Government accountability is an idea that draws bipartisan support: calls for more transparency and oversight of politicians and bureaucracies go over well with voters. But what about oversight of the people who put them in office? Democracies give power to the people — does anyone hold the people responsible for this power?
Not really, and that has long been a problem. Since its beginning in ancient Greece, democracy has faced a crisis of legitimacy when the people have not been held accountable for their exercise of sovereignty, allowing elites to dismiss democracy as mob rule. Today, defending our democracy begins with taking responsibility for votes cast at the ballot box each year.
Those discontented with democracy in Classical Athens certainly thought that the people, demos in Greek, did not often take responsibility for their exercise of power, or kratos (the two words from which we get demokratia — “people power”). As a consequence, many of the most famous and influential ancient sources on Greek politics can be read as decidedly anti-democratic.
Thucydides — the historian of the Peloponnesian War, and an exiled elite who was no fan of democracy — criticized the people after Athens suffered horrendous losses in Sicily in 413 B.C.: “The people were angry with the politicians who had urged the expedition, as if they themselves hadn’t voted in favor of it.”
Thucydides’s successor, Xenophon, also an aristocrat often critical of democracy, described an infamous trial in 406 B.C., in which several generals were tried en masse for not rescuing survivors after the naval battle of Arginusae. This trial was illegal, because Athenian law dictated that the generals be tried separately as individuals.
This episode, along with the trial of Socrates (who happened to preside over the Arginusae trial, and objected to the proceedings), has been interpreted for centuries as a sign of democracy’s excesses, an example of mob rule doing away with the rule of law. Xenophon tells us that the Athenian people soon repented for their action, and promptly blamed the politicians who had “deceived” them into acting illegally.
Although we should be hesitant to take elite authors at their word — especially because the Athenian democracy experienced its longest and most stable period after the Arginusae trial and the end of the Peloponnesian War — Thucydides and Xenophon do have a point. The Athenian people did make several decisions they would later regret, and, given that every Athenian citizen (that is, free, native-born adult male) had rights to vote and speak in the assembly, the people were responsible for this power. And yet they constantly shirked responsibility and blamed prominent politicians when things went wrong.
The Athens system however, did demand accountability for those in power. At the end of their terms, officeholders were required to undergo the euthyna, an audit of their time in office. If they acted improperly, a committee of citizens could hand the officeholders over to the courts for prosecution. As for speakers, they could be liable to a charge of graphe paranomon, or introducing an unlawful measure in the assembly. If convicted, the offender could face stiff penalties, such as career-ending fines or exile. Although this measure could be wielded by unscrupulous politicians as a weapon against their rivals, there were some safeguards. For instance, if the one bringing the charge did not secure a certain percentage of jury votes, they would themselves be subject to a penalty.
The excesses of “mob rule” from Greece caused concern for the American Founders. James Madison, for example, called democracy “the most vile sort of government,” largely because of episodes like the Arginusae trial. Although in the popular imagination the independence of the 13 American colonies represented a new experiment in democracy, the Founders conceived of the United States as a republic, modeled on the mixed constitution of ancient Rome, which restrained popular sovereignty. The electoral college, for example, is but one of the many constitutional measures designed to limit people power.
Which brings us to today. Democracy has expanded since the early years of the American republic, but accountability measures have not kept pace. Is it unreasonable to suggest that politicians who introduce flagrantly unconstitutional measures, such as a ban on immigrants based on religious criteria, or a law that would prosecute women for having a miscarriage or seeking an abortion in another state, face formal charges of introducing unlawful legislation? Likewise, perhaps if every single elected or appointed official had to submit to an audit at the hands of regular citizens (even, say, disclosing their tax returns), the propensity to corruption would be checked.
But missing in both Athens democracy and our democracy today, is the question of how to hold regular citizens more accountable for their electoral decisions, too. Formal, legal accountability is out of the question, but is moral accountability too much to ask? All politicians fall short in fulfilling their promises, or neglect to fulfill them altogether. Yet, when politicians do exactly what they promised they would do — say, cracking down on migrants in cruel ways, or stoking anti-Muslim sentiment — can we not hold those who voted for them morally accountable to a certain degree?
Too often, we see supposed moderate Republicans, most of whom really voted for Trump, throw up their hands in the face of Trump’s excesses, and evade suggestions that they should take a lead role in resisting Trump, including at the ballot box. We should challenge such duplicity early and often. I’d go so far as to say we should call out our otherwise pleasant relatives who support odious candidates. Have an aunt who voted for Steve King? Let her know that she enables white supremacy. After all, if voters have great power — which they do, at least on paper — it follows they should also share at least some responsibility for what those they elect do.
The tendency of voters to distance themselves from the excesses of those they voted for does democracy no favors, and represents what I consider a type of moral hazard, a system in which actors are shielded from the consequences of their actions.
Let’s prove Thucydides and Xenophon, and perhaps even James Madison, wrong about democracy. Let’s ensure that those who share in power, from those who hold office to those who put them there, share in responsibility.