Legitimate opposition, ostracism, and the law of democracy in ancient athens

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© 2016 by the Southern Political Science Association. All rights reserved.Traditionally, scholars have tied the emergence of legitimate opposition to the rise of political parties in the nineteenth century. Once governments acknowledged parties' and partisans' essential roles in representative government, they also established limits on legitimate opposition. Illegitimate opposition was now defined as the pursuit of unconstitutional, extreme, or disloyal ideals. This article upends the traditional understanding of legitimate opposition. Athenian democracy did not feature parties, but it did feature intense political competition. As I demonstrate, that competition was structured by a recognizable form of legitimate opposition. Focusing on the fifth century, I illustrate how Athens fostered contestation and where it drew the boundaries of opposition. Competitors were not sanctioned because of their ideals. Instead, Athenian institutions were antimonopolistic, blocking individuals from wielding excessive power. Recognizing Athens' distinctive, partyless model of legitimate opposition should lead us to fundamentally reconsider the practice and the dominant approaches to regulating political competition today.






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Kirshner, AS (2016). Legitimate opposition, ostracism, and the law of democracy in ancient athens. Journal of Politics, 78(4). pp. 1094–1106. 10.1086/686028 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/14934.

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Alexander Kirshner

Associate Professor of Political Science

My research cuts across democratic theory and comparative politics. My first book investigated the paradoxical ethical dilemmas raised by antidemocratic opposition to democratic government (A Theory of Militant Democracy, Yale University Press, 2014). My second book explores the value of legitimate opposition, a practice under threat across the globe. It has the imaginative title: Legitimate Opposition (Yale University 2022)And it is the first full-scale analysis of the history and character of this practice in 50 years. 

My current research explores the character of undemocratic regimes and the virtue of robustness to political philosophy.

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