Democracy: The Amateurs Are Back In Town

Greek Thinker

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
–Winston Churchill

For those outside the US that don’t know, and for the Americans who have been on another planet, tomorrow, November 8th, is election day in the United States. What this means is that we’ll have a new President in the White House, and more importantly, the excruciating-to-watch, bare-knuckle slugfest of a presidential campaign will be finished.

American democracy is a big, complex beast, and this election, for the most part, has shown nothing but its ugly side. A two-party system guarantees polarized opinions, but saying that this election was contentious must be the understatement of the century.

At Gallivance we don’t often stray into the political arena, but sometimes it’s impossible to prevent the kettle from boiling over. And while the animosity in this Clinton vs. Trump battle was appalling, it isn’t unprecedented. If you travel back to democracy’s beginnings, there’s a historical precedent for this whole, messy process, and Athens in the 5th Century BC was the place and time.

Government “By the People” has a good ring to it, but as this earlier published post explains, the reality isn’t always so rosy. BTW, please vote tomorrow.

* * *

“Congress Approval Rating Lower Than Porn, Polygamy,
BP Oil Spill, ‘U.S. Going Communist’ “

Huffington Post


Non-stop partisan bickering, brinksmanship as the sole negotiating tool, and school-yard finger pointing – are these traits of professional politicians? I suspect that at one time or another, most of us have thought: “Even I could do better than that!” Well, if you were an ancient Athenian, it would’ve been possible.

We spent a month in Athens; at the time, their economy was melting down, and the harsh realities of the bailout deal negotiated with the European Union was sending economic shock waves through the city. Protests and riots were common, and the city was chockablock with heavily-armed law enforcement officers. Obviously, the governed weren’t very happy with the government, and they were exercising their democratic right to rebel. I found it ironic that so much civil discord was taking place in the birthplace of democracy.

Athens Police

During the 5th century BC, Athens was the intellectual center of the world. Greek society had made huge strides forward in art, architecture, literature, philosophy, and politics. Suddenly, common people had new, individual freedoms thanks to an Athenian invention – democracy.

Democracy in Athens was direct, unlike the US, which is representative. In a direct democracy citizens don’t elect people to represent them. Instead, the people ARE the government, and they decide and vote on the laws themselves.

I find the direct democracy in Greece intriguing because most officials in the government weren’t elected, but were chosen by a random drawing (we’re talking lottery here)! If you wanted to serve, you just tossed your name into the hat, and crossed your fingers. If chosen, you served only once, and for only one year. Imagine the difference this would make in decision making today: no more career politicians voting just to keep their jobs; freedom to vote for what was actually best for the country; no more Inside-the-Beltway folks to blame for bad choices.

“Congress’s approval rating hits new low: 9 percent”
Washington Post

Greek Column

Athenian democracy was a big improvement over aristocratic rule, but it was far from perfect. The biggest problem, when viewed with 21st Century eyes, is that the privilege to participate and vote was denied to women, slaves, and foreigners. If you were an Athenian male, the government was democratic. For all others, it wasn’t democratic at all.

Greek Woman

I love the idea that for 100 years Athens was a state run by complete amateurs. Given what’s going on in Washington today, I’d say the amateurs are back in town.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

46 thoughts

    1. I agree Alison. I’ve always thought that democracy would work best in smaller countries. To be fully vested in their decisions, the participants in government need to be intimately aware of the consequences of their actions. And in larger, more complex countries, it’s almost impossible to stay in touch, let alone see how laws affect different parts of society. ~James

    1. Thanks Pam. Writing a post on the unpopularity of the government is like shooting fish in a barrel. Given the Washington Post poll numbers, I have a 91% chance of finding people who agree. And Happy Holidays to you as well. ~James

  1. I love the idea of a lottery for at least one of the houses of Congress. I wonder though if we ought to require at least a college education? Or a high school education at least! I think the citizens could do better than the “democracy” we have now! 🙂

    1. Cathy, with your ideas about educated politicians, you’re in good company. None other than Plato and Aristotle had exactly the same thought, and these two were no slouches when it came to thinking things through. ~James

    1. Bryan, your use of the words “role” and “job” are right on and I agree. I suspect that most Americans (me included) have an idea of how to govern best. But when 91% of the people( left, right, and center) think that things aren’t going well, there’s no getting around the fact that something is desperately wrong. ~James

    1. Thanks for your question Sue. I love this statue, and remember where it was, and now thanks to your question, I know who it is. This is Kostis Palamas, the National Poet of Greece. The statue is in the garden of the Athens Cultural Center. If you remember Athens, it’s on one the main streets (Akadimias) between the Acropolis and Mt. Lycabbetus. We have some really funny shots with birds perching on him, but since he was nominated for the Noble prize a couple of times, we gave him a break. ~James

      1. James I had a look through our photos and I fear we missed Kostis. Thank you for finding him. He seems like he might have a good sense of humor and be all right with the bird photo in a future post 🙂

    1. Kathy, I wasn’t aware of this, and should have been. I lived in London for 3 years, and truthfully, never really even thought about voting. Many people dismiss the effect that one vote has, but in a democracy it’s the universal expression of approval or disapproval; consequently, is very important. Thanks for bringing this topic to the discussion. ~James

  2. I think you approached the subject of our mostly dysfunctional government in a most diplomatic way – drawing a comparison with the ancient Greeks, founders of democracy, and our republic of elected representatives. Without pointing the finger at anyone, you make the point that the principles of democracy which Americans espouse as so dear to our way of life have suffered to the point that we overwhelmingly disapprove of the way our elected officials are governing the country. Tactful and yet poignant – well done. – Mike

    1. Thanks Mike. Like most people, I have a few opinions about how to improve the system, but my objective wasn’t to have a dog in this fight. As I said to another commenter: Writing a post on the unpopularity of the government is like shooting fish in a barrel. I have a 91% chance of finding people who agree. I don’t have any political aspirations, but I know with 100% certainty that I’d be “The Candidate for Change.” The sad point is that even at 91% disapproval, it can still get worse. And on a lighter note, Happy Holidays to you and Florence. ~James

    1. Yes it is Alexandra, and a healthy one at that. In some parts of the world older men cultivate their eyebrows for some reason. I’ve never really understood it, and think that it looks a bit weird. But, this statue is the National Poet of Greece, so he must be a talented guy – even with his weird eyebrows. ~James

    1. Madhu, I’m absolutely a believer in term limits. The argument against is that long-term politicians gain experience, and consequently, wisdom on how to govern. I maintain that it’s just the reverse. The longer politicians are in office, the more they learn how to manipulate the system to get re-elected. ~James

    1. Thanks Steve. As a writer, you may have noticed that I took the high road and didn’t include Otto Von Bismark’s old saw: “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.” But it was hard to leave it out. Re: togas – I spent December in Athens, and don’t think a toga would have worked for me. ~James

    1. Thanks for your comment Amy and for dropping by the blog. Attracting attention in these days of media saturation is difficult. I always try and come up with a catchy title, and it’s good to hear that this one worked.

  3. There is something to say for term limits, James. But there is also the problem of entrenched bureaucracy. So maybe we need a rule that says you can’t work for government for more than say 8-10 years– whether you are a politician or a bureaucrat. –Curt

    1. Good point Curt, I hadn’t thought of the bureaucracy side. I understand that anyone in a new position, whether bureaucrat or politician, takes a certain amount of time to learn the job. But spending too long in one track, makes it difficult to take any other route. Your suggestion of 8-10 years sounds reasonable to me. I shudder to think of another Strom Thurmond. ~James

  4. What an interesting and apt comparison in democratic traditions. Although I must admit, you had me at the first quote: “Congress Rating Lower Than BP Oil Spill??” Hats off, Congress- that’s a low bar to beat!

    1. Thanks Miranda. As you may have noticed we don’t normally write political posts, but I when I saw this headline, I just couldn’t resist. If the situation weren’t so serious, it would be funny. ~James

  5. At this point, sounds like throwing names into a hat might be the best option for my neighbours to the south. Surely, in doing so, they would end up with a better group of people suited to this position!

    1. Lynn, I’m not normally too intense about elections, but this one has me worried. I can’t imagine a president whose government is based on fear and divisiveness. I’m not sure how it got this far, but I’m hoping for the best. Keep your fingers crossed. ~James

  6. Two years ago Indonesia experienced what the US is experiencing today. The 2014 presidential election was so hotly contested with the rhetoric, hatred and anger from both sides amplified by social media. In the end, for me it was choosing the better between two unfavorable candidates. I hope Americans make the right choice tomorrow, regardless of how deeply unpopular both candidates are.

    1. Bama, the choice for me is crystal clear. What we have is a career politician (Clinton) who has, of course, made mistakes, up against a narcissistic sexist whose only interest is forwarding himself. This is a pivotal moment in American politics, and this election has sent shock waves through the American public. Opinions are so polarized, that I’m not sure if compromise will ever be achieved again. Very sad to say and impossible for me to see how we got here. ~James

      1. I guess the biggest shock is the fact that someone like Trump can make it so far to becoming a presidential candidate. Him being elected would bring this whole thing into an even surreal level.

    1. I don’t know if you noticed Rusha, but in addition to the posture, a vandal has knocked the poor guy’s nose off. We took this photo in Athens. As for the election, I’m hoping for the best. Both candidates, like everyone else on the planet, are flawed. But to be honest, a Trump presidency scares my socks off. I have no clue how it got this far, nor how a campaign based on unfounded fear and divisiveness can be so popular. Obviously, it speaks volumes about a sad undercurrent in our society that was just waiting for a catalyst. In the meantime, I’ll be voting first thing tomorrow. ~James

      1. Well, James, I guess we’ll see how a Trump presidency works out. Thank goodness we live in pretty resilient country, but we were fearful of what Trump might say or do as President. It will be interesting to see it all roll out. Best wishes to you in all your travels and for finding lots to explore right outside your back door!

  7. I’ll be glad when this is over, but of course the mid-term campaigns will start in a year 😦

    I like the idea of a one-year term by amateurs. It might be what we need!

    1. Well Jeff, the worst has happened. I didn’t really think that I was out of touch, but when a man like Trump wins a presidential election, I know that I’ve obviously missed a lot of things. Buckle up my friend, it’s going to be rough. ~James

  8. Sadly, disastrous results and not a true democracy either. It is very strange to have one candidate get more votes ie the popular vote, but that is not the candidate that wins. Somewhat archaic a system actually. Sorry still recovering from shock and despaor at the results.


    1. Peta, you’ll get no arguments from me on either of your points. Terri and I are both terribly shocked, sad, and disappointed that half of American voters could elect a despicable person like Trump. How people can rationalize his opinions and behavior and truly believe he will be a good leader is beyond me. Also, the electoral college is indeed antiquated, and should be discontinued. It was a good idea for America’s early democracy, but is very outdated in today’s world. We’re still recovering as well … and not quickly. ~James

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