*Published with the generous permission of Teri Kanefield. Read all of her writing here.
By Teri Kanefield
Plato argued that democracy was inferior to other forms of government, including monarchy, aristocracy, and oligarchy because democracy—by its very nature—undermines the expertise necessary for good governance. This is summary of Plato’s thoughts is from the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy:
Most people do not have the kinds of intellectual talents that enable them to think well about the difficult issues that politics involves. But in order to win office or get a piece of legislation passed, politicians must appeal to these people’s sense of what is right or not right. Hence, the state will be guided by very poorly worked out ideas that experts in manipulation and mass appeal use to help themselves win office.
Democracy requires an educated population able to analyze the implications of government policies. It requires voters to look beyond their own interests and consider the interests of society as a whole. It requires people who are aware of the appeal of a demagogue and can withstand that appeal.
This cannot happen if people do not have accurate information.
The British philosopher A.N. Whitehead famously commented that the history of Western thought “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
This brings us to the question: Will America prove Plato wrong? Or will America’s experiment in self-governance prove to be another footnote to Plato?
Democracy v. Authoritarianism
First, a few definitions. By democracy, I mean this:
Democracy is a form of representative goverment with free and fair form of elections procedure and competitive political process. All citizens are given the right to vote regardless of race, gender or property ownership. A democracy may take various constitutional forms such as constitutional republic, or federal republic, or constitutional monarchy, or presidential system, or parliamentary system, or a hybrid semi-presidential system.
Democracy draws its authority from rule of law. Rule of law requires an adherence to facts, or what sociologists call a shared factuality. A court of law cannot function if jurors say, “I don’t believe any evidence you are showing me. I only believe whatever the Leader tells me is true.”
Authoritarianism, in contrast, is based on lies. The underlying lies are these: “I am the great and powerful leader who can solve all of our problems. I alone have the answers. I am strong and bold enough to protect you from our enemies and the dangers that threaten us.”
Because authoritarianism is based on lies and democracy is based on truth, the way to destroy democracy is to obliterate truth. Here’s the problem: Authoritarianism has a lot of appeal. Democracy has a lot that people find either distasteful or unacceptable.
About a third of the population is, by nature, authoritarian and anti-democracy
In the 1940s—when the world was reeling with shock over the rise of fascism that led to World War II and the devastating brutality of those regimes—German sociologist Theodor Adorno began studying what came to be called the authoritarian personality. The authoritarian personality describes the people who fall in line behind an authoritarian leader (the rows of people dressed alike raising their hand in salute).
The authoritarian personality is also called an anti-democratic personality.
A criticism of Adorno’s work was that he focused on right-wing authoritarianism. In fact, authoritarian traits have been identified in people across the political spectrum. Political psychologist Karen Stenner cites this chart:
Political psychologists define the authoritarian personality as one that rejects nuance and complexity (including diversity) and tends to engage in all-or-nothing thinking. Those with an authoritarian personality prefer sameness and uniformity and have “cognitive limitations.”
Karen Stenner calls them “simple-minded avoiders of complexity.” For more, see this article.
Conspiracy theories appeal to those with an authoritarian disposition.
A Conspiracy Theory is an attempt to explain harmful or tragic events as the result of the actions of a small powerful group. Such explanations reject the accepted narrative surrounding those events; indeed, the official version may be seen as further proof of the conspiracy. Conspiracy theories increase in prevalence in periods of widespread anxiety (emphasis added)
Stenner and other political psychologists have concluded that about 33% of the population across cultures has this personality. We often see this number repeated. The Nazis came to power with 33% of the vote. Le Pen won 35% of the vote.
If those who are anti-democratic are only 1/3 of the population, there shouldn’t be a problem, right? The 2/3 can simply outvote the 1/3.
So why doesn’t it work that way?
We saw part of the reason in the recent debacle when the House Republicans tried to elect a speaker: Those who are anti-democracy don’t follow the rules. Duh, right? Democracy is based on rules and they are anti-democracy. They listen to what their leader (in this case, Trump) tells them to do.
Because they don’t play by the rules, they punch above their weight. This gives rise to these kinds of pronouncements:
The problem with that should be obvious. If both sides abandon the rules, there is nobody upholding the rules and they lose all meaning. At least one side has to hold on to democratic ideals and democratic rules or they will be lost. You can’t save democratic ideals by abandoning them. Put another way, the moment pro-democracy people accept the terms of authoritarians, the authoritarians win.
To put it yet another way: People who are pro-democracy should not try to out-fascist the fascists. The fascists will always do fascism better.
The only way to save democracy is with more democracy. This requires a population that can adhere to facts.
Let’s define our terms
Traditionally, the political spectrum has been pictured as a straight line with radical leftists on one end and the reactionary right wing on the other: