Long ago in Assyria, lots were cast to determine who would hold the council presidency for the coming year. The presidency rotated annually among members of the ruling class, including the king. This system lasted from at least the 20th century BCE until the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BCE — even as Assyria’s republican government mutated into a despotic monarchy and the council faded into irrelevance.
Around the time of Assyria’s demise, ancient Greek cities were developing comparable systems, likewise selecting officeholders by lot. Then the Athenians developed a variation on the lottery, transforming the casting of lots into the casting of votes — anonymous ones. Instead of, say, writing the names of individuals on lots to be cast, every voter took a blank pebble and tossed it into one urn or another. The majority of pebbles decided the issue.
Casting lots is a method of divination — of ascertaining divine will. So is its descendant variation, casting ballots. A lottery is a mechanism for producing an outcome decided not by humans but by the gods, or fate, or chance. A vote is a mechanism of distributed divination: the outcome is decided by the cumulative tosses of everyone’s pebbles. The “will of the people” stands in place of divine will.
The outcome of Tuesday’s massively distributed divination of the American people’s will was still awaited when this article was written. But what is it we the people choose with our votes?
Many Americans apparently believe they are electing not a president but a king: an absolute monarch who will impose his or her will on all branches of government and on society at large. They imagine a president capable of fixing the economy, the schools, the law, the climate, the country’s security, its health — even though these are mostly beyond the powers of the office. Somehow the idea of government by the people is transmogrified into government by one person, who rules by the mandate of heaven.
This electoral season, it appeared that many voters expect a president to exercise not merely monarchic powers, but divine ones. They project onto the candidates capacities that belong not to ordinary mortals but to deities, or demons. I know, it’s gross to imagine either major-party presidential candidate as some kind of divinity. But consider how gods behave, for example, in Greek myth. They get away with sexual assault (e.g., Apollo, Zeus). They may be promiscuous (Aphrodite), or a harridan (Hera), or shape-shifter (Athena). They are easily peeved and start wars over insults (see Homer). They get away with murder, including mass murder.
Though gods may flout the norms by which we wish to be governed, they hold the reins of the cosmos. They have supernatural powers to make great or destroy, and to do things humans can’t or shouldn’t do — which many voters apparently think it’s fine for a presidential candidate to do.
How has this come about? In the U.S., we vote for individuals, and beyond the vote we hardly have any role in governing. To return to our ancient examples, while Americans believe elections are the essence of democracy, Athenians considered elections inherently undemocratic. In Athens, voting was primarily a procedure for making governmental decisions, not for electing individuals. Most offices, with the exception of general, were filled by lot. This way, sooner or later all eligible citizens would participate in governing; that was what Athenians meant by democracy.
Granted, in Athens and Assyria political participation was limited to propertied men. Nevertheless, their practice of selecting men by lot for offices they could hold for only one year ensured broad participation in government, while preventing the retention of executive power by any one man — for that way lies dictatorship. To forestall that eventuality, Athenians developed the practice of ostracism: citizens wrote on potsherds the names of men they considered to have excessive power, then exiled the “winner.” When they voted for individuals, they were voting them out of the body politic.
By the time you read this, the die will have been cast. Hopefully it will not be too late to bring democracy to the U.S. by improving mechanisms for citizens to engage in their own government, and fixing an election system that turns voting into idolatry.
Eva von Dassow is an associate professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota. The views expressed in her essay are not intended to represent those of her employer.