Ostracism and Democracy
The 2020 Presidential Election featured an unprecedented attempt to undermine our democratic institutions: allegations of voter fraud and litigation about mail-in ballots culminated in a mob storming of the Capitol as Congress certified President Biden’s victory. Former President Trump now faces social-media bans and potential disqualification from future federal office, but his allies have criticized those efforts as the witch-hunt of a cancel culture that is symptomatic of the unique ills of contemporary liberal politics.
This Article defends recent efforts to remove Trump from the public eye, with reference to an ancient Greek electoral mechanism: ostracism. In the world’s first democracy, Athenians assembled once a year to write down on pottery shards, ostraka, names of prominent figures they wished to exile from their political community. I argue that this desire to banish powerful figures from political participation is, in fact, sign of a well-functioning, legitimate democracy. In particular, ostracism emerges as an effective procedure during an erosion of the perceived legitimacy of one’s political adversaries, and it is grounded in a hope to restore a once-shared commitment to the foundational norms of democratic contest.