THE AMERICAN POLITICAL CAMPAIGN: A lesson from ancient Athens?

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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.

2 thoughts on “THE AMERICAN POLITICAL CAMPAIGN: A lesson from ancient Athens?”

  1. Dear Mr. Garske,

    This is Paul Miller, the volunteer from the Lafcadio Hearn exhibition. I think your points about the state of political campaign nowadays are very valid. The current over simplification of political debate techniques can only hurt the electorate in the long run by muddying the view of the points being debated. Diversifying the methods of debate would definitely help bring more truth to the discussion as well as garner more interest from the populous. Great article!

  2. I thoroughly agree with Mr. Garske, and particularly that
    the ‘transaction of political affairs does not have to be inherently or
    destructively contentious’, since this is not the nature of the political
    beast.  In fact, the Socratic type of dialogue seems to recommend itself,
    where each individual politician is asked by his audience to present, to
    justify and expound her ideas.  It is,
    after all, the perennial way in which seminars, even of the highest research
    calibre, are conducted in academia.

    But there is a problem to resolve.  THE MEDIA IS POLITICAL POWER.  Debating parties make use of this power by
    aspiring to the ideological humiliation of their opponent.  Humiliation is not a type of theoretical
    defeat, but it is political defeat, only of the wrong kind. It is certainly not
    part of the democratic way to disgrace your opponent, but only to discredit
    their positions; and yet, the debate between opponents renders them vulnerable
    to even personal embarrassment. 

    The Socratic exploration of a politician’s ideology does not
    lend itself to this type of misuse, if the interlocutors are wisely selected to
    inquire rather than belittle.  But this
    is just the problem: how can we consciously bypass a ‘power source’?  How can we not grasp the opportunity to use
    the full blast of media influence, going beyond theoretical inquisitiveness to
    the drama of personally embarrassing the ‘foe’? 
    Power is there to be harnessed and used to our benefit, or at least our
    interest.  Or is this not always so? 

    It is not!  It is time
    to deliberate and legislate, as we do for the protection of children from
    myriads of threats to them or as we do for safeguarding our health from
    equinumerous dangers.  Power is not ‘good
    in itself’ – to use another Platonic conception.  Power spans the whole gamut of values from
    positive to negative.  We have to pitch
    the use of the media in political debates at the level of public utility, which
    it is currently failing to attain. 

    But who will be the politician to suggest this without being
    branded defeatist?  Even worse, the use
    of media power in political debate might have been the very factor that put
    this politician in the position of legislative power to begin with – should she
    shun media power?  This is a further
    problem that may require political fortuity to lend its helpful hand, in
    respect to the right timing in a politician’s career, to resolve it. 

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