradition in our Republic, is only loosely sanctioned by our Constitution, and is not an exercise in democratic speech at all; at its best, it is a plea for such speech in the future. 

The real challenge before our Republic seems to be a challenge of the imagination. Might we yet imagine new lines of affiliation that might enable the formation of newer, looser coalitions aimed at common projects and common purpose, coalitions that cut against those factional fault lines that currently define our political affairs? 

We cannot wait on a new Solon, or a different Cleisthenes, to do this work. It falls to an organized citizenry to press back against the factionalism of its professional classes (the Wall Streeters, the banks, the large corporations, the entrenched religious interests, and the lobbies they all fund), who clearly must be getting something out of the messes in which they invest, and the renewed factionalism and political rancor they have left in their wake. 

The great religions potentially may play a role in this act of creative re-imagining of democratic community. Churches and temples and mosques and synagogues are not supposed to be the reinforcers of faction; the world’s religions are cosmopolitan by ethos and design. It falls to a democratic citizenry to do more than jail the Bernie Madoffs and then condemn Wall Street bonuses; we the people should also speak out against the entrenched and polarized (and tax-exempt) ministers of any faction-forming gospel.

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