The Founders looked to classical models when they built the American political system. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we continued that policy.

More and more Americans live in so-called "landslide counties," where one party or the other holds a thumping majority. Meanwhile Congressional districts are increasingly gerrymandered by the two parties to insure that they will be "safe" for the incumbents.

Partly as a result of this, the political values systems of the core "blue" areas of the American map seem to be disconnected from the "red" ones. The people gather into the modern political equivalent of tribes, insulated in self-constructed media cocoons, and national politics become increasingly acerbic, emotional, and vulnerable to demagogues.

Ancient Athens had a similar problem, once upon a time. The Peisistratidai tyrant dynasty entrenched itself by exploiting regional conflict between the tribes, with their individual religious customs, and between the mutual hostility and different values of people in the coast, the interior, and the mountains.

The late 6th century B.C.E. statesman Kleisthenes forced a solution to this problem, and for this he is called the founder of Athenian democracy. His main achievement in government was redrawing the tribal map, which was something like the ancient equivalent of a congressional redistricting. But he did it in a way that amounted to a complete social reorganization of the Athenian state.

He set the number of tribes at 10, and he gave each a name and identity based on a god-hero. Then he divided the entire Athenian territory into electoral districts, and assigned all the citizens of each district to one or another of the tribes. But he set this up so that the chunks of turf of any tribe did not adjoin, and so that each of the tribes had a section in each of the three regions -- coast, inland, mountains.

This defused any chance of tribal barons building up a power base, and it forced the people to work together across geographical lines and local identifications.

A man's tribe and deme were hereditary, and he kept them even if he moved. The tribes were artificial ones at first, but they gelled because of the custom of having holidays and observances in common, and because men of one tribe now fought together in the same regiment (as Americans generally did, up through the Civil War), and because the Boule, the Athenian council or parliament, was to consist of 50 from each tribe -- elected by all the citizens of that tribe.

The system succeeded so well that it outlasted Athenian democracy itself, persisting into Roman times. It succeeded so well that modern historians have a difficult time reconstructing what came before it.

The American Founders had an abhorence of Athens, as an unbalanced state and a case of democracy run amok. But we are more Athenian now than they would have liked, so Athenian models perhaps are proper ones for us.

So, imagine this: dissolve the current Congressional districts, and apportion them by population, but dispersed in at least three divisions, spread over varying regions of the country. Make one district out of, say, North Philadelphia, Key West, and the eastern third of Wyoming. The people in those places have to nominate and elect one Representative. To do that, they have to get to know and understand one another, to compromise and communicate.

And before you dismiss it as mere trifling, pause to savor the image of Ted Kennedy campaigning in Kansas, or Tom De Lay trying to win voters in Maine.


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© December 26, 2004 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"