Democracy, Exile, and Revocation

| June 2016
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What first caught my eye when reading Patti Lenard’s clear and carefully argued critique of citizenship revocation was a claim at the end of her first paragraph: the power to revoke citizenship, she says, “is incompatible with democracy.” That is quite a strong claim, and my thoughts turned immediately to the fons et origo of democracy, ancient Greece. Weren’t the Greek city-states notorious for the readiness with which they disenfranchised, banished, exiled, even outlawed some among their own citizens? And in the case of Athens especially, wasn’t this in part because it was a democracy (at least for those who qualified for citizenship), and expulsion from the demos was one of the devices used to protect it?

A little research confirmed this conjecture. City-states, including Athens, exiled their citizens regularly, and on a wide variety of grounds, some having to do with offences committed against fellow citizens, such as unintentional homicide, but others relating to violations of standards expected in public life, such as sacrilegious behavior or failure to perform assigned public duties. In Athens in particular, exile was used as a penalty for attempts to subvert democracy by actions judged to be tyrannical; and in addition, the institution of ostracism provided an opportunity for the citizen body as a whole to expel, for a period of ten years, prominent individuals regarded as divisive or disruptive. As Benjamin Gray sums it up, “in fourth-century Athens and across the late Classical and Hellenistic world, citizen expulsion was commonly deployed and regarded as a legitimate, even necessary, function of civic government.” The Greeks, then, thought that democracy was not only compatible with revoking citizenship but sometimes required it; those whose presence threatened the health of the polis could justifiably be cast out.

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Category: Exchange: Democracies and the Power to Revoke Citizenship, Issue 30.2, Response

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