Plato, Stacey, Dennis, Democracy, and Me (reupload)
Democracy, according to Plato’s Republic, eventually becomes a tyranny. Googling this argument generally turns up articles about how Plato predicted Trump and the flaming decline of America, but his explanation as to how democracy can become a tyranny runs as follows:
Democracy, according to Socrates, is an “agreeable form of anarchy,” and collapses under the weight of its own contradictions. It’s full of freedom and spangled with every kind of liberty imaginable.
Over time, though, this boundless freedom degenerates into mob mentality. Belief in authority and institutions to mete out justice atrophies. A spirit of profligacy takes hold and, eventually, “the state falls sick, and is at war with herself.”
Tyranny springs from democracy in the same manner as the chest-burster from John Hurt in Alien.
The blind pursuit of wealth creates a thirst for equality (the poor wanting what the rich have, and doing whatever they can to take it), and so “the insatiable desire for freedom occasions a demand for tyranny.” The tyrant may claim to be the people’s champion, who will eradicate corruption and make everything perfect again. However, in practice, the tyrant seeks to eliminate the institutions that serve as a check on their rule and seize power for themselves.
Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to imagine a just system of government apart from democracy, especially when you have, like me, been raised with the Churchillian notion that “democracy is the worst form of government in the world, except for all the other forms.” The question then becomes: What do I imagine democracy to be?
There are two versions of what I imagine democracy to be. Both are centered around the premise that one person gets one vote and the various ways in which that pledge is honored or dishonored. The first version of democracy would be India, which in 2019 had over 67% voter turnout, out of a population with roughly 900 million voters. The efforts Indian election officials take to get voting machines wherever they need to be is astounding–one oft-repeated story chronicles the two-day journey an electoral team took through the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh’s Anjaw district to set up a voting machine for Sokela Tayang, the only eligible voter, to cast her ballot and achieve 100% voter turnout for her village. Australia has mandatory voting, and frequently achieves upwards of 90% voter turnout. This is what democracy should be, at its core–everyone who can vote gets to do so, and those votes matter.
Contrast this with American democracy. Voter turnout during the 2018 midterm elections was higher than usual, but voter suppression is still alive and well, and is perhaps best exemplified in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, which pitted Stacey Abrams against Brian Kemp. Brian Kemp was Ohio’s secretary of state when he ran for governor. State secretaries oversee state elections. Brian Kemp literally served as the referee in his own gubernatorial race. Aside from that, Kemp is currently under investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for voter suppression. According to the New York Times, voters in predominately African-American counties waited at polling places for hours while “hundreds of available voting machines sat unused in government warehouses.” In addition to that, tens of thousands of mostly African-American voter registration applications were either denied or delayed due to exact-match laws, a state law that requires the name on the application to exactly match the name on the applicant’s government ID; even a missing hyphen or a nickname can cause problems. To pile on, as Georgia’s secretary of state, Kemp purged more than 1.4 million voters from the rolls during his tenure. According to Maggie Astor: “States are required to keep their rolls up-to-date and remove people who have moved to another state, but some, including Georgia, have been much more zealous than others, starting the purging process on the basis of a voter not having cast a ballot recently. And county and state officials closed more than 200 polling places from 2012 to 2018.”
And as if that weren’t enough, even the voting machine that Brian Kemp used to vote for himself had problems recording his vote.
So here we have a tale of two democracies, of the ways in which voter turnout is encouraged and suppressed, and the drastic consequences that these elections have for each democracy.
Chronicling all this leads me to the final question: Will democracy lead to liberation for all?
To answer that, I will refer you to that most profound of political thinkers, Monty Python’s Dennis the Constitutional peasant:
There is a further quote of his, which I cannot find on YouTube, but it runs similarly to this:
“Anarcho-syndicalism is a way of preserving freedom!”
“Oh, Dennis, forget about freedom. And don’t drop that mud!”
Essentially, Dennis is correct. Supreme executive authority, if it is to last, must derive from a genuine mandate from the masses. That does lead to liberation, but if–and only if–we fight for it. Progress is not inevitable, and in the fight for progress, we must assess where we as individuals can do the most good.
Take me, for instance. My strengths do not lie in oratory; there are others who are far more eloquent and skilled at working a crowd, and I happily yield the floor to them. For a while, I was unsure what my strengths were, apart from research and a preternatural ability to find free samples.
I found my strength in the form of conflicting stories. I have been reliably informed by the men in my life that I am the most stubborn woman they have ever met. I have been reliably informed by the women in my life that I have the requisite spine and spiritual fortitude of a chocolate eclair. My strength is the ability to hold these two conflicting ideals within myself and accept both of them. When I am right, I do not back down, but the fear of being wrong keeps me sharp, keeps me constantly improving, strengthens my research skills, and forces me to think for myself.