How often have you heard the quote in one form or another? “Democracy is the worst form of Government,” said Winston Churchill in 1947, “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time….” The sentiment expresses two cultural values many Americans are trained to hold uncritically: the primacy of democracy and the burdensomeness of government as a necessary evil.
In his new book Toward Democracy, Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg argues that these ideas arose fairly recently with “mostly Protestants, at least at first,” notes Kirkus, in whose hands “the idea of democracy as a dangerous doctrine of the mob was reshaped into an ideal.” Much of this transformation “occurred in the former British colonies that became the United States, where, at least from a British nobleman’s point of view, mob rule did take hold.”
The modern revamping of democracy into a sacred set of universal institutions has defined our understanding of the term. Just as the West has co-opted classical Athenian architecture as symbolic of democratic purity, it has often co-opted Greek philosophy. But as anyone who has ever read Plato’s Republic knows, Greek philosophers were highly suspicious of democracy, and could not conceive of a functioning egalitarian society with full suffrage and freedom of speech.
Socrates, especially, says Alain de Botton in the School of Life video above, “was portrayed in the dialogues of Plato as hugely pessimistic about the whole business of democracy.” In the ideal society Socrates constructs in the Republic, he famously argues for restricted freedom of movement, strict censorship according to moralistic civic virtues, and a guardian soldier class and the rule of philosopher kings.
In Book VI, Socrates points out the “flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship.” If you were going on a sea voyage, “who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel, just anyone, or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” Unless we wish to be obtusely contrarian, we must invariably answer the latter, as does Socrates’ interlocutor Adeimantus. Why then should just any of us, without regard to level of skill, experience, or education, be allowed to select the rulers of a country?
The grim irony of Socrates’ skepticism, de Botton observes, is that he himself was put to death after a vote by 500 Athenians. Rather than the typical elitism of purely aristocratic thinking, however, Socrates insisted that “only those who had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote.” Says de Botton, “We have forgotten this distinction between an intellectual democracy and a democracy by birthright. We have given the vote to all without connecting it to wisdom.” (He does not tell us whom he means by “we.”)
For Socrates, so-called “birthright democracy” was inevitably susceptible to demagoguery. Socrates “knew how easily people seeking election could exploit our desire for easy answers” by telling us what we wanted to hear. We should heed Socrates’ warnings against mob rule and the dangers of demagoguery, de Botton argues, and consider democracy as “something that is only ever as good as the education system that surrounds it.” It’s a potent idea, and one often repeated with reference to a similar warning from Thomas Jefferson.
What de Botton does not mention in his short video, however, is that Socrates also advised that his rulers lie to the citizenry, securing their trust not with false promises and seductive blandishments, but with ideology. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes, Socrates “suggests that [the rulers] need to tell the citizens a myth that should be believed by subsequent generations in order for everyone to accept his position in the city”—and to accept the legitimacy of the rulers. The myth—like modern scientific racism and eugenics—divides the citizenry into an essential hierarchy, which Socrates symbolizes by the metals gold, silver, and bronze.
But who determines these categories, or which voters are the more “rational,” or what that category entails? How do we reconcile the egalitarian premises of democracy with the caste systems of the utopian Republic, in which voting “rationally” means voting for the interests of the class that gets the vote? What about the uses of propaganda to cultivate official state ideology in the populace (as Walter Lippman so well described in Public Opinion). And what are we to do with the deep suspicions of, say, Nietzsche when it comes to Socratic ideas of reason, many of which have been confirmed by the findings of neuroscience?
As cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff writes, “Most thought is unconscious, since we don’t have conscious access to our neural circuitry…. Estimates by neuroscientists vary between a general ‘most’ to as much as 98%, with consciousness as the tip of the mental iceberg.” That is to say that—despite our levels of education and specialized training—we “tend to make decisions unconsciously,” at the gut level, “before becoming consciously aware of them.” Even decisions like voting.
These considerations should also inform critiques of democracy, which have not only warned us of its dangers, but have also been used to justify widespread voter suppression and disenfranchisement for reasons that have nothing to do with objective rationality and everything to do with myth and political ideology.