The clones of Cleon


Emmanuel Macron, just like Barack Obama did before his departure from the White House, decided to express this vision for humanity, or for Europe, from right here in Athens. Macron is the recently elected president of one of Europe’s most powerful countries and appears to be vying for the title of “leader of Europe.”

Obama chose to speak at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. Macron opted to make his speech from the Pnyx, a spot indelibly linked to ancient Greece’s most important creation, democracy.

Both Macron and Obama wanted to appear as the healers of democracy and stewards of its values, as leaders who want to rejuvenate democracy and re-energize it. This desire shows the measure of their ambition, or at least of their self-confidence. It also speaks volumes to their certainty that they have a role in history, a confidence confirmed in part by the position they were elected to.    

In ancient Athens, however, Aristophanes and others taught us that in the ecclesia, the popular assembly, it was not just about orations from great men like Pericles – who spoke, according to Plutarch, in a “glib and speedy” manner. Democracy also created clones of the tough and manipulative Cleon across the political spectrum, flatterers capable of sweet-talking their listeners and followers into making disastrous decisions.

If “Cleonism” is inherent in democracy, an evil twin that undermines it, or evolved over time like a despicable offshoot is not as important as the fact that it is still extremely powerful. It remains a serious problem for all democracies and just as much of a threat as those who abhor the democratic functioning of society, who dream of aristocratic or even totalitarian regimes.

Cleonism comes in the guise of a friend: a friend of the anonymous masses, the weak and the downtrodden. Clones of this Cleonism can still be seen in some of the oldest western democracies. It was clones such as these that drove the United Kingdom to Brexit and Marine Le Pen to the final round of France’s presidential elections, that fill the sails of chauvinism and resulted in Donald Trump being elected president of the United States even though he so obviously lacks the basic requirements for the job.

If democracy functioned correctly, if it were held accountable honestly and was not manipulated by so many different lobbies, the sickly-sweet cliches of Cleonism would meet with a much smaller response.