Op-Ed: What the world’s first democracy can teach us about the government shutdown

 Anthony Boyd is a senior majoring in biology. 

The country is in the midst of a government shutdown, the first in almost 20 years. Deep polarization has gripped our government. As extremists on both sides begin to localize in areas all over the country and as congressional districts are redrawn to reflect these new zones, it seems that a fewer number of moderate representatives will be elected to Congress and government shutdowns will be commonplace.

Americans have begun to question the political strength of their country. Is compromise even possible? Is democracy really working? To answer these questions, we should look back to Athens, Greece: the birthplace of democracy itself.

During the 6th century B.C., there was a high level of tension between the wealthy and poor Athenians, something reminiscent of what one would see today in America. But the  effects were even more extreme. Middle class and the poor were banned from government. The wealthy would claim other Athenians’ children and sell them into slavery in order to collect debt.

It was at this time that a man named Solon developed a new way of life for Athenians. In his reforms, Solon did away with debt slavery and created a new “Council of 400” that allowed members from each of the four tribes of Athens to serve a minor role in government.

Solon’s reforms alleviated much of the suffering, but tension among the classes still existed. Different factions created government gridlock, and no compromises were reached. Sound familiar?

This environment led to a tyrannical government for years, until, finally, a new leader created reforms. He instituted direct democracy, giving every Athenian free man one vote. A governing body was created, the populations of the four original tribes were distributed into 10 new tribes in order to eliminate polarization.

And just like our Congress, each Athenian tribe was awarded a number of representatives in direct proportion to their population, to prevent factions from taking too much control.

Looking at ancient Greek history can reveal a lot about what we’re facing as a nation today. I am not saying we should throw out our government and start over. I am not saying that we should switch to tyranny or a direct democracy. Our system must work since it has survived for over 200 years.

But as our country and our Congress become more polarized, it is time to learn from the Athenians and institute some reforms. We should to do away with the current congressional districts and redraw the lines to eliminate gerrymandering. This could create a more moderate Congress, one that will not only prevent government shutdowns but also knows how to compromise on the issues facing the United States, including the Affordable Care Act.

If Congressional leaders continue to bicker and elect representatives unwilling to negotiate, our nation will go down the same path as the Greeks eventually did. Unable to work together, the city-states unraveled and fell into the hands of the Romans. That’s why it’s called “Ancient Greece.” Let’s not become an “Ancient America.”

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