We are used to thinking very highly of democracy, the majority of us live in democracies and we think their quite nice, far better than any of the alternatives. And while that may be true, are we just being naïve and blindly optimistic, ignoring the inherent flaws of democracy? Democracy was achieved by such a long, arduous, heroic struggle that it can feel embarrassing, even shameful, to be disappointed by it. But democracy is not perfect and a couple of major historical figures thought so too.
Democracy is inherently linked with Ancient Athens — the civilization that gave rise to it. The Parthenon has become almost a by-word for democratic values. Hence, it is very surprising to discover that one of Ancient Greece’s greatest achievements, philosophy, was highly suspicious of its other major achievement, democracy. The founding father of Greek philosophy, Socrates is portrayed in the dialogues of Plato as hugely pessimistic about the whole business of democracy. In Book 6 of ‘The Republic’, Plato describes Socrates falling into conversation with a character called Adeimantus (Plato’s brother) and trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing society to a ship.
If you were heading out on a journey by sea, who would you ideally want to choose who was in charge of the vessel? Everyone and anyone, or people well-versed in what seafaring requires? Adeimantus, like any of us, of course wanted the latter and so Socrates asks why then we still leave anyone to decide who should be a ruler of a country. Socrates’ point is that voting in an election is a skill, not a random intuition. Like any skill, it has to be taught systematically to people. Letting the citizenry vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme to Samos in a storm, Socrates jests.
Indeed, Socrates was to have first hand experience of the foolishness of voters. In 399 BCE, he was put on trial on trumped up charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. The jury of 500 Athenians decided on a very narrow margin (52% guilty, 48% innocent) that Socrates was guilty. He was put to death by hemlock,
Crucially, Socrates was not elitist in the normal sense. He didn’t think that a narrow few should only ever vote, but insisted that only those who thought about issues rationally and deeply should be enfranchised. We have forgotten this distinction between an ‘intellectual democracy’ and democracy by birth rite. We have given the vote to all, without connecting it to wisdom. Socrates believed this would lead to a system the Greeks feared above all: Demagoguery. Ancient Athens had experienced a demagogue in the form of Alkibiades — a rich, charismatic, smooth talking, wealthy man who eroded basic freedoms and helped push Athens to its disastrous military ventures in Sicily. Socrates knew how easily people seeking election could exploit our desire for easy answers. He asked us to imagine an election debate between two candidates: a sweetshop owner and a doctor. The sweetshop owner would say that his rival worked many evils on the people, hurting them, giving them bitter medicines and telling them not to eat and drink what they want. Socrates asks us to consider the audience’s response — do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer — he causes the people trouble and goes against their desires to help them — would cause an uproar against the doctor.
Alexis de Tocqueville
Born in 1805, when Napoleon was the populist dictator of half of Europe, de Tocqueville believed democracy was going to be the future of the world, and he wanted to find out what that would be like. For de Tocqueville, as a 19th Century French Aristocrat, democracy was a highly exotic, new political option. To find out what the future was to be, he set out to America with a grant from the French Government, and arrived in New York with his friend Gustave de Beaumont in May of 1831, and then embarked on a 9 month journey around the new nation. This culminated in his book ‘Democracy in America’ 1835, where he especially focuses on the problematic and dark sides of democracy. 5 issues struck him in particular:
1. Democracy breeds materialism
In France, making money didn’t appear at the forefront of people’s minds. The poor had almost no chance of acquiring wealth, and the tiny upper stratum of landed Aristocrats didn’t need to make any more money. As a result, for very different reasons, money was not a way to judge a life. However, the Americans that de Tocqueville met on his journey believed constantly that through hard work it was possible to make a fortune — and to do so was entirely admirable and right. Money seemed to be the only achievement Americans respected. For example, de Tocqueville noted that in America, if a book sold poorly, it was assumed to be bad. The only test of goodness for any item, and often for people, was how much money it made. Democracy and capitalism had created a seemingly equitable but also very flat and oppressive way for humans to judge each other.
2. Democracy breeds envy and shame
In a chapter of Democracy in America, titled ‘Why the Americans are often so restless in the midst of their prosperity’, de Tocqueville analyses the relationship between high expectations and dissatisfaction, between political equality and envy. The old, rigid, hierarchical European system that had denied all hope of social mobility to the poor was unjust in a thousand obvious ways, de Tocqueville recognised, but it had offered those on the lower rungs one notable freedom: the freedom not to take the achievements of quite so many people in society as reference points and find themselves severely wanting in status and importance as a result.
3. The tyranny of the majority
Typically, we think of democracy as the opposite of tyranny, but de Tocqueville noticed that democracy could easily create its own specialised type of tyranny, that of the majority. Democratic culture, he thought, often ends up demonising assertions of difference and especially superiority, even though such attitudes might be connected with merit. In a tyranny of the majority, society has an aggressive, levelling instinct. It’s regarded as a civic virtue to take on anyone who seems to be getting above themselves, and to cut them viciously down to size. De Tocqueville was disturbed by the way in which in the US, people of no distinction refused to think that anyone could be better than them, just because they had, say, trained to be a doctor for 7 years, or studied law for 2 decades, or written some very good books. A healthy and admirable reluctance to defer to people too easily encouraged an unhelpful refusal to accept any kind of submission at all (best exhibited in its modern form in anti-maskers and those who protested against lockdown in America). Yet, as de Tocqueville saw it, it simply must be the case that some people in society are wiser, kinder, more intelligent or more mature than others and therefore should be listened to with special attention.
5. Democracy undermines freedom of mind
You would assume that democracy encourages citizens to have an open mind, however, de Tocqueville came to the opposite conclusion, that one could find few places with less independence of mind and true freedom than America. Trusting their system was fair and just, Americans soon gave up on critical thinking, putting their faith in newspapers and so-called ‘common sense’ instead.
Furthermore, as this was a commercial society, Americans were very conscious of not wanting to step too far over the line with their neighbours who might also be customers. It was better to trot out clichés than to try to be original and especially when there was something to sell.
So, should we scrap democracy?
Though both Socrates and de Tocqueville were critical of democracy, they would hardly want a dictatorship. Forgetting Socrates’ warning, we prefer to think of democracy as an unambiguous good, rather than something that is only as effective as the education system that surrounds it. As a result, in our history, we have elected many sweetshop owners and very few doctors. But education has certainly increased since Socrates time, and we have ushered in a time of Informed Consent. Though we ignored Socrates warning, de Tocqueville reminds us of the negatives of democracy. De Tocqueville says many negative things about democracy and America, he was not anti-democratic or anti-American, he was just trying to show why living in a democracy could be frustrating or annoying. He was trying to see what the future would look like, and he found some annoying features of democracy, which still exist today. He was teaching us the stoic lesson that certain pains need to be endured and expected. Politics in democracy is gonna be pretty awful in some major ways, it’s not that we’re doing anything wrong, it’s just the price you pay, and that you should be willing to pay, to live in a democracy, when you give ultimate authority to everyone.