Last week I was lucky enough to travel through the ancient city of Athens. The birthplace of democracy and Western philosophical thought is going through a period of tremendous upheaval. The Euro crisis that precipitated in Greece has shocked financial markets around the world. It has also led to some serious governance changes within this Mediterranean nation. Austerity measures imposed by the IMF and EU have resulted in anger and riots across the country. As I was traveling with my father through the city we became accustomed to the metal plated vans of the riot police and their modern day armor. The austerity measures are widely despised, and increased taxation by the coalition government has resulted in a number of strikes and protests. During our stay, the workers from archaeological sites and museums organized a 24-hour strike, and another group incited a riot near the Parliamentary building.
Driving through the city I was struck by the repetition of two words: “Wake Up.” Scrawled throughout the city by youths, angry about their future economic prospects, the phrase was everywhere. I saw it on buildings throughout the city and into the suburbs. It was written on stately governmental offices and near the coast on rocks leading out to the Temple of Poseidon. The message was everywhere, and I began to think about what it could possibly mean. Wake up from what? Journeying through one of the most exciting cities of the ancient world and standing in the shadow of the Acropolis, I was very much awake. Greece, however, is in the process of waking up. The populace is finally stirring and beginning to realize the extent of the financial mismanagement that has plagued their country for the last decade. I think the words speak to the danger of complacency in democracy and the dangers that can come from political apathy. This is applicable outside of the Greek context and offers an important lesson for us today.
Broadly speaking, the crisis in Greece was brought about by an electorate that was not aware of the decisions its government was making in its stead. Democracy was essentially withering on the vine of its birthplace. The misappropriation of public funds and a bloated bureaucracy were ignored until the deficit of Greece swelled to an unmanageable amount. Now austerity and budget cuts are needed to right the balance that should have been addressed years ago. The parallels in our own country are easy to spot. We also have a budget deficit that is becoming a problem. Though we are still a long way from becoming another Greece, we need to address the issue now. We need to splash some water in our face and realize that democracy takes work.
Felix Frankfurter, a former associate justice of the Supreme Court, once wrote, “Democracy is always a beckoning goal, not a safe harbor. For freedom is an unremitting endeavor, never a final achievement.” We must constantly work toward the goals of democracy and just representation. They are not a given. Political apathy is not a luxury our country can afford if we are to continue to maintain our place in the world. Not every citizen or student has the time to become an expert on every issue that our lawmakers address, but we should have an understanding of the broad decisions that they take in our name. Our representatives are exactly that—representatives. They represent that views of their constituents and make choices in the name of the people who have elected them. They do not wield power in their own right but through our consent. That’s huge. It means that we are responsible for the choices they make. If that doesn’t align with our morals or values, then we have a responsibility to vote them out of office. Democracy started in Greece, and it has come to its zenith in our country. The United States has arguably created the world’s strongest and longest-lasting liberal democracy, and we have an obligation to actively participate in it. We have a duty to ensure that the choices made through the power of our consent line up with our own principles. The presidential elections may have passed, but the work of democracy never stops.
Whether you are a pre-med or a biomechanical engineer, the choices our government makes affect you, and you have the right to be heard. Greece stands as a stark reminder of the dangers of political apathy—one that should encourage all of us to “Wake Up.”
Colin Scott is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Monday.