- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 23, 2000

H. L. Mencken once said the American democracy is the greatest form of entertainment ever devised by governments. Among the other benefits of a political crisis, it also forces us to think about fundamental principles. What are the goals that bind us Americans together and why do we all feel uncertainty for the future when the political machinery appears to be breaking down? How can we insure continued dedication to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" when succession to the main focus of power remains uncertain?

Some 2,500 years ago, the Athenian citizens who invented democracy were most concerned to prevent their leaders from perpetuating their rule. They chose the members of the council and the administrators of the city by lot and limited their incumbency to a year. The positions demanding special ability and experience, the generals and treasurers, were elected by name annually.

These officers could be re-elected, but there were 10 of them, which diluted the zeal of their ambitions. And citizens held a final card for cutting down those leaders who succeeded too well. They tossed oyster shells into jars to select those whose attainments had become too great and exiled them for 10 years. They even exiled Themistocles, Athens' greatest military hero, when he became too rich and powerful. (I am not recommending we ostracize Bill Gates or Alan Greenspan, but there may be merit in the idea of having that recourse available, just in case.)

Our Founding Fathers, like the Athenians, were not mainly concerned with selecting the best man, but rather with making sure that whomever they chose by lot or ballot be removable from office in some established manner. In a democracy, the essential right of the citizen is to prevent his governors from perpetuating their authority over him. No matter how enlightened, the ruler who is confident of staying in office at his own volition, can readily become a despot. Kleisthenes and Madison both recognized that the best way to limit the term of the ruler was to select him by following set rules, such as those contained in the Constitution and elsewhere, and spell out in those rules how the ruler would depart from office as well. Any democratic system must accept severe limits on its effectiveness to govern in order to ensure that its leaders can be removed when the citizenry, following the procedures of its laws, wants to replace them.

In the current crisis, the fundamental question is how can we apply the rules that our nation established long ago, the Constitution and voting laws, to a novel set of circumstances that were largely unforeseen when the rules were adopted. The critical concern is to be sure the established rules be followed. To talk in Rousseauesque terms such as the "will of the people" or to contrast the number of votes that one candidate has received nationwide with the number received by the other is irrelevant to the task.

The United States today, subject to the massive social and political power of the modern media and the influence of vast financial resources, must seek a way to resolve the crisis involving meticulous observance of the law. We are dealing with an election in which the difference between the vote for the candidates is too small to measure accurately. A political version of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, it falls within the limits of tolerance of the system of vote counting. We must nevertheless follow the Constitution and the laws down to those applicable only to various counties in Florida and exclude any other factors.

In the future our legislative institutions may try to overcome the problems of today, but as with nuclear particles the act of measurement itself changes the results. We can deal with the imprecision of our election systems only by observing the law as it exists. The survival of democracy in the Union may ultimately depend on it.

Fenton Jameson is a writer and head of Jameson Associates Inc., which investigates, for commercial clients, Russian business interests and political developments. He is a retiree of the Central Intelligence Agency.

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