Democracy: War by another means

In case you missed it in the news, Scotland has apparently decided to stay with the U.K. a little longer. To my mind this election was a resounding success. I’m not talking about the decision to stay with the U.K. Frankly I’m so ignorant of the whole thing that I really could not give you a compelling argument for either side. Never the less, I think the election was a resounding success. I say this for one particular reason; a great political decision was reached, and nobody died.

Can you imagine how this would have been settled 400 years ago? How many people would have died (either by civil war or military conquest)? How much industry would have been lost? How much harm would it have inflicted? How many people would have starved to death? This is unsettling idea, but an important one. We used to solve political problems by killing people. Sometimes we still do. But we’ve also learned to solve them in a way that is bloodless. In the western world, this is perhaps our finest achievement.

Way back in November of 2008 I wrote a short piece about the election process for a group of guys who liked to discuss politics on the internet. I was struck by the use of language from both sides as they talked about the election. It seemed like there was a strong reliance on military metaphors, and it didn’t take much of an imagination to conclude that either side was more interested in a coup more than election. Fortunately this has never happened here in the U.S., but it did make me wonder, “where do these militaristic ideas come from?” In fact, the real question should be, “where do these democratic ideas come from?” For militaristic solutions to political problems predate democracy by thousands of years.

The piece can be found below.


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from 11/2/2008

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s an election going on. And this one, especially as evidenced in the race for the Presidency, is proving to be formidable both in terms of the piles of money spent, and the heat of overblown rhetoric. Watching all the recent news specials and polarizing images on FaceBook reminded me of an idea I had the last time Obama was running for office.

You see, I believe that a democratic election is a war, albeit one with no weapons (save words and money) and no death. Its not like our modern wars with our vast and impressive professional military, but more like the kind of war that was invented right alongside the birth of democracy. Its my belief that this was no accident; that democracy and hoplite warfare were both born out of the same need: to solve political problems quickly and at little cost.

The practice of democracy, and the word, both originated on only one spot on the Earth, and at one time. The time was some 2500 years ago, and the place was a little peninsula sticking into the Mediterranean Sea we now call Greece. This was back before the golden age of Athens, and well before Socrates (a famous solider in his day), Plato, Aristotle, or even Alexander the Great.

The practice of democracy started amongst the many Polis, or city-states. These Polis were poor enough that they couldn’t collectively support a large monarch, but rich enough that they could support a broad middle class of yeomen, or small farmers. Because of this, defense of each Polis necessitated the use of the local people banding together to form a militia. Political problems with neighboring Polis were often settled with their respective militias.

There’s a problem with this, though; farmers make lousy militia because they can only be away for a short period of time between sowing and harvest. So if a Polis had to use farmers in their militia, they were forced to fight their battles on an accelerated time-line. They didn’t have time for draw-out campaigns, or long sieges because the crops had to be harvested.

To solve this problem, the Polis developed hoplite warfare. A type of warfare that is essentially a giant shoving match.

Both cities would line up their hoplites a short distance across from each other. At some point they would charge into each other, shields interlocked, and with multiple rows of men, pushing towards the enemy. Think of the front line in a football game (American style), only the line would 5-10 men deep, and extended 1/4 mile long. The combination of armor and interlocking shields meant that almost no one would be injured, at least at first. At some point, one side or the other would fail, their line would crumble, and the victors would give chase. Most fatal injuries were to the back, and even these were fewer than you’d think.

What’s important about all this is that only one battle would happen, and both sides would agree to some kind of political resolution depending upon the outcome of that single battle. Much like having a lawsuit settled over the results of a football game. The best part is, the enemy never had to actually take over your land to win, (no Sherman’s March) they only had to win the battle.

So the farmers would come out, line up, smash into each other, patch themselves up, and go back to the harvest.

What is fascinating is the similarities between hoplite warfare, and democracy. Both require a middle class society of free men, both revolve around a single event to effect a political solution, and finally both allow for rapid political change, but in a manor that conserves precious resources.

For those that like to read, Victor Davis Hanson has an excellent book about Hoplite warfare, farming, and how the western world developed the concept of winning a war by winning a single battle. Its called “The Western Way of War“.

Even though Victor was the one who taught me where the word democracy comes from, and more importantly, why, I can’t recall him ever characterizing democracy as a kind of warfare.

Anyway, I posted this because these past few weeks have gotten pretty interesting around here, and I noticed the behavior has gotten pretty hostile. In fact it looks more and more like two opposing sides in the midst of a war. Which isn’t all that inaccurate a description, if one thinks that we are in fact at war; fighting to determine which side will get to set the political agenda for the next 4 years.

Oh, and the thread title is a spoof on Carl von Clausewitz.