Our country was called a democracy when we still had millions of slaves. Our nation today is called a democracy when millions of citizens never exercise their right to vote, a few hundred party leaders select our national political candidates, and only those who have million-dollar treasuries can run for political office with a reasonable chance of winning. Latin American military dictatorships are called democracies. South Vietnam with a single candidate for president during the Vietnam War was called a democracy.
The word democracy comes from two Greek words: a noun, demos which means ”people” and a verb, kratein, which means ”to rule,” Its basic meaning is ”government by the people” or “rule by the ruled.”
Ideas were expressed directly through the Assembly, which consisted of all male citizens over 18 years of age and who were willing to attend the sessions held about every 10 days. There was no system of representation calling for long campaigns and expensive elections. If you lived in the country you had to get up at the crack of dawn in order to get to the meeting place of the Assembly, a rocky hillside within the city gates. The police chased all the loafers off the Angora, a kind of public park, in order to encourage good attendance. Anyone who had powerful enough lungs to make himself heard by 6000 or more voters could speak to the Assembly. Of course, if you were a well-known and respected leader your chances of being listened to were greater. Whatever this Assembly decided by vote was the law of the land.
Athens, both the city and its surrounding countryside was divided into 10 electoral districts called ”tribes.” These districts were further divided into precincts or ”demes” which had some limited self-government in the rural areas. Each precinct named candidates over 30 years of age for the Council of 500. From these candidates 50 were chosen by lot for each tribe to serve as members of the Council of 500 for a year’ The final choice by lot was one of the most democratic devices imaginable and reduced the danger of political skullduggery.
There was no danger that the Council could turn into a private preserve for the wealthy or influential as modern government bodies have a tendency to do, because members served only one year: no man could be a member two years in a row; and no one could serve more than twice in his lifetime. Just imagine what our legislatures and Congress would be like if we had rules like that.