Perils of Democracy

So I actually wrote a warm and fuzzy piece about kittens almost a week ago–inspired by the five orphan kittens currently eating us out of house and home. It sat patiently on my desktop, waiting for nothing in particular, until it disappeared into a parallel universe (the same universe that is home to single-socks from my clothes drier). I may even be able to retrieve the ode to kittens with a bit of effort (such as thinking hard about what I named the file), but recent world events have taken my thoughts in a different direction.

Athenians loved Democracy; everybody learned that in school, even if they forgot it. Other Greeks eventually tried to let people (demo) rule (cracy), with varying levels of success. Thebes was mighty powerful for a while—they put paid to the vaunted Spartans, for example. But in the end they died on the battlefield as the Macedonian monarch cut them to pieces. Democracy was mostly a phenomenon discussed by intellectuals for the next two millennia before the American colonists made use of the ancient political system, and eventually fought a revolution to keep the home-grown institution. The world has fallen in love with Democracy since the end of World War II; the majority of the people on our planet are living under democratic government. This is a positive development, isn’t it?

Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes voters vote for people and changes that really aren’t in their best interests. The Greeks did this too. Antiquity’s most famous historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, recorded some events in which Democracy turned out to be downright dangerous. Turns out that some folks are really good at convincing others to believe them, and vote for the changes they are advocating, even when the changes are stunningly ridiculous. The Greeks called those people demagogues. Athenians once voted to kill Socrates for an obviously trumped up charge made by a couple of his enemies. They also voted to execute their greatest military leader, a guy named Alcibiades, as he was leading a massive force against Syracuse. That force was entirely wiped out under the leadership of an idiot, and Athens went on to lose the Peloponnesian War against Sparta and her allies.

Democracy sounds good in theory, but the truth is that voters can do some very stupid things. Google just announced that the two most frequently googled questions in England today, the day after Britain voted to leave the European Union, were, “What effects will leaving the EU have on Britain,” and, “What is the EU?” The U.S. may elect Donald Trump in November, a man who says outlandish things and makes insane promises. Counties in Appalachia where more than ninety percent of citizens are on government assistance vote overwhelmingly Republican, the party always promising to cut government spending on the very programs these people are taking advantage of. In short, “the people” sometimes prove themselves to be poor judges of what’s actually in their best interest.

The Founding Fathers knew this was true, so they gave us a representative Democracy, also called a republic. They put the Electoral College in place to try to prevent the people from electing a dangerous person for president. Nevertheless, yesterday the British leadership allowed the people to decide if they should leave the European Union or stay. The question was incredibly simple, while the issue was insanely complex. Demagogues on both sides spewed their sound-bites and made their speeches, then the people went forth and voted. Parliament should have made the decision. In America, Congress would make a similarly serious decision.

Those Greeks I mentioned in the beginning? The wisest among them believed that the people would be safest with a philosopher-king or a group of guardians groomed for ruling. Of course, those ideas aren’t practical; even if you find people who can handle such power in a benevolent manner, history shows that there are very few such people in the world. I guess we’re stuck with Democracy. Sometimes we elect an Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill; sometimes we elect an Adolph Hitler or Neville Chamberlain. Sometimes, somebody decides to offer up some sort of referendum to the people. Usually, referendums concern a school funding plan or a neighborhood park. That’s about as far as direct Democracy should go. As always, this is just my opinion.


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