The American experiment, marked by ever growing party political tensions, is beginning to fall apart. Dire warnings from both left and right about the polarization of the partisans preceded a controversial election. In response to the former president’s lies, a violent riot mob tried to storm the legislature with its apparent encouragement. In this regard, President Joe Biden has promised to heal America and resolve some of its divisions.
Discussions about the collapse of America are not new and traditionally reach for one of the republics that rank highest in the minds of the founders themselves, Rome. This analogy quickly emerged in discussions of the Capitol Rebellion. However, Rome’s collapse into monarchy in a spasm of violence offers few practical solutions. While Augustus put an end to tensions in the republic, there was little solution left to be desired.
Ancient Greece is a more promising source of solutions, not least because it offers a more robust “dataset”. Greece was filled with dozens of small, independent, self-governing states with largely republican or democratic institutions led by elected officials and electoral assemblies in the Archaic and Classical Period (c. 800-323 BC). Each Greek city, while very independent, shared many of the same institutions of popular assemblies, elected judges, and citizen votes. Some cities were more oligarchic, others more democratic, and some had succumbed to one-man rule of a tyrant at some point, but Greece itself was a veritable laboratory experiment in various forms of government.
The Greeks even had a word for something like partisan polarization and violent civil war: stasis (pronounced stah-sis instead of stay-sis). Similar to its derivative, the English word stasis, it means “standing” at its root – but while stasis means standing still in English, Greek stasis means a political faction (a “standing together”) and from there “fractionism” “and finally” civil war “The fact that the Greeks had such a compact word for this civil war should indicate that this was a depressingly frequent feature in Greek civil politics.
In fact, it was so common for the Greek historian Thucydides to provide a true taxonomy of the phenomenon as it appears in his history of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides writes that “city after city went into stasis” as this war progressed and created economic difficulties that turned citizens against citizens. His description of the results of this struggle could just as easily be carried over to modern politics by writing that “reckless audacity was viewed as loyal courage, while careful delay disguised shyness; Reason was a cover for cowardice … the extremist was always to be trusted, the moderate to be suspected. “Norms collapsed in increasingly violent competition as” men competed against each other in retaliation for undermining common laws that all can equally rely on in adversity. ” Outside powers, Thucydides said, would play both sides against the center and seek their own advantage at the expense of the ailing community, as they do today, but in any case it was divisions within the city that made outside interference effective. Thucydides grimly explains how many experts today fear that competition will escalate into bloodshed until “as is customary in such events, there was no limit the violence did not cross”.
The United States, as any ancient Greek would likely have realized, has fallen into this type of stasis.
Thucydides’ portrait is as gloomy as the tale of the Roman Republic; he presents no escape. Indeed, he insists that “the calamities caused by stasis have been many and serious as they have occurred and will always occur as long as human nature remains the same.” But cities could escape stasis, including Thucydides’ own hometown, Athens. As the war exhausted Athens’ resources, the city became even more volatile than usual. 411 BC An oligarchical coup overthrew democracy, in part by storming and dispersing the Athens council with an armed crowd of their supporters. That oligarchy, in turn, succumbed to a Democratic counter-coup backed by the Athenian Navy, but that should not be the end of the matter, just as the Capitol violence is unlikely to be the final wave of Greek stasis in America.
Instead, Athens, weakened and divided, became 404 BC. Finally defeated by the Spartans, who took advantage of internal divisions to overthrow democracy and form a new government of “thirty tyrants” within the oligarchical faction in Athens. The thirty tyrants quickly carried out a reign of terror, banishing or murdering hundreds of Athenians to secure their rule and root out support for the old democracy. The regime was so brutal that the Athenian exiles were able to spark a civil war within a year, which was successful when the Spartans, who initially supported the Thirty, withdrew their protection.
After that – the coups, counter-coups and civil wars with the steady escalation of violence that led to the murderous reign of the Thirty and the selfish intervention of foreign powers – every Greek should have known what to expect: the Athenian democrats would have bloody revenge on the oligarchic faction and this would flee and seek foreign support from Athens’ many rivals for another coup. Athens would turn deeper into violence and dysfunction and become a proxy battlefield for foreign powers. Stasis would consume the city until there were no more partisans left to burn.
Except that it wasn’t. Athens found an escape without completely destroying the faction or destroying the laws. As historian Andrew Wolpert has shown, this was the result of a conscious choice. First, there was justice. The thirty themselves and their inner circle were forced into exile so they would not be prosecuted for their crimes, while an amnesty was extended to the other members of the oligarchical faction, provided they obeyed the law. The Democratic Group, in its victory, adamantly insisted on obeying the law rather than escalating further in bloody fashion, but it also insisted on the law and strict accountability for those who had so abused their power during the reign of the Thirty.
In addition, as Wolpert notes, the Athenians constructed a collective narrative in their laws, speeches, and civic behavior. The real Athens, they claimed, had resisted the Thirty with a considerable amount of constructive fiction, and consequently, as Wolpert puts it, “the restored democracy now consisted of the opponents of the Thirty, their victims and innocent bystanders”, like that with French financialism after World War II. Though pardoned, the lingering members of the oligarchic faction could either reinvent themselves as supporters of democracy or be written out of Athenian history in what is being treated as an unfortunate aberration. It was not by a single speech or edict, but by a conscious choice made in speech after speech and decree after decree that enabled the restored democracy to consolidate its victory through reconciliation and thus cut off further stasis.
The United States is now facing a similar threat from Greek stasis, and record numbers of American voters appear to have recognized its threat. Biden won on a platform of healing and reconciliation, pledging compromises and redefining his coalition to include those who voted against him as well, against a candidate who promised to dominate and actually win until Americans tire of winning and Tensions escalated to inevitable violence. A clear majority of American voters have rejected former President Donald Trump and appear to have chosen the Athenian model instead, but now it’s up to Biden to carry it out.
If he is to follow Athens’ example, Biden should resist the demands of some members of his coalition to politically salt the earth or try to banish into outer obscurity any Republican who has worked with Trump. Instead, he should take every opportunity to present a broader, post-Trumpian unity policy, thereby defining Trump, his cynical enablers and his strongest supporters out of American history. Relief from COVID-19 seems like the most obvious opportunity of its kind, but there are no doubt others, and it seems like there are a small number of Republicans willing to be partners in this effort. That requires a certain accommodation; Individuals who have remained silent about Trump, or even supported him when he was in power, but want to be on the right side of the narrative must be given the opportunity to do so. It may not be perfect justice, but sometimes mutual fictions are necessary to achieve even partial justice.
At the same time, the restoration of Athens required legal accountability for the thirty. They knew from hard experience what happened when budding tyrants were given a passport to keep trying until they succeeded; Peisistratus had tried twice and failed to overthrow the Athenian state in order to succeed and on the third attempt in 545 BC. To make a tyrant. After clearly attempting to violently undermine the Constitution, Biden had to reconsider his decision not to have the Justice Department not look at Trump-era crimes. Likewise, impeachment and conviction should be considered, which could prevent Trump from running again. Legal accountability for potential tyrants is part of the Athenian model, as is reconciliation and an inclusive definition.
Athens chose law with both accountability and reconciliation and saved its democracy from stasis; Can Joe Biden’s America Do The Same?