A Citizen’s Guide to Greece 2015


July 15, 2015

Now comes the hard part

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Written by: DW

It was in the wee hours between November 4-5, 2008. The news was filtering in that Barack Obama had defeated John McCain in the US Presidential election. If you were a Republican, and had experienced George W. Bush’s historic reelection in 2004, you were crestfallen. Congressional Republicans had just been routed again to make matters worse. Long gone was the euphoria of the past eight years, when Republican leaders were promising a permanent majority.

What impressed me that night on the social media I was following (I was due to give a keynote address at the US Consulate General of Thessaloniki the morning after the election), amidst the immediate expressions of catastrophe that always follow such results (think New Democracy in 2000), was a clear awareness of the need to plan for the next election cycle straight off, to understand what had and what had not worked in the McCain campaign. Above all, one needed to stay engaged, recruit new supporters, consolidate resources and assets.

There are times historically when adverse political results may hide the seeds of a sea change in citizen engagement. Witness the grass roots campaigns of Senator Eugene McCarthy (D, Minnesota) in 1968, 1972 and especially 1976. McCarthy never won the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency, but he is often cited by Democratic activists of a certain age as being pivotal in the political socialization of their generation. They were hooked by the experience.

I mention these cases not to patronize the advocates of the “Yes” and especially the “No” votes in the Greek referendum of July 5. Politis did not endorse either side of the vote. Nor is it meant to be a call to action per se. I merely mean to say that politics must be seen as an ongoing process, and democratic politics requires a degree of sustained engagement.

If you are a young voter who voted one way or another on July 5 — especially if you voted “No” and have been disappointed subsequently by developments in the Greek Parliament and elsewhere in Europe, the sooner you accept that the vote has come and gone the better. What are you going to do in advance of the next one?

As you look back to the moments since 2009 when Greek citizens gathered voluntarily outside the Parliament building in central Athens to express their worries and fears and hopes in largely peaceful, self-governing assemblies, you have to be impressed. However, while banging on casseroles may be a universal language, as compelling as it might be it is not overly persuasive as a negotiating tool, as many Greeks have discovered to their dismay.

It has struck me as I observe the complex process of decision-making on the national and European levels that young Greeks are not particularly well prepared to defend their interests and those of their country. This is not necessarily a condemnation of Greek diplomacy viz-a-viz French or German diplomacy, for instance. I have it on very good authority that most member states of the European Monetary Union struggle with the niceties of the EMU treaty regime and perhaps especially the French. Will the day ever come, you might ask, that Germans come to Athens to request Greek assistance in a complex negotiation?

We face the following challenge, then. It is essential that we maintain our personal investment in the political process, however imperfect it may be, and do everything in our power to keep young voters from falling into despair, or giving up hope altogether in organized democratic politics. But it is imperative also that we offer them opportunities to improve their actual skills at citizenship so that Greece never again falls prey to an adversary that is better at these same skills. This, incidentally, is my personal mandate at the Dukakis Center in Thessaloniki.

Most current disappointment resides among left-leaning partisans of the “No” vote. But our concern here is with the general health of the Greek system, regardless of one’s personal political orientation. By this I mean the honest give and take of democratic deliberation, the calculus of cooperation and compromise, and the principled exploitation of the rules that differentiate democracies from authoritarian states. Believe it or not, there has been a lot of this on display in Athens during the past week or so as the crisis has reached the make or break point.

When I consider the emotional roller coaster Greeks — especially first-time voters — have been on since the beginning of the year, I turn to the personal example of former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who was profiled in the Washington Post by Nia-Malika Henderson earlier this year.

From his concession speech in 1988, Dukakis wasn’t cynical or pointing fingers. He was speaking to his audience and said, “I don’t want you to be discouraged; politics is a noble profession.” He had that perspective after being trounced. And he has devoted his life to is teaching, very different from what other losing presidential candidates have done.  He wants to inspire young people to go into politics…

Dukakis’ celebration of the political is meant to transcend the relative success of one party or another, including his beloved Democratic Party in the US. Acknowledging and accepting this may just amount to the sort of revolution that Greece has been waiting for.



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