The cliché: Even 2,500 years after Ancient Athenians conceived of democracy, we can't stop talking about it, especially after the news broke that Greece decided to put Europe's rescue package up for a country-wide referendum. New York Times Washington correspondent Binyamin Appelbaum gave voice to the citizens of Twitter by summarizing an observation contained in many almost simultaneous first reaction tweets, he noted: "It's hard to fathom why investors keep forgetting that Greece is a chaotic democracy. The Greeks invented chaotic democracy." In the ensuing 24 hours, the clever little historical parallel caught the media's fancy. Yesterday, Forbes's Tim Worstall quipped, "Who would have thought that the Greeks would use democracy, that thing they themselves invented, to deal with the economic crisis?" Shortly after, NPR's Scott Neumen wrote, "Greece, the birthplace of democracy, may be suffering from an overdose of public input." And soon after that, The Guardian's Larry Elliott blogged, "Markets reacted with horror to the idea that the birthplace of democracy would put the terms of the latest imposed austerity program to its people." Finally, today, Bloomberg's editorial board writes, "The country that invented drama and democracy is not disappointing the world on either front."
Where it's from: Taking the long view, its from 508 B.C. or thereabouts when the leaders of Ancient Athens conceived of letting all adult male citizens participate in governing. And as Greece has been embroiled in violent protests over its debt crisis and the government's proposed austerity measures, observers have occasionally drawn parallels to the chaotic democracy that existed there millennia beforehand. As Fortune's Shawn Tully wrote in August, "Greeks deeply doubt the ability of their politicians to face down the unions and cartels and deliver. And if they can't, the country that invented democracy might plunge a whole continent of governments into chaos." This referendum news only amplified an historical echo that's been on display since the crisis there began, so when the news broke, it wasn't all that shocking that many took to Twitter to make the observation.
Why did it catch on? On the surface, it seems to be a quick, seemingly clever aside. Writers are sort of saying: Sure, markets are tanking, but let's just pause and note that it's funny that a proposed democratic vote that is angering people happens to be coming from a country where an ancient civilization invented participatory democracy. After we've all chuckled, they can then delve into their more modern reasons for supporting or opposing the referendum.
Why else? More than just making a joke (though that's clearly what some writers were up to) some seemed to be finding symbolic ways to communicate the significance of the day's news. Reminding us of the more romanticized democracy of antiquity was a quick way to do so. Pundits could expand the confrontation between investors and a prime minister to be one between capitalism as a system and democracy as a philosophy. Given that both "capitalism" and "democracy" often serve as positive-sounding buzz words, we don't wonder that writers would jump at the opportunity to hint at the ways in which those two systems sometimes come into conflict.