5 Ways Politics Was Even More of a Clown Show in the Past

Politics is bad now. But at least they don’t kill you to protect the president from a solar eclipse
5 Ways Politics Was Even More of a Clown Show in the Past

Politics is sometimes pretty weird. For example, until fairly recently, presidential candidates would stand on a stage in a contest modeled after 1950s game shows. Afterward, we’d all discuss which candidate spoke the most confidently and would accordingly declare one the winner — with full knowledge that this had no relation to which one would be the better president. Elections sometimes hinged on these televised speaking competitions.

But that’s nothing compared with how things worked in the past. For example... 

Sometimes, Kings Would Sleep Together, to Show Unity

In the 12th century, England and France were fighting, as they tended to do fairly regularly throughout recorded history. Then, in 1187, it became clear that this particular round of war was going nowhere, so they decided it was time for a truce. The future King of England (Richard the Lionheart) now headed down to Paris to spend some time with the King of France (Phillip II). Some intimate time. The two slept together.

When we say “slept together,” do we mean they had sex, and does that mean Richard the Lionheart was gay? And does it also mean Phillip II was gay, only no one really cares about that guy? Yes, say many people. That’s surely what chroniclers from back then meant by saying that these two shared a bed. However, other biographers disagree. Maybe Richard did have sex with men, we don’t know, but this specific story isn’t evidence of that. 

Effigy of Richard I of England in the church of Fontevraud Abbey

Adam Bishop

“Lionheart,” despite rumors, was not the name he used when cruising.

Instead, say these historians, the men shared a bed as a symbol of their political alliance. Servants slept at the foot of the bed, so if these two did plan on unsanctioned relations, the royal bedchamber would be an inadvisable spot for it. Spending the night in the same bed was instead just a great way to project closeness, the same way modern politicians will pose for a photo shaking hands. Today, we still sometimes refer to one leader being in bed with another — though, now, we aren’t talking literally, but are instead referring to their inevitable treason.

Greeks Would Choose Politicians at Random

When you get a letter summoning you to jury duty, the responsible thing to do is to immediately change residences and hope they’ll never find you. But keep in mind that if you do show up as instructed, you’re taking part in one of the original pillars of democracy. They used to randomly select jurors back in Ancient Greece. In fact, jury selection is our last remnant of a system whereby the Athenians randomly selected citizens for a whole bunch of positions. 

The Council, which was a government of 500 citizens (and not, as we first assumed, a secret orgy society), was selected by this same sort of lottery. Magistrates were chosen by lottery. City commissioners, market inspectors and tax collectors were all chosen by lottery. We call this system of randomly picking people “sortition,” and archaeologists have dug up examples of the weird old devices they used to pick the names out. 

A kleroterion in the Ancient Agora Museum

Marsyas/Wiki Commons

It’s called a kleroterion, an elegant tool for a more civilized age

Athens used normal elections for a few other positions, but sortition had some advantages over voting. An oligarch could bribe people into voting him into the Assembly, but when an office was assigned randomly, no corruption could score you that spot. 

The problem with sortition was that while it gave everyone an equal shot at political office, we don’t always want everyone to have an equal shot. We want to prioritize whoever the public wants to get the position, and whoever’s qualified. Like, maybe no one in Athens wanted their next Councilor to be Diocles, who was both the village idiot and the most evil man in town. 

Of course, if people do want to vote for Diocles, that’s their right, but what if no one wants him — why should he have any any chance of winning then? Just because elections get it wrong sometimes doesn’t mean we have to roll some dice and let the gods decide. 

The Secret Ballot Is a Recent Invention

When we pick out history’s greatest democracies, we think of Athens, for being the first democracy, and America, for being the longest-standing current democracy. We should also honor a third place beginning with the letter A: Australia. Australians were the ones who invented the secret ballot, in 1856. At least, they’re the ones credited with the invention. A few places had private voting before, and even Ancient Greece did it occasionally, but it wasn’t the norm till Australia showed us how to do it. 

You know how, when a legislature votes on a bill, they say “nay” or “aye,” and everyone knows who voted each way? That used to be how people voted for politicians, worldwide and across centuries. In a small enough setting, they’d do a voice vote. If there were too many voters for that, people would drop marbles in different barrels or something, and people would tally up the results afterward, but everyone around you could see which barrel you picked. Think of that scene in Game of Thrones where they vote using colored discs, or that other scene where everyone in the Iron Islands picks a new king by voting aloud.

Game of Thrones voting


Then in the finale, someone acts like they just came up with the ides of direct, because they forgot that already existed in that world.

When America switched to secret voting in the 19th century, they referred to the new system as “the Australian ballot.” Today, we take for granted that you have the right to keep your vote secret, even if this secrecy raises the specter of potential election fraud. When Australia created the secret ballot, however, they specifically aimed to combat corruption. No one can offer you quid pro quo in exchange for your vote if there’s no way to verify how you voted. 

It Was Standard to Get All the Voters Drunk

And what was the nature, you might ask, of that quid pro quo politicians offered voters who supported them? It usually wasn’t cash. It was liquor, sweet sweet liquor. “Swilling the planters with bumbo” was what they called it, and if a politician didn’t offer some libations, they’d face an uphill battle. 

Loyal readers will already be familiar with how George Washington bought booze for voters and how the first campaign finance law was an attempt to stop candidates from bribing via alcohol. Let’s also note what happens when the electorate is asked to vote without compensation. In 1777, James Madison ran for the House of Delegates. He decided he wouldn’t offer liquor for votes, as such a move would be “inconsistent with the purity of moral and republican principles.”

Merrymaking in a Tavern with a Couple dancing

Jan Steen

It’d be more consistent with publican principles. 

He lost that election. He went on to some success after that, and we have to assume it’s because he learned and adapted, in defiance of what we expect politicians to do.

Sometimes, You Just Needed a Temp Leader, So They Could Die

Leaders face a lot of risk. Heads of state have always needed security, and there are some threats so powerful that no weapon can fight them. We are referring, of course, to solar eclipses. 

The Babylonians thought that eclipses were omens spelling doom for whoever ruled the land. To protect the king during this most dangerous time, they’d appoint someone else as a temporary substitute king. This man would dress as the king and would even receive a temporary queen, which must have been fun. Of course, the eclipse didn’t really kill the king, which meant it didn’t kill the substitute king either. So, the court had to kill the substitute king and queen themselves, manually. 

This tablet depicts Šamaš-šuma-ukin, a king from the seventh century B.C.: 


Zunkir/Wiki Commons

Judging by this iconography, he ran as a Democrat.

To protect him during a dark time, Babylon appointed as king a guy named Damqi. Afterward, they killed Damqi and the substitute queen, and Šamaš-šuma-ukin returned to the throne. 

So, no matter how terrible today’s candidates are, at least none are asking you to die just for them, right? And if someone does, you can vote for a different candidate. Unless, of course, the one who’ll kill you offers to swill you with a lot of bumbo, in which case maybe you should hear them out. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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