To Interim President Hunter Rawlings, democracy in the United States is not immune to tyranny.
In his Francis Halpern 2017 Lecture on Tuesday — possibly his last lecture at Cornell before handing the reins to President-Elect Martha Pollack — Rawlings said digitalization and a decreased interest in the humanities have intertwined U.S. politics with daily life and made political systems more volatile.
Contemporary politics appear more like like the ancient Athenian model of democracy, especially as the internet and social media are politicized, said Rawlings, who has taught several courses and researched Greek historiography at Cornell since ending his first term as president in 2003.
Athenians, Rawlings said, “didn’t want the elite and highly educated making decisions — they wanted everyone engaged.” As politics becomes more closely intertwined with the internet, it can radically change the system, as in ancient Athens, where the political system was “radical in that it was direct.”
While the Founding Fathers preferred the Romans’ Republican model and based the Constitution on Rome’s representative democracy, modern technology and communication have drawn the United States closer to the Athenian democracy over time, Rawlings said.
“Today, an individual can reach millions with tweets and can be elected president by conducting a populous campaign against both traditional parties,” Rawlings said.
Rawlings told the story of the Mytilenian Debate, where the Athenian assembly decided the fate of city-state Mytilini, which had attempted unsuccessfully to revolt against Athens during the Peloponnesian War.
The Athenian assembly’s ultimate decision to commit genocide in the city-state serves as a warning of how history can repeat itself.
“It will happen again because human nature remains constant,” Rawlings said. “History won’t prevent democracy from doing some bad things. It probably will do those bad things, because we as a species are who we are.”
Rawlings spoke about the diminishing emphasis on liberal arts education in the United States and declining public funding from universities.
The instruction of critical thinking and rational decision making has “never been as necessary as it is today,” he said.
“To say that we need more citizens with an education in the arts and sciences is an understatement,” Rawlings said, adding that public officials’ “disdain for liberal arts [is] reaching a fever pitch.”