Theancient Athenians had a law that excluded citizens from voting on decisions of war, if they owned property outside the city's walls. The basis for this exclusion,on such a weighty matter, was the recognition that the standard practice of an invading army was always to destroy the lands outside the walls first. These Greeks understood the influence exercised by special interests on issues that concerned the general welfare of the entire "demos" or state. What a contrast to our current state of affairs in the United States, where special interests take precedence over the common good. The Founding Fathersof our country, who were great admirers, not to mention emulators of the ancient Greeks, would be saddened to see the lobbyists and special interests wheeling and dealing in the corridors of power in Washington.
Another characteristic of Athenian democracy which I genuinely admire is the utter contempt that Athenians had for the "idiotis", a private person and forerunner of the modern word idiot. These people were generally despised for shirking their duty as citizens to actively participate in the political process. In the assembly, those chosen by lot had to participate unless they had a very good reason for not doing so and when they shirked their responsibilities the Athenians would send a constable to smear red paint on the offender.
I often hear my fellow citizens wax eloquent about all that is wrong with American politics, the government and their disdain for do nothing politicians. When they finally get someone to take aggressive action to solve problems, they scream bloody murder. You get what you ask for: politicians afraid to lead and propose solutions to vexing problems in order to get reelected. When things don't go our way, people often drop out of the process and throw up their hands in disgust or they threaten to stay home to punish their political party. How counter-productive.
Here in Maine we have a tradition of participatory democracy called the Town Hall meeting that is slowly dying, except for the occasional controversial issue that gets folks riled up. Unfortunately, when more mundane, yet more critical issues are discussed, voters are home watching American Idol. The lesson here is that we all have to get out and get involved in our communities and in the political process on every level. It's too important to leave to the opportunists and politicians alone. Maybe those old Greeks knew a thing or two about how a real democracy works after all and we can still learn from them.