Democracy is in trouble here and abroad. According to highly regarded data from the World Values Survey, most Americans under the age of 60 do not consider it “absolutely essential” to live in a democracy. Indeed, for the first time since 2004, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) recently they registered more autocratic states than democracies Around the world.
It is more than fitting that on May 17 the Prime Minister of Greece, the country that invented democracy, speaks at a joint meeting of Congress with a comment on Greece’s bicentennial, the return of democracy to its birthplace. This is the first time that a Greek Prime Minister will do this speech at a joint meeting of the United States Congress. So did President Joe Biden invited Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis meet him and talk to others in the White House.
Greece is famously the homeland of democracy. But one lesson she holds for the world is how she lost it, sometimes, and she had to get it back. She had to fight foreign powers, a civil war and a military junta. Even the creators of democracy must always fight for democracy, as do the United States and other freedom-loving nations.
Greece spurred on other fighters for democracy even when it was in chains. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Payne read and spoke Greek and were in love with ancient Greek democracy. As Jefferson said, “To the ancient Greeks, we are all indebted to the light that brought us out of the gothic darkness.” Our founders saw in Greek democracy not only a better system of government, but also one that allowed people to reach their full potential. They were amazed at the Greek achievements in art, science, athletics, and other areas of human achievement.
The founders of America proved correct. Democracy made America great.
But the ancient Greek democracy lasted only 250 years. The Greek people underwent centuries of occupation, even under the brutal Ottoman Empire, before emerging as a free and independent republic after a revolution 200 years ago. America rejoiced at the resurrection of Greece. Exactly where Prime Minister Mitsotakis will be on May 17thPresident James Monroe said at a joint session of Congress during the Greek Revolution of 1821, “Greece fills the mind with the most exalted sentiments in all of the United States “. He wasn’t alone. The Greek Revolution captured the imagination of the Americans. They closely followed the war. Greek clubs have stepped forward in American cities to raise money for the Hellenic cause. Idealistic volunteers from the United States (and around the world) went to Greece to fight, just as they would during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Among them were Boston abolitionist and humanitarian Samuel Gridley Howe and James Williams, an African American from Baltimore wounded during his courageous service in the Battle of the Gulf of Lepanto. Just as the Declaration of Independence was followed by more than a decade of fighting the American Revolution, it took years for Greece to break the yoke of foreign domination and the cessation of internal struggles. It was not until 1844 that the Greek Constitution came into effect and in parts of Greece, such as Crete, the home of the Prime Minister, the brutal Ottoman occupation was not completely removed until 1913.
The two democracies have been in a virtuous circle. When modern Greece emerged as an independent nation two hundred years ago, it looked to the United States Constitution just as the founders of America sought inspiration in ancient Greek democracy. The founding fathers of modern Greece told the United States: “It is in your land that freedom has made its home and … by imitating you, we will imitate our ancestors and be deemed worthy of them if we can resemble you.” Wherever the Democrats are, they do it on the shoulders of Greece.
But the Greeks lost their democracy and saw it threatened, and even now, when it is strong and vibrant, they know it must be nurtured (like America’s). A military junta led the country from 1967 to 1974. You know that letter Z about the Russian tanks they load in Ukraine? There is no Z in the Russian alphabet. it’s a perversion of “Z”, which in Greek means “lives as Markos Kounalakis pointed out in these pages. It became a banned symbol following the assassination in 1963 of a prominent Greek democrat who fought authoritarianism and the inspiration for a Oscar-winning 1969 film by Costa-Gravasperhaps the acclaimed Greek director.
The Greeks know that it takes muscle and global institutions to strengthen democracy. Greece fought the Nazis, helping to turn the tide of World War II, and withstood a post-war Communist uprising with help from the United States, Harry S. Truman and the Marshall Plan. Greece was one of the first NATO members. Its integration into Europe as part of the Eurozone and the European Union has helped Greece as well as other European nations. Without international support, Greece faced an economic collapse after the 2008 financial crisis.
Prime Minister Mitsotakis knows this. He graduated with honors from Harvard University and graduate schools at Stanford University and Harvard, and has extensive experience in finance. As prime minister, Mitsotakis secures unprecedented levels of foreign investment and lifted the Greek economy from severe depression to solid growth rates, despite COVID-19. He is a democrat, in the true sense of the word.
Mitsotakis’ speech before Congress on May 17 it will remind the world that democracy is still the best environment for humanity, but always at risk, everywhere.