Beware of Leaders Professing Devotion to ‘Democracy’ – American Minute With Bill Federer

The New Yorker ran the headline, January 4, 2024, “Biden makes saving democracy the center of his campaign.”

The first notable democracy was in Athens, Greece. At its height, it had a leader named Pericles, whose long career spanned c.460 BC to 429 BC.

His main political opponent was Cimon, an admired member of the aristocracy.

During the Greco-Persian Wars, Cimon won famous battles. He wanted to make Athens great by fighting Persia and its allies. He stated: “I love enriching our nation, with the booty of our victories.”

Good at business and organizing, Cimon personally funded building and construction projects in Athens, including expansion of the Acropolis and the city walls.

Pericles decided to weaponize the legal system against Cimon. His lawfare involved leveling an accusation that Cimon had colluded with the enemy, taking a bribe from Alexandra I of Macedonia.

Pericles wanted to get Cimon ostracized, an impeachment process whereby 6,000 citizens could vote to banish a leader for ten years, thus canceling their political career.

Cimon, though, was acquitted.

Pericles gave speeches making unusual professions of devotion to democracy, while at the same time he was usurping power unto himself.

Together with Ephialtes, Pericles led the popular party in opposing the aristocratic party, warning the people against the dangers of wealth. They let large numbers of noncitizens into Athens and then extended voting rights to them, diminishing the power of the ruling Areopagus.

Speaking in the name of democracy, Pericles swayed the newly expanded voting population against his political rivals.

He utilized the media-entertainment of that era to advance his agenda, subsidizing admission for the poor to attend Greek theater. This molded public opinion as citizens viewed politically-charged plays which subtly maligned Cimon.

Cimon sought to keep Athens out of war with Sparta, the powerful city-state in southern Greece, through a policy of negotiation. Unfortunately, negotiations faltered, and Cimon was put through a second impeachment-ostracizing trial in 461 BC. This time, Cimon was banished for a decade.

Pericles put Athens into great debt. In 454 BC, he moved the treasury of the Delian League from the Island of Delos to Athens, and then proceeded to borrow from it for his government infrastructure and elaborate architectural projects, the arts, and the navy.

Then reports of corruption began to surface implicating Pericles. His associate, Phidias, was accused of impiety and embezzlement of money meant for building projects.

Then his own family had corruption problems, with his wife/courtesan, Aspasia, being accused of corrupting the women of Athens. Pericles, himself, was then accused of maladministration of public money.

When people realized Pericles had become too powerful, a grassroots movement spread of invoking ostracism. Pericles feared this at all costs. His popularity dropped.

Plato described in his Republic, 380 BC:

“Last of all comes … the tyrant … In the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes everyone whom he meets …

How then does a protector begin to change into a tyrant? … He begins to grow unpopular …

The protector … is … the overthrower of many, standing up in the chariot of state with the reins in his hand, no longer protector, but tyrant absolute.”

Rather than stepping down from office, Pericles insisted staying on. He gave a speech in support of the Megarian Decree, where many city-states agreed to cut off trade with Megara, an ally of Sparta. It was a NATO-style foreign entanglement treaty, where an attack on one is an attack on all.

Instead of the decree isolating Megara and punishing Sparta, it caused a realignment of Mediterranean alliances, with more city-states siding with Sparta.

Some may see a similarity of the Biden administration’s foreign policy decision to punish Russia by economically isolating it, only to have more nations join BRICS in replacing the U.S. Dollar in their international trade.

Historians Plutarch and Karl Beloch explained that Pericles seems to have deliberately let Athens be pulled into a needless Peloponnesian War with Sparta in order to divert criticism away from himself.

This familiar behavior, where leaders unpopular at home want to get into a war abroad, is the story line of the movie Wag the Dog, starring Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman.

Once war with Sparta was imminent, the voices that talked of ostracizing him for usurping power were suddenly replaced with voices wanting him to be a powerful leader in time of war.

Unfortunately, the Athenian military, which was great at sea, had been negligent in preparing for Sparta’s superior land war on Athens’ home soil.

Sparta quickly conquered the Greek countryside, resulting in thousands of immigrant refugees flooding into Athens.

Overcrowded conditions caused a pandemic to break out with thousands dying. Pericles’ sons died, then in 429 BC, he died, and with him the Athenian Golden Age.

Athens continued to experience internal strife as the Peloponnesian War dragged on till 404 BC, when Sparta, newly realigned with Persia, prevailed.

In the end, the politics of Pericles, namely, professing devotion to democracy while consolidating personal power, led to Athens’ decline, from which it never regained its world influence and former grandeur.

President William Henry Harrison described a similar trend in his Inaugural Address, March 4, 1841:

“This is the old trick of those who would usurp the government of their country. In the name of democracy they speak, warning the people against the influence of wealth and the danger of aristocracy.

History, ancient and modern, is full of such examples … Caesar became the master of the Roman people … under the pretense of supporting the democratic claims of the former against the aristocracy of the latter …

a dangerous accession to the executive power introduced and established amidst unusual professions of devotion to democracy …

and, like the false christs whose coming was foretold by the Savior, seeks to, and were it possible would, impose upon the true and most faithful disciples of liberty.

It is in periods like this that it behooves the people to be most watchful of those to whom they have entrusted power.”

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