For the Many or for the Few?

Discussing Democracy and its problems Today

Addressing democracy and its shortcomingsis a very difficult and problematic issue. Last year, whilst I was lecturing second-year political philosophy students, a very brilliant student of mine declared her interest and commitment to Plato and his Republic. As a scholar in political philosophy and political campaigner myself, tacking democracy and its problems is very important, if not vital. We’re living at a time where what we routinely considered democracy is frequently under fire. This article will proceed as follows: I will describe what democracy is today, and what democracy meant to Plato. Afterwards, I will move on to describe what are today’s democracy shortcomings, and I’ll try to propose measures to tackle its many problems. 

What do we mean we talk about democracy?

Democracy means (in Greek) ‘people’s power.’ The most contentious issue, though, is to expand on the word people .We mean ‘all those who enjoy certain rights under present laws.’ On our account, therefore, ‘democracy’ is a relatively ‘young’ notion, because not everybody in the past had the chance to enjoy what we now considered to be ‘human rights’ (like education, universal healthcare, or proper housing). Such rights have been such since the American and the French Revolutions, when the so-called Ancient Régime (‘old regime,’ the system whereby only the few called the shots) was ousted for good. 

Benjamin Constant’s vital essay The Liberty of the Ancients Compared to That of the Modernsummarises what ‘democracy’ in our sense is: enjoying of key liberties whilst everything is decided on in the national parliaments. Thus, what Constant is saying, is that democracy is politics done on behalf of the people by their own elected representatives. But did Plato entertain the same notion of democracy? As we shall see in a moment, the answer is no.

Plato: The Republic and the Philosopher Kings.

It’s fair to say The Republic is a synthesis of numerous subjects: a philosophical work, a key work in political theory and, to a certain extent, a political manifesto. Let’s unpack the reasons why Plato’s work is such a multifaceted work! From a philosophical standpoint, The Republicdescribes what the best form of government should be; and here the overlap with political theory is blatant. Plato addresses a key political issue, what is better: democracy or aristocracy? And answering the question requires profusely expanding on this the difference between the two.

 In Plato’s time, ‘democracy’ was not a good thing. Plato’s ‘people’ equated with what we would today define as ‘the mob.’ Plato, in order to scathingly defame democracy, relies on the metaphor of the ship pilot

Suppose being a ship captain, and steering your ship. Two members of your crew are very drunk, and trouble you whilst you’re discharging your duties. The drunken sailors are democracy, trying to hijack the normal course of the decision-making process. So, since you want to avoid such a situation, you want somebody authoritative and strong power. Such an authoritative and reliable figure, for Plato, is the philosopher-king. So, on Plato’s account, democracy is a bane: only the very few can call the shots.

 At the same time, The Republic is a political manifesto: Plato is endorsing a political system where only the philosopher-king, the élite, governs; the others are simply there to do the king’s bidding.

 What are the takeaways from Plato’s political blueprint? The ancient notion of democracy is problematic, because the people (i.e. the mob) are unruly, and this ends up making a socio-political mess. Plato’s word for republic is politeia , which means ‘constitution.’ And, in brief, this should be the constitution of the perfect state, the philosopher in charge. Having analysed what it is meant by ‘democracy’ from a contemporary and an ancient standpoint, let’s now analyse what are the issues with democracy.

Democracy today: what’s wrong?

Today’s democracy is beleaguered by many problems. I’ve decided to address a handful of them: people are fed up with politics, and commentators often ask themselves who should be allowed to vote.Let’s try to answer these questions. 

The contemporary democratic process is, for many, unfit for purpose: voters are fed up with ‘traditional’ candidates, and their political platforms.

 And it is more often the case that new political parties or candidates have been taking more and more root. Ideas like ‘electronic democracy’ are now very popular: parties ask their voters to decide on the most appropriate course of action. 

This is the case with Italy’s 5 Stars, who rely on such a shared model: voters or supporters can, via polls, suggest taking certain decisions. Or, at the same time, you have candidates who have nothing to do with the political establishment; this is the case with Trump, an entrepreneur who, out of the blue, was able to become President of the US, or Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, another entrepreneur. 

Can important political decisions be taken outside parliaments and via a computer program? Can entrepreneurs become politicians? 

Whilst it is fair to say novel systems or figures can be beneficial, in the above-mentioned cases this has been most detrimental: electronic democracy can be easily manipulated, more than ‘traditional’ politics, and entrepreneurs running for office are a bad idea: it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to shield themselves from their malpractices. 

The debate is now on those who are eligible to vote; the American scholar Jason Brennan concludes the main criterion should be verify the knowledge of voters; if they don’t pass a very elementary test designed to assess their knowledge the main national institutions and political rules, then they ought to be stripped of their electoral rights. Is it a good idea? I thought it was, but of late I’ve changed my mind: if we want to have better informed voters, then it is for the educational system to make them more knowledgeable and competent.

Conclusions

Yes, democracy is a good idea, but it needs fine-tuning. Education should be better funded, the basics of how national institutions work should be taught. What we’ve seen, of late, is politics being made by those who shouldn’t be there in the first place; political parties should carefully select their candidates, not simply the ones who are very likely to make them win. Politics is a serious affair, not a pastime. After all, the very meaning of ‘politics’ is what ‘pertains to the polis’ that is to say, to the state. And this concerns us all.


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