After Brexit and new revelations about the moral turpitude, masquerading as ‘locker room banter’ of Donald Trump, I found a strange, all-pervasive anxiety beginning to overshadow me. Politics is a dirty, Machiavellian game, also highly complex, the rules keep changing and referenda and sometimes elections are the blunt little tools we all use to try to get the best for everyone. If the Brexit vote were recast today, it would almost certainly have turned out differently. Activists and flag-wavers latch on to a very few easy-to-follow policy mantras which seem black and white, then agitate, push, protest and intimidate, whichever is required, to subjugate the weak or push the undecided out of the way in order to achieve their aims. Such anxiety as I found myself facing about the consequences of political ignorance is not new. In the long history of thoughtful people, not necessarily intellectuals, worrying about democracy and its failings, two basic fears surface. The first is that democracy will mean rule by the poor, who will use their collective power and numerical superiority to steal from the rich. During Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the houses of the middle classes were raided and their toilets smashed, since possession of such an item was considered too superior, too bourgeois, so secondly, democracy is rule by the ignorant, who will use their power to do foolish things. Both these worries go back at least as far as Plato. The ancient Greeks understood that democracy meant letting the have-nots get their claws into the haves. For Aristotle, that’s what the word meant: it was rule by the poor (the demos) over the wealthy. But if class conflict came with the territory, the deeper fear was what the masses might do out of sheer foolishness.
For Plato, democracy suffered from the basic defect of putting decision-making in the hands of people who were not competent to decide. Politics was a skill – and most people were clueless. Worse, that made them prey for liars, snake oil merchants and demagogues who would promise them the moon and mostly get away with it. Democracy was fertile ground for fantasists with a taste for power. If you tell the people that black is white, and the people believe you, then who’s going to tell them that they’re wrong?
These fears never really evaporate. They resurface at times of political crisis. As long ago as the 1920s the argument was made, unblushingly, that modern citizens simply lacked the mental capacity to process the information needed for intelligent decision-making, thus were incapable of selecting appropriate leadership.
The polarization of America may not just rest on ethnic or gender lines but on education and critical thinking. Donald Trump has said he loves uneducated people. I wonder why.