THE AMERICAN POLITICAL CAMPAIGN: A lesson from ancient Athens?

Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the
He holds a bachelor degree in history from Harvard.

It is difficult to exaggerate the low quality and excessiveness of political debate in the United States. Although this offense to public sensibility is most apparent during the presidential campaign, it seems to have become endemic to our political processes at all levels.

     However, the fault for this malady cannot be placed exclusively on the candidates themselves. There is an equal responsibility to be born by a rapacious media, whose members are eager to advance their own careers by stirring controversy and scandal. But on a deeper level the journalists, like the politicians, are only captive of a system that predetermines the methods they employ.

     No doubt, one generalized source of this pattern is the adversarial method of our judicial procedure. In recent decades its tendency to rancor has been further exacerbated by the Deconstructive technique of Postmodern law. Such factors have come to shape our political processes and even the ethic of our journalistic media. There may be no remedy for these influences, but it might be useful to attempt to put our approach to public affairs into perspective.

     One way of doing so is to look at the practices of our earliest political forebears, the ancient Greeks. By this means we can gain perspective on a variety of methods of discourse and understand how our particular approach compares with other ways of transacting the public business.

      There are several ways of viewing the variety of methods of public discussion that prevailed among the Greeks and have survived down to modern times. But for purposes of understanding American practice they are best seen in four categories: the dialogue, the principled, the rhetorical, and the disputatious.

     The first of these, the dialogue, is perhaps the best known. It was the method employed by the philosopher Socrates and by his disciple, Plato. The dialogue can be summarized as an approach where the presenter is encouraged to set forth his idea. As he does so, his listeners may ask questions or raise objections. However, their purpose is not to discredit or contradict. Instead, it is to assist the speaker to present his ideas  and to elaborate or resolve potentially unclear or problematic aspects. This method is often used today in diplomatic proceedings and, perhaps surprisingly, within the governing strata of the Chinese system.

     The second approach to discussion, what might be called the reasoned or principled, is based on an appeal to abstract concepts and ideals, and to logic. This type of exchange begins with a set of agreed upon propositions or theories and pursues them to their logical conclusion. This more detached and impersonal approach to finding agreement was set forth by Parmenides. It is a type of discussion especially prevalent in the affairs of Continental Europe. Because the region is divided by many languages, European affairs are often transacted on a high level of intellection—employing principles and ideals that transcend language.

     The third mode of Greek discourse, the rhetorical, involved a thorough training in manner and speech–but not in a superficial sense.  Rather, it sought a deep cultivation of individual character, the formation of a commanding persona. The rhetorician was less concerned to win the argument and more concerned to win the audience. He relied in his presentation not so much on a set of facts as on the way those facts were presented. In ancient Athens Isocrates was the first great teacher of rhetoric and Demosthenes was its most famous exemplar. Today the British are by far the most visible practitioners of this art, employing it to  advantage for both diplomatic and political purpose as well as for journalistic influence.

     Finally, in ancient Athens the tendency to argumentation and casuistry was made most famous by the Sophists. Their rise in the public courts to enormous wealth and political power was exemplified by Gorgias and Protagoras.  Able to argue on behalf of any cause, their technique was especially useful when parsing the phrases of a written text. Their tendency to disputation, called eristic by the Greeks, became a pattern for the adversarial methods of American law, as it eventually came to color the atmosphere of American political affairs.

     What is the usefulness of this glimpse at ancient history? In fact, a number of conclusions might be drawn from it. One is that there are several modes of public discourse. Each has advantages and disadvantages for establishing the quality of public conversation. When we apply these examples to the American situation several conclusions might be drawn. But perhaps two are most important.

     The first is that the transaction of political affairs does not have to be inherently or destructively contentious. It does not have to work on the basis of opposing parties or rival interest groups. Realizing this it is also important to remember that our current approach is the result of a series of choices. Our political discussion does not have to be conducted on the present level. Moreover, the question is not so much one of harmony and civility as it is one of intelligence and usefulness.

     That thought leads to a second conclusion: It is well and good for politicians to campaign and for citizens to participate in the political process. Those are, after all, the conventional means by which to influence government affairs. Yet, while doing these things, it might be useful to embark upon a discussion about the way public matters are actually transacted in this country.

     For my part, I believe this could be a very useful topic to explore in the public forum. I would suggest the discussion take the form of a dialogue. Whether we realize it or not, we have inherited much of our political method from the Ancient Greeks. Perhaps it is possible they have more to teach us.


Dr. John Psarouthakis, Executive Editor of, Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, publisher of  Founder and former CEO, JPIndusries, Inc., a Fortune 500 industrial corporation

In this series of articles, we examine the human relations issue in the corporate environment for growth.  After a discussion on what is “Human Relations” it would be very instructive to browse through a set of questions in order to focus your thoughts on human relations in your own company.

Overall we will write articles on the following aspects of this major topic:














Effective human relations refers to the extent individual employees are willing to accomplish overall organizational objectives.1  We refer to willing here rather than to actual doing because many other factors come into play, in addition to employee predilection in determining actual performance–appropriate fit of skills and talents, accurate expectations, sufficient tools and assistance, and other factors beyond even the firm’s control.  Though they overlap somewhat, we look at five components of human relations effectiveness:  1) morale — overall job satisfaction and commitment of employees; 2) goal integration –consistency of organization and individual goals; 3) a consistent view of the mission by CEO and managers; 4) a consistent view of values; 5) how effectively values are shared.

The human relations movement can be traced back to the Hawthorne Experiments in the 1930s.2  Hawthorne researchers were originally interested in effects of light and noise on worker productivity in a sewing machine factory.  Their unexpected results showed no correlation between illumination and worker output.  In some trials, the darker it got, the more workers produced.  Obviously, light levels alone were not affecting performance.  Though a number of alternative explanations existed, they all pointed to “people” factors.  The results of the Hawthorne experiments and others by Roethlisberger and associates triggered systematic research into the connection between employee attitudes and performance.

The human relations movement can also be traced to motivation theorists include MacGregor, Likert, Herzberg, and Maslow–all of whom looked beyond the economic models of work behavior to more complex psychological needs workers desire from the workplace.3 These needs include praise, recognition, power, accomplishment, and pride from a job well done.

Our growing understanding of human behavior underscores the importance of providing opportunities  for people to fulfill individual and organizational needs simultaneously.  Without this link, the firm will experience increased absenteeism, turnover, vandalism, grievances, strikes and litigation.  Where human relations are poorly managed, people may quietly sabotage their work efforts or simply work in a sloppy manner.  Worker attitudes are also linked to the quality of output.   Committed employees feel more pride of workmanship.  How do firms foster such pride?  As many have discovered, no amount of pleading or threatening will improve employee performance as effectively as positive approaches. Today’s workers may not be better educated, but they certainly have higher expectations than their forebears and most won’t work for money and job security alone.    Empowering employees and managers to make decisions is far more effective than “idiot-proofing” jobs.

Despite 35 years of field research pointing to the worker’s importance in the overall company success, a major beating by the Japanese is what finally made this sink in.  Ironically, much of Japan’s success is traced to a U.S. citizen, Dr. Deming.  Known for his work in statistical process control,  Deming’s philosophy is grounded in early motivation theorist Douglas MacGregor and his Theory Y view of workers.  Theory Y asserts that the employee wants to do a good job, and does so when given the chance. 4  We now see more American companies implementing Theory-Y human-relations concepts, adding new twists as they go.  McDonald’s has demonsrated that these ideas even work in Russia!