The current paralysis of the federal government in Washington is little more than political theatre. Every day, we are treated to sound bytes of our politicians claiming that they are fighting for the American people. We hear politicians saying that they have our best interests at heart, that it’s the “other side’s” fault, and that they are sincerely trying to reach an agreeable conclusion. I don’t buy it. What I see in Washington is an attitude that favors the privileged over the poor, a legislature that is unwilling to compromise, and a back-and-forth bitterness that breeds only resentment and mistrust. Is this the best we can do? Is this what we want?
I am a classicist. I look to the histories of Ancient Rome and Greece to find patterns and parallels that can be applied to modern-day problems. In considering the most recent stalemate in Washington, I am reminded of Athens in the 6th century B.C. Citizens struggled to make a living, even though they had many talents and access to a wide variety of resources. The divide between the land-owning aristocracy and the poor laborers had grown larger than it had ever before been. The threat of civil war, encouraged by political, economic, and societal strife, loomed large. Athens was on the verge of dysfunction, but rather than allow themselves to spiral into catastrophe, the Athenians decided to address the issues facing their city-state.
They gave power to Solon. Although he was a member of the aristocracy, Solon was well-known and respected for his wisdom and fairness. Solon sought to make reforms that both the aristocracy and poor would find agreeable. He abolished indentured servitude among the Athenians. He encouraged the export of olives as a revenue-raising measure, and he banned the export of grain, which was needed to feed the Athenian people. At the same time, however, Solon was not the cultivator of what today might be deemed a welfare state. He insisted that all sons learn a trade, so that they may provide for their own family. Those that refused to work were punished, and could expect no assistance from the government. The result of all these reforms was a renewed Athens, one that would become a strong and thriving democracy.
Solon’s measures were by no means perfect, and quite a few Athenians found fault with them. Yet Solon ultimately saved Athens from its own destruction. Through enacting commonsense and necessary reforms, Solon was able to find a compromise between the demands of the aristocracy and of the laborers. Our leaders in Washington should be wise enough to attempt the same, lest we find ourselves too far gone, like Sparta was. But that comparison I will save for another time.
Evan Defrancesco is a graduate of Daniel Hand High School in Madison, CT.