Why you should care
Who’s to blame: elites or the plebes?
This week: Is the public well-informed enough to trust with democracy? Let us know by email or in the comments below.
People like to thank Athens for democracy, and as a Greek American, I’ll accept your gratitude. But while democracy enjoys a rarefied air of reverence today, the truth is that even my most noted forebears weren’t exactly sold on this “for the people, by the people” shtick.
Socrates used to compare the ordinary citizens of Athens to a lazy horse — one that needs a gadfly, like himself, to shake them awake. Plato believed democracy led directly to tyranny, perhaps not surprisingly since his teacher was put to death by a vote of a citizen council of 500. And Aristotle suggested democracy would only be manipulated to advantage those in charge.
Their concern? Not just that people weren’t educated enough, but that they weren’t empathetic enough to forgo their own desires for what’s best for the majority.
Greeks, even with their skepticism, still essentially believed democracy was better than the alternatives.
That worry seems apt today. Look no further than Brexit, with British voters narrowly opting to leave the European Union despite what appears to be many negatives and little benefit. The Catalonians followed suit when they chose independence in October rather than sticking with Spain. In the United States, Donald Trump was elected president, because enough voters liked his promise to blow up the system.
In each case, what was deemed best for the majority was overruled in the pursuit of self-preservation or more selfish interests. So, does democracy still fulfill its promise?
The answer is complicated, says Josiah Ober, a Stanford University political theorist and author of Demopolis: Democracy Before Liberalism in Theory and Practice. He notes that the Greeks, even with their skepticism, still essentially believed democracy was better than the alternatives. Each of them could have chosen other city-states with more autocratic governments: “Socrates voted with his feet. He didn’t leave,” Ober says.
This is usually where people wax poetic about how the lack of school funding and civics teaching has made people too dumb to vote in their best interests. And it’s true that education is required: Aristotle said that to create the perfect place, a “city of our prayers,” the populace must understand not just policy but the philosophy behind the laws.
The other side of the equation is that government must be understandable. And in many ways, modern legislatures have only served to obfuscate. “Maybe antiquity was a simpler world. They didn’t have nuclear bombs,” Ober admits. “But here is one way to think about it: If only experts can understand government, then are we dependent upon the experts?”
Republicans like to rail about simplifying the tax code so that it can be completed on a postcard, but bureaucrats under Democrats have also noted the need to simplify. Cass Sunstein, an Obama appointee, wrote the book Simple: The Future of Government about his attempts to make legible a regulatory system that had become impossible to comprehend for all but the most well-versed. Laws remain complicated in part because bureaucrats have a vested interest in finding ever more technocratic solutions that justify their work.
Another problem: The wealthy hold more power than ever before, which allows them to wield undue influence. In the last three decades, the gap between the extraordinarily rich and the ordinary citizen has boomed significantly. At the same time, we’ve removed the barriers that once made it difficult for the wealthy to translate money into power, through legislation and Supreme Court rulings such as Citizens United. That was a real concern for the Greeks, Ober says, who worried about democracy devolving into an oligarchy. They combated it by giving rich benefactors honorifics for their contributions to society, not tax breaks — in fact, they were taxed the most heavily.
We are approaching a tipping point and soon could be living in a facsimile of democracy — where it’s close, but not the real deal. “We have created a world in which it’s a lot of very wealthy people and technocratic types who are very influential,” Ober says. So maybe we shouldn’t be asking whether we can trust the public with democracy. Maybe we need to ask whether we can trust the elites with it.
So what do you think? Is democracy dead in the social media age? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by answering in the comments below.