We have enjoyed the benefits of democracy in the United states since its creation, however, numerous philosophers have pointed out the shortcomings of democracy, and many of the conditions they pointed out still exist today. Due to the general public’s lack of education, or interest in government, we tend to elect officials that may not serve the best interest of their constituents. The interests of the elected officials, gaining power and influence, leads to political careerism as well.
For any democracy to work, it must have some key elements. Democracy is a form of government that chooses its leaders through free and fair elections. For this to work the people must participate in both politics and civil life. They should observe certain principles and rules of democratic conduct, such as respecting the law, which should apply equally to all citizens. They should respect the rights of fellow citizens and they should consider different interests and points of view, questioning the decisions of the government when necessary. Without these key elements, democracy may still be useful, and the best form of government we know, but it certainly may not meet its full potential as our preferred way to govern.
Plato was one of the first philosophers to critique democracy. One of the issues he had with democracy was that he believed the typical citizen was “shiftless and flighty” (Crain). Plato felt that citizens lacked the ability to participate in government because, in his own words, “Sometimes he drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times, he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he’s idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy” (Crain). The lackadaisical attitude of the people leads to disinterest and regrettably, a constituency that is not informed. Therefore, democracy puts decision making into the hands of the incompetent, who are challenged to make a good decision. The skill of politics was something some could never learn. Plato thought that a much safer way to govern would be to entrust power to scrupulously educated guardians.
Plato feared rule by the ignorant who will use their power to do the stupid things. The electorate, in general, is incapable of choosing the appropriate people to rule. The citizens enjoy “excessive freedom” and behave in “irresponsible, disorderly ways” (slides 17), according to Plato. This, in turn, allows unsuitable people to be elected and rule. In the worst scenarios, the “power-hungry” and “those motivated by personal gain” (slides 17) could be elected to important positions. Power, in most cases, is the motivating force for those who want to take office, and it is clear that their interests could not possibly align with the best interests of the people electing them. In addition, if they want to continue their influence, they will govern to assure their own reelection.
Leadership, according to Plato, demands competence and virtue. These qualities are rare to find together, particularly in those striving for power. Plato also feared we might make the false assumption that everyone is equally capable of ruling. This would lead to citizens letting people with an ulterior motive lead. Plato even went as far to say that, “democracies were typically run by fools” (Crain). He does point out though, that occasionally a good ruler could be selected by chance. To increase the chance of obtaining a skilled ruler with integrity, society must be ordered and its citizens must be educated. This was as big a hurdle in Plato’s time just as it is today.
Aristotle’s views of the citizens of democracy differed from Plato. He felt citizens were “capable of ruling and being ruled in turn” (slides 35). He believed, “Citizens are, first and foremost, ‘those who share in the holding of office'” (slides 35). Even so, Aristotle still thought there were some necessary conditions needed to be able to participate in politics. He demanded that the capacity for rational agency was needed. According to Aristotle’s logic, this excluded women and slaves because he thought, “their souls lack the appropriate kind of rationality” (slides 35). In addition, he excluded those who did not own property or slaves because he thought they did not possess the leisure time necessary to participate in civic life. This challenged the idea that all people would be able to participate in government and be represented as well.
Hobbes, like Plato and Aristotle, had little confidence in society’s ability to have a successful democracy due to the cluelessness of the general public. Hobbes believed, “the most part are too busie in getting food, and the rest too negligent to understand” (Leviathan). This theme of potential failure of democracy due to voter ignorance or lack of interest is a common theme, and it certainly continues to affect the results of our democracy in the US and abroad.
Another of Hobbes’ criticisms of democracy is that it is practically impossible to find leaders who are not self interested. He “subscribes to a theory of psychological egoism: that is, he believes that human beings are basically self-interested” (slide 51). Hobbes said in the Leviathan that, “All of humanity are in a state of endless and restless desire for power – which stops only by death.” (Debate) Hobbes essentially holds that we all have an innate “desire for power, wealth, knowledge and honour” (Debate.) All of these are just different forms of power to which man is drawn. Once obtained, they want to keep the power, wealth, knowledge and honour. Despite this, Hobbes has a slight hope; he believes we humans are also capable of reason.
Before democracy was established in the US through the constitution, philosophers had already expressed potential problems with democracy. A citizenry that does not take an active role or interest in democracy, or is to unknowledgeable to understand the important issues facing the government, will not gain all the benefits a democracy has to offer. In addition, man’s quest for power gives candidate for office a disparate motives for wanting to lead, often inconsistent with the goals of society.
There is an undeniable link between the education of the voters and the success of a democracy. “Educated citizens are better voters…and a more engaged voting population would make government more accountable.” (Lurie) Democracy is more effective when the education of the citizens supports the practice of democratic governance. But just education does not necessarily lead to a more interested or politically savvy citizen group. In fact, in legal scholar Ilya Somin’s book “Democracy and Political Ignorance” (2013), she shows that American voters have remained ignorant despite decades of rising education levels. (Crain) They are apparently not learning about democracy, and the importance of their engagement in the process. They do not take the time or energy to understand the issues and the consequences they will face due to the decisions their representative are making for them. People need to participate and understand the issues presented in order to take a stand, and to choose appropriate representatives. Education is not the same as understanding. Nor is understanding the same as knowing which way to vote.
In a recent article Caleb Crain claims, “Roughly a third of American voters…are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their state has two of them.” (Crain) This is truly frightening! Whether this is due to lack of interest or a lack of education or both, this was certainly not the plan for a successful democracy. To counter this ignorance, J. S. Mill, who was worried about voters lack of knowledge and judgment, made the practical suggestion that citizens with university degrees or intellectually demanding jobs get extra votes, (Crain). This would give the educated greater influence in democracy. This is not a new idea. In 1855, when United States elites feared the lack of intelligence of poor immigrants, the first literacy test for voters was introduced to American voters. This gave those who could pass the test more impact in the democracy. This was set in motion because of the belief that good decisions by voters are essential, so why not try a system that’s a little less fair but makes good choices more often? This idea of an “epistocracy,” meaning “government by the knowledgeable,” was explored by David Estlund, a political philosopher at Brown and author of “Democratic Authority.” (He invented the word “epistocracy,” (Crain.)) In his book, Estlund argues against epistocracy, but ironically, he concludes that a polity ruled by educated voters probably would perform better than a democracy. Although this would cause some unfairnesses, these inequities could be overcome according to Crain. “If historically disadvantaged groups, such as African-Americans or women, turned out to be underrepresented in an epistocratic system, those who made the grade could be given additional votes, in compensation,” (Crain). This idea of government by the knowledgeable does have some merit, but the sociological consequences of this type of system make this idea unlikely to be put into practice these days.
Nevertheless, Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Georgetown, makes a compelling unrestrained argument for epistocracy in his book “Against Democracy.” “Brennan argues that it’s entirely justifiable to limit the political power that the irrational, the ignorant, and the incompetent have over others.” (Crain) The welfare of the society is paramount, and if a few people get their feelings hurt this in insignificant, and essential to get the best outcome to serve society. Brennan asserts the argument that a “few would consider it unfair to disqualify jurors who are morally or cognitively incompetent.” (Crain) Perhaps those who aren’t prepared to vote due to lack of knowledge should stay home on Election Day. We may end up with better results in a democracy by giving more votes to the educated, allowing a council of educated voters to have veto power, or to reinstate voter qualifying exams. It is certainly a balancing act to try to come up with democratic procedures that lead to correct policy decisions and are considered fair as well.
Once the relatively uninformed public has elected an official and begin to govern, they may not perform a job that is in line with the needs of the public. Despite this, establishment politicians continue to get elected even though they may not have the best interests of the American people or the country at heart. The power they have as an elected official is too addictive. They may genuinely want to advance a particular goal while in office that is appropriate for their constituents, but may not follow thru on this endeavor for fear that they may risk their current position. They do not want to be threaten with a loss of position for an idea, unless the particular policy they want to enact happens to coincide with popular opinion and ends up also being something they believe in.
There is a movement taking hold across the country supporting term limitations. The political principle supporting limiting the tenure of legislators was established by Aristotle. Democratic citizenship was feasible only where there was reciprocity of the “alternation in ruling and being ruled” (1259b2). Many politicians enjoy the power of holding an office and therefore, make a career out of being professional legislators, which leads to very little turnover. “The Aristotelian position is consistent with the expectations of the American framers that most elected officials would serve for brief periods of time and then return home to resume their previous occupations.” (Petracca) In our government people continually reelect incumbents, and as a result, these career legislators fail to prioritize the demands of their constituents. So what can we do to counter Political Careerism? We can fight with a better educated population, pressuring political officials to listen to their constituents.
In Stephen Lurie’s article, “Highly Educated Countries Have Better Governments,” Lurie makes a compelling argument for educating society, in order to have a better functioning democracy. He found that, “more educated countries consistently have better governments, on any number of ratings” (Lurie). In his paper, “Education, Complaints, and Accountability,” Botero suggests one possible explanation: the power of complaining. “Educated people are more likely to complain” and “these complaints lead to better conduct by officials fearful of being punished, which in turn leads to greater accountability and a higher quality government.” Complaining by an educated population leads to action, and is way for the public to participate in democracy and question the decisions of the government when necessary.
The fears of the philosophers, ignorant people involved in politics electing power hungry officials, become more apparent in political crisis. After the Brexit vote many believed that those with expert knowledge were once again bumping heads with the ignorant. It seems in many ways that both groups did not truly appreciate what was at stake, and many were probably guessing. It is rumored that after the vote many voters did not even know what the EU really was. Surprisingly, the voter turnout was very good, although this was followed by rumors of corruption and fraud, (Slides 37 & 38). “Polling carried out before the referendum, which asked people what they thought was likely to happen in the aftermath of a Brexit vote, found that university graduates thought that it would produce an immediate financial crash, whereas those with fewer qualifications thought it much more likely that things would carry on as before,” (Runciman). This confusion on the potential outcomes leads me to believe that education of the public may not necessarily be the answer, but an emphasis on political education and experience could help narrow the gap between the knowledgeable and the ignorant. At least some education could give everyone a chance to to develop an argument to suit their personal preferences, and communicate this to their representatives.
For now, we have to settle for the lackadaisical attitude of the people that has led to disinterest and regrettably, a constituency that is not informed. Since democracy puts decision making into the hands of the incompetent, they are challenged to make a good decision and inevitably, incapable of choosing the appropriate people to rule.The motivating force for those who want to take office is power. It is clear that their interests could not possibly align with the best interests of the people electing them. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to find leaders who are not self interested since power they have as an elected official is too addictive. These career legislators fail to prioritize the demand of their constituents and tend to govern to assure their own reelection. To strengthen the chance of electing and skilled legislators with good character, the citizens must be educated. There is definite link between the education of the voters and the success of a democracy. People need political education to participate and understand complex policy presented in order to take a stand, and present arguments in an attempt to achieve their goals or to at least to choose appropriate representatives. Education is not the same as comprehension and comprehension the same as knowing which way to vote. We could end up with a more successful government by giving more votes to the educated, giving educated guardians veto power, or by reinstating voter qualifying exams. Since none of those options are currently practical, we should continue to educate our population with the hopes of greater understanding and participation in the political arena, so we can appreciate the benefits of democracy for society set forth by ancient philosophers.