When one of the citizens was becoming a bit too popular — too much of a charmer — Athenians would vote him out of the city for ten years by inscribing his name on bits of pottery.
It was not punishment for something the charmer may have done, but a pre-emptive measure against what he might do if left unchecked.
Indeed, for the Athenian democrats, elections would have struck at the heart of democracy: They would have allowed some people to assert themselves, arrogantly and unjustly, against the others.
The other fittingly imperfect Athenian institution was ostracization.
He can do whatever he likes with the enraptured followers now. This is, roughly, the human context against which the democratic idea emerges. Genuine democracy doesn’t make grand promises, does not seduce or charm, but only aspires to a certain measure of human dignity. Compared to what happens in populist regimes, it is a frigid affair.
Who in his right mind would choose the dull responsibilities of democracy over the instant gratification a demagogue will provide? And yet, despite all this, the democratic idea has come close to embodiment a few times in history — moments of grace when humanity almost managed to surprise itself.The institutions of democracy, its norms and mechanisms, should embody a vision of human beings as deficient, flawed and imperfect.Ancient Athenian democracy devised two institutions that fleshed out this vision.In Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” the Grand Inquisitor says: “There is no more ceaseless or tormenting care for man, as long as he remains free, than to find someone to bow down to as soon as possible.” And what a sweet surrender!Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler and Mussolini were all smooth talkers, charmers of crowds and great political seducers.First, sortition: the appointment of public officials by lot.Given the fundamental equality of rights that all Athenian citizens — that is, free male adults — enjoyed, the most logical means of access to positions of leadership was random selection.Just scratch the surface of the human community and soon you will find the horde.It is the “unreasoning and unreasonable human nature,” writes the zoologist Konrad Lorenz in his book “On Aggression,” that pushes “two political parties or religions with amazingly similar programs of salvation to fight each other bitterly,” just as it compels “an Alexander or a Napoleon to sacrifice millions of lives in his attempt to unite the world under his scepter.” World history, for the most part, is the story of excessively self-assertive individuals in search of various scepters.It doesn’t help matters that, once such an individual has been enthroned, others are only too eager to submit to him.It is as though, in his illustrious presence, they realize they have too much freedom on their hands, which they find suddenly oppressive.