Trumpty Dumpty

If the past is a guide, a look ahead to America after Trump is troubling.

Modern democracy traces its roots to the model first developed in Ancient Athens, but people tend to overlook the deep lesson involved in what ultimately happened to it.  That lesson is more relevant than ever.  As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, history doesn’t repeat itself but it does tend to rhyme.  

After its stunning victory over the Persians at the decisive battle of Salamis, Athens enjoyed a broad civic and cultural flowering under the leadership of the popular statesman/general Pericles in what came to be known as a Golden Age (from 461-429 B.C.E.).  Its democratic institutions and public services of various kinds were widely supported and willingly subsidized by its wealthy landowners and merchants – the elite of that time – and the pie got larger.  Everyone benefited. 

But everything changed after Athens’ humiliating defeat by Sparta (with Persian help) in the Peloponnesian War, coupled with a devastating plague that killed an estimated one-third of the population, including Pericles.  An impoverished, angry population became deeply divided, and Athens’ democracy collapsed.  Political power was seized by what came to be known as the “Thirty Tyrants,” a conspiracy of wealthy landowners who imposed a reign of terror on the population.  A fractious democracy was eventually restored, but the deep political divisions remained unresolved.  The result was a dysfunctional dark age in Athens.  

What is especially reminiscent – and troubling -- about our current political dysfunction is that there is a concerted effort by a well-organized and influential (very wealthy) segment of the elite in our society to undermine our democracy, starting at the top.  This is something relatively new, and it’s very dangerous at a time of extreme economic inequality and poverty.  There is a saying that goes back to the eighteenth century (conservative) statesman/philosopher Edmund Burke “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”It remains to be seen if we will be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together after Trump is gone.  



Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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