From Athens to Elon: The Threat of Wealth on Democracy
“We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
Written by then-Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, this bold condemnation from 1941 considers the impact of wealth inequality on American democracy—an inequality that has since widened to levels not seen since the Gilded Age.
While some see personal wealth as an aspirational outcome of capitalism, others argue that this extreme accumulation of wealth can exert a problematic influence on American politics—and when one looks at the numbers, it becomes clear that money doesn’t just talk. It votes.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the 2020 election was the most expensive in American history, with $6.6 billion spent in the presidential race and $7.2 billion in Congressional races. Locally, we saw a record-breaking $8 million invested in San Jose’s 2022 mayoral race.
However, given that money is invested across political parties, does money bear an actual threat to our democracy? Classicist and Santa Clara University Assistant Professor Nicholas Lindberg believes that we should be cautious, pointing to troubling parallels to ancient Greece where democracies slowly slid into oligarchies run by an elite few.
The trend, he explained in a recent interview with Illuminate, starts when society endorses extravagant displays of wealth from the politically ambitious.
Unlike our modern representative democracies, ancient Greece city-states often had forms of direct democracy where citizens—regardless of status—were equally expected to participate in assemblies to vote on laws. However, this changed over time. Why?
This is an ongoing subject of debate amongst ancient historians, but my position is there is actually a decline in democracy that exists meaningfully, if not constitutionally, by the end of the second century B.C. At this point, the assemblies have lost what actual power they once held.
I argue that the way we can tell is through the flourishing of civic honors—such as laudatory inscriptions, statues, and various privileges—given to the cities’ most powerful citizens in exchange for money they've given to the city or the offices they’ve held. This is a Greek thing we still do today. But as democracy is declining in these particular Greek cities, we begin seeing the magistrates’ families getting honored in sculptural groups, and their children—who have obviously not done anything—are also being given proleptic or anticipatory honors with the expectation that they will grow up and lead the city. At that point, we've gone from a democracy that curbs the power of the rich and offers equal political participation to a government that expects that the city will be run by the children of the current rulers. And this isn’t just a fact—it’s actually embraced by the people.
Coinciding with this change, there’s also a remarkable transition in how Greeks thought wealth should be displayed. At first, the rich had to minimize wealth or use it overtly for the public good. But over time we get this transition where displays of wealth are restrained, then accepted, then desirable, and finally required.
This leads to oligarchy—a rule by a distinct ruling class of an elite few who perpetuate their rule through their own family and use their wealth to signal they belong to this category of the ruling few.
If there’s a lesson to expand into the modern world, it’s that constitutional changes—when they occur at all—are the final changes. What comes first are changes in what we call political culture—the unarticulated expectations of how people should act in the political arena, who should be in charge, and how they should be honored.
In your work, you highlight how early ancient Greek politicians were valued for their sōphrosynē. How important was this virtue for democracy?
Sōphrosynē is this Greek virtue that means moderation in some sense, but really the ability to hold a middle course. In life, it means to drink to the point where you can have fun, but not to the point where you're drunk; to eat a little bit of food, but not to be a glutton. Another way to display this virtue is through tempering ostentation. If you are wealthy, everyone may know it, but you shouldn’t display it in flamboyant ways.
I think what sōphrosynē can do for democracy is keep giant gulfs between citizens from forming. With sōphrosynē, all the houses in the city should look more or less the same and be roughly the same size—reflecting the notion of equality of all citizens. It also mitigates outward displays of wealth that can become seen as a requirement for participating in politics or holding office. In this way, the dissolution, or the devaluation, of sōphrosynē can have a negative effect on democracy as we can lose the level playing field between citizens.
In today’s world, many politicians receive support because of their backgrounds in business. Why is that?must
Every time I discuss this research, the first comment is usually about a modern connection to Trump. Trump obviously does have a certain way of displaying his wealth, but more concerning is the rhetoric that his wealth somehow makes him immune from corruption, or qualifies him in a better way for office. Who’s better to fix the taxation system than someone who’s devoted his entire life to subverting it?
That kind of rhetoric was seen in 2016, and it worked. His public image has more or less revolved around being rich, and yet, he managed to achieve a great deal of political success in some of the poorest parts of the country.
So, I would say that our political culture has embraced this idea that a person’s wealth is a reflection of their success and that success should be a qualifier for public office.
Looking at the lifestyles of the rich, there’s a difference between someone like Warren Buffett and Elon Musk in terms of sōphrosynē. In fact, Buffett still lives in the Nebraska ranch he bought six decades ago. What power is gained through the performance of wealth that goes beyond just the ownership of wealth?
It's funny, because in the ancient Greek world, there was no IRS or central public registry of land. People actually had no idea how much money any individual citizen had. Their entire knowledge of how rich someone was came from how they displayed their wealth.
Something very similar holds for Trump. Does he actually have a lot of money? Fundamentally, that is irrelevant to most of the people who vote for him because he displays himself in the way that they imagine someone with that amount of money would—with golden toilets and steak served on gold plates.
These displays can also be an important way of circumventing one’s lack of actual wealth. If you pretend you have wealth, people accept that you do, and then it ties you back to this network of successful people who can get things done.
But Trump and Musk’s wealth often comes to mind first because they’ve displayed their wealth to a greater extent than most rich people do. This helps us identify the Manhattanite or West Coast techie images they’re trying to manufacture, even if it’s a caricature that most wealthy people in those inner circles would actually reject.
The same thing happened in ancient Greece, too, depending on whether you wanted to have civilian city wealth or royal court wealth, because these arenas display wealth in different ways, and people can play with that. They could wear purple garments, for example, which are associated with royalty and makes you look like the kind of person who hobnobs with kings. So, this highlights the subcultures of wealth—that wealth isn’t just richness. Because it's both material and cultural capital, it has the ability to be especially permeating.
What does the celebration of excessive wealth say about our society and its values?
We’re all members of a community, and the way we act is defined by how we think others expect us to be within our certain roles. This social conformity—also seen in ancient Greece—becomes a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: Is it the citizens or the wealthy elite driving this? I think it’s reciprocal.
Assuming you have a wealthy class that’s politically ambitious, they are going to look for what works. In some sense this is driven by democracy itself. The wealthy wish to be heard in assembly, so they experiment with how to display this desire. Over time, these displays of wealth become more and more useful—for hosting ambassadors or raising the city’s prestige—and eventually, this thinking extends to everyone in the community and even other city-states, where everyone is responding to these social expectations in kind.
How does society put the genie back in the bottle? Is there a way to go back to valuing moderation?
It definitely can happen, but it's less about asking the rich to relinquish their capacity or desire to gain power and more about expanding the capacity to gain power depending on not displaying wealth.
In the ancient Greek example, democracies do emerge from oligarchies. Even if small, generational aristocratic clans continue to hold political positions, the way they display power differs. They now want to have a house that looks like everyone else’s house.
This means it's not teleological—there is the possibility for change, but only when you reward people who are doing the opposite action, right? If you reward sōphrosynē, people will act with sōphrosynē.
If we look at where our own society is turning, it's funny that when the Panama Papers were released, they showed in detail how the wealthy hoarded their wealth, and it did nothing. But culturally, we now seem to be pushing back—for example, figures like Elon Musk and his role in the billionaire rocket race are now widely ridiculed. So maybe the secret isn’t in bank accounts or tax returns, it’s in the cultural rejection of these ways of displaying wealth.
Silicon Valley has one of the largest wealth disparities in the world. How does that affect our political culture and our ability to effect change?
As a fresh resident of Silicon Valley, it feels like whoever holds the power is the person who holds the land because our core problem is access to housing. I’m not sure how to resolve that, because there are questions about the use of wealth to project power, and then there are questions about material inequality. Those questions have different, albeit interrelated, answers—especially as we see increased pressures to mitigate wealth.
In Silicon Valley, we think about wealth mainly through home ownership, whereas maybe somewhere else, you might see it displayed through a bigger, grander home. Just walking through the neighborhoods around campus, the houses look more or less the same, but you can sometimes tell whether someone bought their house based on the car in front of it. If it's a Tesla, they probably bought the house pretty recently. That could be a small way that people signal their status.
As a classics professor, how important is it to connect these lessons of the past to present-day events?
Aristotle once said tragedy lets you experience bad emotions—fear, anger—in a controlled setting, better preparing you for those emotions when they inevitably happen in real life.
In a similar way, ancient Greece is removed from the fury and the mire of modern life, and so it allows us to examine systems similar to the ones we find ourselves in. It can be hard to think about our own political culture while operating within it, but no one has a personal stake in being a third-century Ephesian.
It also helps that ancient Greece was fundamentally important to the creation of our current life, as the Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by Greek models. Having even a general knowledge of ancient Greece can clarify things we do in our own political lives.
Mar 25, 2023
Photo courtesy of iStock.