Inside a Culture of Blame

This blog post will bring the focus back to the modern world, considering the issues modern politics may face around fact, and why we must begin to take responsibility for what we vote for.

One of the most important aspects of democratic politics is accountability, where an individual is held responsible for their actions and as a result feel the after-effects of the negative results of their decisions. It is particularly important with representative democracies, as for example in the UK, if individuals feel as though the Member of Parliament for their constituency does not truly represent them or their area, then they are able to either vote them out at the next election, or through a vote of no confidence. Now this may seem incomparable with Athenian Democracy, which is famous for being a ‘direct democracy’, but we may be comparing like with like more than we think.

Pnyx Albumen Print, depicting the carved speaker’s staircase. This image was taken between 1865 and 1895, and belongs to Cornell University Library.

Whilst Athenian democracy was what we in the modern world would define as a direct democracy, this is not truly accurate. Direct democracy means that the electorate decides on policy without representatives, so the decisions are made by the citizens directly.[i] Technically, therefore, every individual was able to vote and play a clear and direct part in what was being voted for. This has two initial problems regarding the ancient world. Firstly, while Athenian democracy was what we would see as a direct democracy, Morgens Hansen calculated the potential seating capacity of the Pnyx,[ii] which could only hold at most 6000 people, around a third or fourth of the potential participants (male Athenian citizens).[iii] Saxonhouse points out that, while Athenian democracy relies on the participation of the citizen body, it has never seen a full meeting of all citizens.[iv] Athenian democracy was therefore in a sense representative; the 6000 citizens who get involved on any given day represented all Athenian citizens through their voting.[v] This is a vital consideration for us when attempting to use Athenian democracy to solve modern political issues, as highlighted by Bouricius, as some political theorists dismiss Athenian democracy due to scale issues, believing that there can be no practical lessons when the number of those involved is so different.[vi]

The second issue with seemingly direct democracy in Athens is accountability. When considering a direct democracy, accountability could be slightly more complex, as people cannot just be voted out of power, as is the case in a representative democracy. As mentioned in previous blog posts, and mirrored in the modern world, a problem with Athenian democracy was the lack of importance around fact, and a heavier weighting on the power of persuasion.  An issue here, is that when individuals were persuaded to vote in a certain manner, the individual who persuaded them was turned on if things went wrong, with no consideration that for that course of action to be taken it had to be voted on by Athenian citizens. The community would therefore jump to turn on one or two people for a tragedy, rather than taking any responsibility for the power of their individual vote. There are countless examples of this phenomenon throughout Athenian democracy, one being the Trial of the Generals following the Battle of Arginusae in 406BC, where a storm prevented the rescuing of the survivors of the battle, leading to the death of a great number of people, and a group of six of the eight generals commanding the fleet were tried and executed as a group essentially due to public uproar, something which was not legal in Athenian society at the time.[vii] Later, the public turned on those who were the instigators of the executions, and while these individuals escaped, one returned several years later, and died of starvation due to the hatred other citizens had for him.[viii] Public opinion was, as it still at times seems to be today, contrary, and simply following the strongest voice at the time. Instead of taking some responsibility for what individuals have voted for, they would merely turn on the leaders.

Flags at the People’s Vote march, London 2019, requesting a second referendum on Brexit – photo by Andrew Gray.

This is not something which is alien to the modern world. If we consider Britain’s exit from the European Union, we can see individuals clearly being turned on by others as soon as negative consequences are revealed. David Cameron, for example, made the decision to hold the referendum on membership of the European Union in 2016, and as soon as the vote had taken place, Cameron left office, allowing others to feel the aftereffects of such a monumental decision. Following over half a decade of the public being told that leaving the European Union would be straightforward and lead to a much better standard of life, suddenly we see the lack of stock in various businesses, be it the lack of beer in Wetherspoons, chicken in Nando’s, or problems with fuel.[ix] Some may argue that there is a variety of reasons for this stock depletion, yet some companies have even displayed signage claiming the lack of stock to be the result of Brexit.

The Irish Border – during a trip to Northern Ireland in 2016 Boris Johnson claimed that Brexit would leave the border arrangements ‘absolutely unchanged’, one of many clear lies in the Brexit process. This image depicts part of the border pre-Brexit, marked only by a speed sign, as the Republic of Ireland use kilometres per hour on signage. Photo © Oliver Dixon (cc-by-sa/2.0), taken 2007.

Now individuals seem to turn more on those like the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and his former aide Dominic Cummings, to highlight the inconsistencies and inaccuracies of their campaigns, perhaps without truly considering what they were voting for in the first place. While their lies and half-truths must be highlighted, and these individuals should be held to account for these, individuals must interrogate their own voting history and hold themselves to account. Both the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns for the 2016 referendum were filled with lies, as has been highlighted by various fact-checking agencies,[x] but no one really seems to care. For many, the facts themselves seem irrelevant; people only want to hear the opinions which reiterate their own stance, and once things go wrong the lack of fact involved if anything helps them – it is easier to turn on something which you have believed in solely on the basis of persuasion and opinion, rather than something factual which you have critically analysed. While lies from those within politics must be highlighted, we must also consider the role we play ourselves, through who and what we vote for.

Whilst absolutely vital that we hold those in office accountable for their actions, we must also hold ourselves responsible. One of the key purposes of representative democracy, I believe, is to have individuals who understand the current political issues more clearly, who can dedicate more time to understand them than an individual with another job. If we allow fact to no longer matter, we run the risk of encountering an issue where we have a constant turnaround of individuals in power who get to that position by lying. The power of rhetoric is one of the most dangerous aspects of a democracy, and if we allow persuasion to continue to have the power it has today, we may find that the negative consequences continue to spiral. We must hold ourselves accountable, and push ourselves to dig deeper, and look for facts where we can – not simply soundbites which back up our own beliefs.

[i] What defines ‘the citizens’ can greatly vary; in Ancient Athens, citizens with the franchise were defined by being adult male individuals who had completed military training, and were born of Athenian citizens, although the exact requirements vary depending on the time.

[ii] The Pnyx was the official meeting place of the democratic assembly from around 507BC onwards.

[iii] Saxonhouse, A. (1993) ‘Athenian Democracy: Modern Mythmakers and Ancient Theorists’ in PS Political Science and Politics, Volume 26, American Political Science Association.

There are disagreements amongst scholars over the number of male Athenian citizens, and of course there was never one precise number, with different laws and social change impacting the number of citizens at a time. At some points, the number may have even been as high as 60,000, but this would have fallen dramatically during the Peloponnesian War.

[iv] Saxonhouse, A. (1993) ‘Athenian Democracy: Modern Mythmakers and Ancient Theorists’ in PS Political Science and Politics, Volume 26, American Political Science Association.

Arlene Saxonhouse is a professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan. It is particularly interesting to consider opinions from Classical Scholars and other academic communities, especially when considering political theory.

[v] Saxonhouse, A. (1993) ‘Athenian Democracy: Modern Mythmakers and Ancient Theorists’ in PS Political Science and Politics, Volume 26, American Political Science Association.

[vi] Bouricius, T. (2013) ‘Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day’ in Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 9: Issue 1, Article 11.

[vii] To learn more about the Battle of Arginusae and the Trial of the Generals look to Xenophon’s Hellenica, Debra Hamel’s (2015) The Battle of Arginusae, Victory at Sea and Its Tragic Aftermath in the Final Years of the Peloponnesian War. For a more satirical approach, look to Aristophanes’ Frogs.

[viii] Xenophon, Hellenica, 1.7.35.

[ix] Espiner, T. (September 2021) ‘Wetherspoons runs low on some beer amid driver shortage’, BBC

[x] Quinn, B. (May 2019) ‘Boris Johnson lied during EU referendum campaign, court told’ The Guardian

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