My Country Used to Look Up to America’s Democracy

I have taught for years that the United States Constitution was a model for the world. Now I have to revise my syllabus.

Black-and-white image of smoke rising from the Statue of Liberty's snuffed-out torch
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

When the Greek Revolution began in 1821, Thanassis Petsalis was only 19 years old. He studied law, became one of the best defense lawyers in postrevolutionary Greece, and in his late 60s served as the country’s minister of justice. His description of the political aspirations of the Greeks was written in 1841, 20 years after the revolution began but in a time when the Greek revolutionaries groaned under the absolutist monarchy of the Bavarian King Otto:

At the time of the outbreak of our revolution we were lacking in political ideas, but everyone was inspired by the Americans. When the Greek revolutionaries had to explain what the political principles behind their struggle against the Ottomans were, they always referred to the U.S. as their model. Of course, Greeks at the time had a superficial knowledge of the American Constitution. But all of them could understand the nature of the political society that the U.S. Constitution envisioned, and most Greeks shared that vision. They were hoping that their future would be based on similar political foundations.

Petsalis’s translation and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, where I found this excerpt, was not the first Greek translation of the document. During the Greek War of Independence (1821–29), another translation was published by the 22-year-old Anastassios Polyzoides in Missolonghi. Two years before, Polyzoides had written the first draft of the Greek Declaration of Independence, under the influence of the American original. “It is a nobler document than that of the Americans,” Richard Robert Madden, the Irish abolitionist, wrote 40 years later. Polyzoides (“one of the most enlightened men in Greece” according to Cornelius Conway Felton, a scholar who later became the president of Harvard University) became a symbol of the independent judiciary when, five years after the end of the revolution, he refused to convict two of his political opponents despite the enormous pressure by the Bavarian regency.

The Greek revolutionaries were not the only ones who identified the United States of America as the “city upon a hill.” The country was, for more than a century, the political and institutional model for liberals and republicans around the world; it was the beacon of political and individual liberty for struggling democracies and oppressed peoples, even when Americans had to face their own demons of slavery, authoritarianism, racism, and political and social inequality. But these demons were always overpowered by the sturdy legacy of the American Revolution and its founding documents, which an independent judiciary had gradually reconstructed as defenders of freedom.

But this legacy diminished and in Greece it totally evaporated, even while Greece was a reliable U.S. ally. When I was a law student in the mid-1980s in Thessaloniki, I could not find a copy of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in the university library. The books on American legal and constitutional theory made up a tiny percentage of the collection. This was not so much the result of the crude anti-Americanism after the fall of the U.S.-backed military dictatorship in 1974 as of the fact that most leading Greek law professors had studied at German and French universities.

I had the privilege to continue my studies at the University of Chicago Law School, where in 1993 constitutional law was taught by Geoffrey Stone, Cass Sunstein, David Strauss, Elena Kagan, Larry Lessig, and the then-32-year-old Barack Obama. When I returned to Greece in 2000 with an appointment to teach legal theory at the University of Athens, the number of my colleagues who had been educated at U.S. law schools was less than half a dozen. Even so, my introductory course to legal theory was based on American legal theory and history. My students are taught how the Madisonian republic—with its Constitution and the Bill of Rights—gave the best possible political answer to Thomas Hobbes’s challenge to Aristotle’s idea of a rule of law. The American Founding Fathers, under the influence of Greek classical philosophers and historians, managed to establish a democracy with strong safeguards against the tyranny of majority by also productively using not only the Greek theory of democracy but also the experience of democratic politics in both Athens and Rome.

During my lectures, my students have to watch movies such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and All the President’s Men while we discuss Miranda v. Arizona and Roe v. Wade. They are shocked when I present the events at Skokie and the ACLU’s courageous decision to defend the right of the neo-Nazis to parade there. They are fascinated by New York Times Co. v. United States; they are amused by Hustler Magazine v. Falwell; and they are always moved when I read the majority opinion by Anthony Kennedy in Obergefell v. Hodges to them. And all of this strangely resonates with students in today’s Greece, where a wiretapping scandal shattered the nation and same-sex marriage is not yet recognized.

Most Greek constitutional-law scholars and legal theorists are today familiar with American constitutional and legal theory. This year, a landmark of scholarship, Freedom of Speech in the United States, written by my late colleague and friend Stavros Tsakyrakis, was reprinted after 25 years. It remains the best monograph on First Amendment theory and jurisprudence I have ever read.

However, this summer, while I was updating my syllabus and notes for the upcoming semester, I had to finally acknowledge that I need to thoroughly revise my teaching. I am afraid that the U.S. has lost the intellectual hegemony it once had in liberal constitutional theory.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade was just the most recent hit. Supreme Court decisions such as Kelo v. City of New London and Citizens United v. FEC, the politicized conservative majority built during the Trump presidency, the erosion of academic freedom in most American universities by an authoritarian version of political correctness, and many related political phenomena such as the culture wars seem to undermine the legacy of expanding political freedom and safeguarding individual rights. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not effective protections of liberty anymore; checks and balances are considered obstacles to a new version of populist majoritarianism, defended by both the right and the left who see the Constitution as a barrier to their radical politics.

This is a loss not just for America, but for the globe. For liberal intellectuals such as Petsalis, Polyzoides, and Adamantios Korais (who corresponded with Thomas Jefferson and Jeremy Bentham), the U.S. political system was the only model that could satisfy the political aspirations of the revolutionaries. For Korais, “to choose another political system for Greece is like eating acorns after the invention of bread.” For the foremost politician of the revolution, Alexandros Mavrokordatos (a close friend of Mary and Percy Shelley and Lord Byron’s host in Missolonghi), the two countries were natural allies because “their constitutions … bring them so close together,” as he put it in a letter to John Quincy Adams in June 1823. The epic poem written during the revolution by Dionysios Solomos, the poem on which the Greek national anthem is based, makes a specific reference to “the land of Washington which was wholeheartedly delighted” with the news of the Greek Revolution. But it was not only the liberals and the young intellectuals who admired the American example. Even the traditional middle-aged feudal lord turned revolutionary Georgios Sissinis lamented during a difficult turn of the war: “Alas! Just imagine that we longed to see Greece becoming a new America!”

These young liberals managed to introduce a version of the Madisonian Constitution in 1827, with a unitary executive, a powerful legislative branch, staggered elections, judicial review, presidential veto, freedom of speech and press, and even a “we the people” rationale. According to Edward Blaquiere, an Irish liberal activist and philhellene, Greeks were fully capable of the “rational liberty” that their liberal and democratic constitution guaranteed. Unfortunately, the 1827 constitution was never enforced, and 16 years of authoritarianism darkened the new independent Greece. But its legacy reemerged in Greece’s two major constitutional moments in the 19th century, when two uprisings transformed absolutism into a constitutional monarchy in 1844 and a liberal constitutional democracy in 1864—a democracy with one of the longest parliamentary histories in the world.

The U.S. Constitution is old and partly outdated, no doubt. But the Madisonian republic is not. For more than two centuries it remained the beacon of liberal democracy all over the world, optimally resolving the paradox of the conflict and the symbiotic balance between popular sovereignty and the rule of law. If the radicals of the right and the left succeed in undermining one or the other, liberal democracy will crumble, and the rule of law will be replaced by the rule of the elites or the rule of the mob. American liberals should reclaim the Constitution, not surrender it to passing majorities. This is the only way for the government of the people, by the people, for the people, to not perish from the Earth.