Maybe Plato had a point about democracy

28 Jun 2016


“People hate to think of bad things happening so they always underestimate the likelihood”

Charlie Geller - The Big Short


For anyone unfamiliar with the work of Plato, let me preface this piece by acknowledging that he was in some respects a radical thinker who was very much of his own time. Despite this, Plato is still one of the fathers of political thought - his works are compulsory to anyone looking to gain elementary knowledge of politics, and as such he holds some relevance. In fact - strangely enough - Plato might be more relevant today than in other periods in history, even though thousands of years have passed since his death.


To say that Plato was not an advocate of democracy would be an understatement: he viewed it as a degenerate form of the state, he thought unadulterated freedom could lead to the further degeneration of the state into tyranny. This is relevant in that we in the western world have had a comparatively stable experience with democracy, so much so that we think the unlikely so impossible to an extent that leaves us vulnerable to the degradation of our political systems.


Looking at the United States, it is tempting to wonder if things have gone wrong with democracy, making Plato relevant again. I would argue that Plato has become relevant owing to a great deal of dissatisfaction that has developed among the American public towards the status quo, allowing some fringe candidates to prosper.


With the passing of Citizens United and the prevalence of Political Action Committees (PACs), US policy has become more skewed towards the preferences of donors, leaving many with a sense of dissatisfaction. This, in combination with the stagnation of the American middle class has led to a situation where those who are considered part of the establishment are being actively rejected for more radical candidates. The outsiders. The people who can supposedly challenge a “corrupt” and/or “fixed” system.


Here we can introduce the parallels between the modern day and Plato. We have a significant number of people who believe they have been forsaken by a few with great wealth and power, the degeneration from oligarchy to democracy. Yet, when looking at the GOP, it seems more as if they are skipping a step and are possibly jumping straight to tyranny. As we look at their presumptive candidate Donald Trump we see a number of outlandish statements, someone unbalanced, tyrannical in nature. Under Plato’s ideas it would be as if this individual is operating with a soul in turmoil, with no checks or harmony. Yet people love it. All of it, from the derogatory comments to the fascist tendencies fit for a dictator. This might lead us to wonder if Plato was right about the vulnerabilities in democracy.


However, Plato’s relevance to the political status quo does not mean democracy is dead - only that it needs some adjustment and reform. From the situation we currently face we can learn and reinforce democracy with the values of transparency, inclusivity, and accountability through new institutional mechanisms, so as to prevent further objectionable outcomes from happening. We must be able to learn from the past in order to improve the present and create an attractive future.


Plato may not have been right on epistemology, education, or childcare - but he still has a few valid points on politics.


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