Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Trump Administration and Plato's Prophetic Critique of Democracy

In the run up to the presidential election last year, it felt like it became commonplace at some point to hear Trump referred to as a demagogue. Arguably, there is no better word for it, with the way he appealed to fear and patriotic bravado to mobilize his supporters, while neglecting to give the slightest semblance of an argument in defense of the vast majority of his views. Even for months prior to November 9th, you could find references to Trump's demagoguery being made by Time, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and others. Now that Kellyanne Conway has introduced the much criticized concept of "alternative facts", there hardly seems room left to hide from this accusation. Particularly if, as we suspect, these are facts in the same sense that the Bowling Green massacre is a fact.

What's interesting is that Plato kind of warned us this would happen. In The Republic, he critiques the direct democracy that existed in his time, and although this form of government differs in some ways from what we have in America today (or what we had in the past), we may nevertheless find a number of the criticisms are still quite relevant. Democracy understood as the rule of free people governing themselves in their own interests leads, in Plato's view, to demagogues and tyrants. In their emphasis on freedom and equality, democracies face the problem of corruptibility, and can fall either into anarchy or despotism.

Of course, Plato doesn't hold much regard for equality, probably in part because his favored form of society is class-based. On this we might rightly fault him, but we need not follow his lead here into abandoning ideals of economic or political equality, for instance. We can instead understand his criticisms in a manner like Robert Kane articulates them in his book Through the Moral Maze.

1. Democracies encourage mediocre leadership

Elected officials have to keep courting the favor of the people in order to maintain their place in positions of power. This tends to be a popularity contest more than any kind of election based on qualifications, experience, or intelligence. Pandering thus becomes a commonality as those in power try to stay in power the best way they know how: not by applying their own expertise or by doing what they think is right, but by appealing to the desires (and worries) of the masses. Unfortunately, one thing this can often mean is that our elected officials may be as ordinary and unexceptional as those that put them into office.

Considering how much attention has been devoted to the incredible lack of qualifications and experience in the Trump cabinet nominations, this critique looks to be pretty dead on. However, we can find further support in the very reasons Trump voters gave for why they voted as they did. "I feel like I know where I stand with Trump," says Rachel, in an article for The Guardian. "Trump is exactly what you get," Paul, another Trump voter, states. Most telling, perhaps, is Arlene's comment, who says that "Donald Trump might not have political experience but I truly believe he has the American people’s interest at heart."

Trump's win has also heralded what some consider to be the return of populism. Whether or not this is an entirely accurate characterization, it does speak to Plato's criticism. On the one hand, we may want our representatives to be "people like us" because those are generally the people we trust the most to make decisions on our behalf, but on the other hand, it is very likely true that most of us are not people especially capable of running branches, institutions, and systems of government. If we elect "people like us", we could well be electing people just as uninformed as us.

2. Democracies tend to focus on the short term rather than the long term

Because of how our leaders are elected, pandering to the wishes of the electorate typically means planning for the present and not for the future. Kane astutely notes that this problem is "at the expense of the long-term needs of society." It isn't always the case that taking no thought for the morrow is harmless. Sometimes failing to plan for the future has significant and long-lasting consequences. Along with this comes the all-too-familiar habit of giving the people what they want now, and passing the financial burden on to future generations.

What can't we say about this criticism? Let's just start with the foreboding moves the Trump administration has been making with respect to the EPA and climate change. Altering the EPA's climate website, suspending contracts, and teasing a case-by-case review of climate science work are fairly concerning signs of denial. Betsy DeVos' nomination as Secretary of Education raises additional worries, not just about science education specifically, but also about the seriousness with which the new administration takes the issue of providing an affordable, effective education to future generations.

Then we have the Wall as an example of a potential financial burden for American taxpayers, when Mexico predictably refuses for the last time to be bullied into building it. The immigration ban has been estimated as posing a cost of $700 million to U.S. colleges. Repealing Obamacare fully is being said to come at a price of a whopping $350 billion, not to mention all the jobs that stand to be lost as well. 

Getting people to understand the value of holding out for something better is notoriously difficult, particularly in a nation that prides itself on individualism, the myth of the self-made man, and instant gratification. By no means is Trump's administration unique in this, but we may see things as more pronounced here than they have been in many other administrations.

3. Image politics comes to dominate the electorate

The rulers in Plato's ideal society function in part to safeguard the values at the heart of society. Such an important task could not be trusted to the average person, Plato thought, but had to be something specially reserved for those who could be trained and educated in the proper ways. Democracy, he argued, usually devolves into politics focusing on appearances rather than on the things that really matter. How a candidate looks and sounds comes to be more important to people than what they say.

Again, we need not look far to see this criticism alive and well within the present administration. Trump has said some simply awful things and behaved in reprehensible ways toward women, yet his supporters haven't seemed all that perturbed by any of it. The Guardian article referred to above has the opinions of several Trump voters who state how impressive Trump's confidence, forthrightness, and business savvy are to them. We could indeed view this as an image issue, oddly winning out over even the moral concerns of some Americans.

It might be an understatement to say political debate has become superficial in the era of Trump. From remarks about penises during the campaign to the constant allegations of "fake news" that are being thrown at legitimate news outlets (and at almost any reporting the new administration merely seems to dislike), there is little question that this election and its aftermath have taken political discourse to another level. It may not be entirely new or entirely unprecedented, but what would previously have been roundly criticized as grossly immature has appeared to survive and elude such immediate hostility in today's political environment.

A society that focuses on images instead of issues is easy prey for manipulative personalities.

4. Democracies are prone to factionalism of special interests

Lobbyists, special interest groups, and money politics have been problems in the U.S. for a good while now, and they are certainly not limited to the current administration. But Trump's accusations against Hillary Clinton, as being controlled by special interests, can strike one as an instance of telling your neighbor to remove a splinter from her eye while you have a plank lodged in your own. Trump once said he'd disavow all Super PACs, shortly before he reversed his decision as soon as his party nomination was in the bag. His plan to "drain the swamp" apparently did not extend to keeping lobbyists out of his transition, either.

Plato believed that democracies lead to factionalism, as certain groups try to influence leaders for their own private interests. Because of this, democracies are also in danger of becoming a tyranny of the majority. As Plato saw it, the three worst forms of government participate in a sort of natural evolution: oligarchy gives rise to democracy, democracy gives rise to tyranny. Yet the tyrant won't be campaigning on a platform of dictatorship. Instead, he'll present himself as the champion of the people. It is "the insatiable desire" for freedom, Socrates says, "and the neglect of other things [that] introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny."

Tyranny of the majority was a significant concern of some of the Founding Fathers, such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. In his classic 1840 text Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed this same worry:
When a man or a party suffers from an injustice in the United States, to whom do you want them to appeal? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? It represents the majority and blindly obeys it. To the executive power? It is named by the majority and serves it as a passive instrument. To the police? The police are nothing other than the majority under arms. To the jury? The jury is the majority vested with the right to deliver judgments.
While some might argue that Obama, Big Business, or another culprit is behind the true tyranny of the majority, an important aspect here is the role and rhetoric of populism. I think we have seen this manifested in Trump's campaign and presidency in ways that simply dwarf most other comparable examples. This attitude of giving back the power to the people is what Trump ran on and what his supporters continue to call for today, above and beyond many other issues and concerns.

5. A loss of shared values

Democracies that emphasize freedom and liberty make the individual the focus of value. This produces a gradual dissolution of common values, since people think more about themselves and their desire to do their own thing than they think of others. So responsibility to others and the common good are sacrificed to the right to do as you please, according to Plato. This in turn creates distrust of authority, social disorder, and rising crime rates. Another consequence, Kane writes, is a large generation gap, due to the fact that the young do not necessarily share their parents' values, and want the same right to do their own thing that everyone else has.

It's worth starting with that last point, because one interesting statistic that emerged from the 2016 election was the factor of age difference. "Young adults preferred Clinton over Trump by a wide 55%-37% margin," the Pew Research Center notes, while "Older voters (ages 65 and older) preferred Trump over Clinton 53%-45%." Distrust of authority and social disorder might be more than familiar to us, too, considering how both featured in the presidential debates. The crime rate is a somewhat thornier issue, though, since there is evidence showing an increase in violent crime from 2014-2015, for example, but this figure is still lower than it was in 2011 or 2006.

What ought to stand out most, however, is the theme of division. Trump supporters like those mentioned above in The Guardian article have voiced their opinion that our nation is fractured, hurting, and headed in the wrong direction. After the election, it seems that very many of those who voted against Trump likely feel the same way. Even before the presidential race, though, social conflict and domestic tensions were not at all outside the field of worries for Americans, as subjects such as immigration and Black Lives Matter would highlight.

It almost seems undeniable that there has indeed been a loss of shared values. How we should respond to this problem is what remains a matter of intense debate.

Is this the end of democracy?

A.N. Whitehead famously described the Western philosophical tradition as a series of footnotes to Plato. This may appear as only the most minor of exaggeration to those familiar with Anglo-European philosophy. Plato's take on democracy, as we've seen, levies some fairly powerful criticisms that we are still wrestling with over 1600 years later.

Does this mean that democracy is hopeless? I have heard many declare its death in the wake of the election, but the meaning of this death, and how we move forward, are challenging questions to answer. I don't pretend to have the solution, and it's pretty clear that Plato didn't have it, either. We might be reminded of Winston Churchill's comment on how democracy is the worst form government except for all those other forms. One thing I think could be a promising start would be a revival of the sort of understanding of democracy held by someone like John Dewey, where there is vital emphasis on the social nature of democracy, as it consists of shared common interests and cooperative interaction among a plurality of groups.

On the other hand, this revival may be too unlikely to be a practical hope. The next four, eight, or however many years will tell. My point in this post has not been to spell out the doom of democracy. Plato's criticisms speak to the flaws of democracy, and I believe we are seeing these loud and clear now in 2017, although they have actually been present for a long time. This doesn't have to mean that democratic governments are inevitable failures, but it should cause us to recognize the problems that do exist, and it should motivate us to seek out solutions.

Some Americans probably think this is what they've done in electing the man that now sits in the White House. But we have seen how the Trump administration, in just its first month in power, has aligned itself more clearly with the flawed side of democracy - where it is much closer to descending into tyranny, as Plato explained. It's hard to understand how the tendencies discussed here could set us back on the right track, though there are strong arguments, made by one of the greatest philosophers to have lived, that we are heading for serious trouble.

This may not be the end of democracy full stop, but it just might be the end of democracy as we know it.