An Athenian relief of Democracy crowning the people of Athens

The remains of an ancient kleroterion,
a device for selecting jurors by lot in ancient Athens

I've always said that democracy is an ugly unattractive business, the plain jane of political systems. It's not about rushing off on winged feet to save civilization. It certainly isn't about messianic heroes on white horses riding in to save the day, even though that's what we think we are voting for every 4 years. Democracy is fractious committees made up of competing interests forging compromises that make no one completely happy, but that everyone can live with. Democracy is competing visions of a just society, each given a real chance of winning power, and all given a space to compete for that power without having to resort to killing each other.

From left to right, from Ron Paul libertarians to Occupy Wall Street, there is a call for some kind of "direct democracy." What exactly that's supposed to be, I'm not quite sure. What it may be is a justifiable desire to bypass a thoroughly corrupt and dysfunctional legislative system. OWS' most brilliant decision was perhaps to bypass that system entirely and go straight to the centers of power, which are not in Washington. In doing so, they made institutional politics beside the point. The politicians and political professional classes got pushed aside and rendered irrelevant.

I've read Thucydides and I've read Plutarch's jaundiced accounts of direct democracy in ancient Athens. I'm also a member of a minority that saw its rights put up for a vote many times. Democracy, especially without a framework of law, can become another form of tyranny, the worst according to John Adams. I seriously doubt that women's suffrage or the end of legal racial segregation would have ever happened if they were put up for a vote. History is full of crimes majorities perpetrated on minorities, and Thucydides and Plutarch are full of accounts of Athenian majorities stampeded into recklessly destructive decisions by unscrupulous demagogues.

And yet, the Athenians according to all evidence, valued their democracy greatly. They knew that there was nothing quite like it anywhere in the world at the time. Thucydides put his heartfelt praises of Athens and its people into the mouth of Pericles. Democracy gives people of all types and stations a voice, a say in determining their own destiny, and the course of their communities. Democracy turns subjects into citizens with the full dignity of sovereignty shared out among all. While democracies are notorious for their sparse public spectacles and pomp, democracy does have its splendor, its majesty.

That majesty was in peril of being lost, or turned into a cruel joke, as this country became increasingly oligarchic.

Now, something of democracy's old luster returns in the radical experiments with direct democracy of the Occupy movements. The left, once notorious for self-defeating factionalism, appears to have abandoned ideology entirely for consensus building. Lenin would be furious to see so decentralized and unstructured a movement, and to see it (so far) make some successes (interestingly, Lenin's most enthusiastic admirers these days are extremists on the right). It's greatest success thus far is redirecting the public discussion and setting the terms of the debate, something no Democrat or Democrats have been able (or willing) to do for 30 years. Occupy seized the initiative from the right and put the regressives on the defensive probably for the first time. It seized the initiative from the punditocracy and from the professional political classes. Where this goes from here remains to be seen.

Here is Occupy's most remarkable invention, the "human microphone," in action. Since this is not an officially registered protest event (there is no incorporated organization to request permission), Occupiers are forbidden to use any kind of amplification including basic megaphones. So, a single person speaks in short clauses, and the gathered crowd repeats them so that everyone can hear. An unexpected virtue of this system is that it compels people who disagree with an idea to not only hear it out, but to say it themselves. This system imposes a certain decorum on the proceedings and a measure of consideration both for speakers and for listeners. I've participated in this as part of the microphone, and it is remarkable.