How democracy leads to tyranny; or, how Socrates predicted Trump (et al.)

One question often posed to philosophers, and indeed one circulating on online fora somewhat too often, is the relevance of philosophy today. In this article, I want to show that relevance by looking at something deeply entrenched in American politics today – the election (and possible re-election) of Donald Trump as the president of the United States.

In order to address Trump’s election, we have to ask whether Trump is not in essence a democratic embodiment. Is Trump a mere accident of democratic regimes, or does he embody the very notion of choosing leadership? We can ask the same question regarding Brexit, or any other recent movement that seems to shock us: to what extent are these instances or events a derailment from democracy, or are they part and parcel of the democratic institutions? We know from Socrates that at the core of democracy is the move towards demagogues and dictators. In what follows, I will elaborate on this move in more detail.

Setting the scene

The western liberal democratic regimes are plagued by a series of crises. They have neither increased nor decreased in number: from economic to humanitarian, and from environmental to geopolitical, these crises keep affecting our daily problems. It is, I think, quite clear from picking up a newspaper on any given day, where you will find some part of the world has been affected by a call for democracy or a more democratic approach or solution to a given problem. And I think it equally clear that contemporary political institutions are unable to deal with these problems to the satisfaction of the overwhelming majority.

The result is equally clear: millions of frustrated citizens resort to seemingly futile demonstrations; or alternatively, look for leaders who with glee declare to fight corruption in politics. And their promises are clear and sensible: they will make an end to the corrupt elite (either self-enriching politicians or business leaders, or even journalists who underreport on important issues); they will make an end to the ‘lumpenproletariat’ (groups that live off on the taxes of the hard-working people, through welfare and subsidies provided for them for very little reason); and they will, as a result, start fresh / with a clean slate / etc.

To be clear, this is not a unique experience to the west, the call to end corruption is universal in every corner of the world and, at least according to Transparency International, is the cause of regime change worldwide. And with the call to end corruption, come the promises of a fresh start.

We can witness this so-called ‘move to the right’ – promises of politicians to start fresh – in most western countries. We have witnessed the rise of Trump, but let us not forget that his rise was gradually, yet very consistently, preceded by other western countries: Wilders in the Netherlands, Le Pen in France, Farage in UK, Putin in Russia – and these are the most known examples. Late 1990s and early 2000s witness a similar expression all over Europe.

Another reason for democratic decline

We find a few good reasons in literature for the ‘move to the right’, one that is echoed in political rhetoric relatively frequently: erosion of the middle class, racism, ethnic tensions, wealth and education gaps, globalisation, sexism, etc. I do not pretend that these reasons are not valid. Quite the contrary, insofar something is able to explain the ‘move to the right’, all of these reasons adequately capture a partial explanation. And I also do not pretend that there is a single overarching explanation for the ‘move to the right’.

However, there is one additional explanation that is lacking in majority of literature, except for perhaps a marginal branch in political theory circles: democracy by its very nature is a populist endeavour. And I mean ‘populist’ in both senses of the word, 1) that it leads to popular choices, and 2) that it elects populist leaders. These two senses do not always coincide in the same elected leader: Obama was popular, but hardly a populist; Trump is populist, but hardly popular, etc. The distinction between popular and populist is necessary because we can understand the ‘move to the right’ better when we return to Socrates’s ‘prediction’ that at the core of democracy is the move towards demagogues and dictators.

At any rate, if we accept Socrates’ premise that democracies by their nature lead to demagogues and dictators, we will be poised to think of all other possible reasons mentioned above as mere symptoms to a deeper underlying cause that is within the democratic paradigm itself. This also means, however, that we will have to understand Trump et al. as mere symptoms as well. And yet, this seems to be Socrates’ argument in Plato’s The Republic.

Let us not be mistaken here either, The Republic does not set the scene for a democratic state, quite the contrary, the ideal state is governed by philosopher-kings instead of an electorate chosen by the citizens. Furthermore, as I have shown elsewhere, Socrates is perhaps not someone to look for explanations about democracy or take advice on democratic theory – quite the opposite as I show in that article. And of course, how we should approach Plato more generally is up to dispute (or perhaps more of a preference) as well.

Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to have a closer look at Socrates’ arguments. If not for a philosophical exercise, at the very least it is also somehow reminiscent of the contemporary global political order that we encounter, especially in the western democracies. So, what are the arguments?

The virtues of democracies

First and foremost, let us not forget that Socrates acknowledges that democracies are all about freedom. In that regard, democracies are not at all problematic. Positions of power are accessible to all (and this is not an ‘ideal’ case, for Socrates it is clearly so). Not surprising that Socrates’ description of democracy is as follows:

This, then, seems likely to be the fairest of States, being an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower. And just as women and children think a variety of colours to be of all things most charming, so there are many men to whom this State, which is spangled with the manners and characters of mankind, will appear to be the fairest of States.

Plato’s The Republic, Book VIII.

He quickly follows this comment by another:

… and there will be no better in which to look for a government … Because of the liberty which reigns there – they have a complete assortment of constitutions; and he who has a mind to establish a State, as we have been doing, must go to a democracy as he would to a bazaar at which they sell them, and pick out the one that suits him; then, when he has made his choice, he may found his State.

Plato’s The Republic, Book VIII.

And so, we can infer that from liberty follows abolition of slavery, the death penalty and the practice of ostracism (sounds familiar?). More broadly, under democracies, populations will sway for more open-mindedness. Religion, feelings of shame and guilt will be considered mundane and outdated, even coarse and having bad taste. What is more, Socrates even acknowledges that democracies will lead to greater wealth thanks to the liberties on that front, but also because through liberty we are not likely to practice restraint and moderation. Instead, we are likely to follow excesses and fondness for grandeur (sounds familiar?). The counter to this should be equally familiar: leadership too will be replaced – instead of expertise, we will be cheering to charismatic rhetoric. We will seek out friendships and voices that align with our own (sound familiar?).

It seems that it is not only with power that great responsibility comes, but also with liberty. And this responsibility is not something that is taken all too seriously in democracies.

Five stages of democratic decline

The problem with democracies is not what kind of liberties it promotes, or indeed that citizens can aspire for better lives on their own accord. In Socrates we find the ‘inherent contradiction’ of democracies (sidenote: if Marx may excuse my borrowing his terminology for the critique of capitalism). And the inherent contradiction is spelled out very clearly in five stages that lead to the election of demagogues and dictators.

Stage 1 – freedom

The first stage is introduced by one of the most beautiful passages in The Republic:

When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs.

Plato’s The Republic, Book VIII.

Provided with liberty, people will react to any restrictions to authority, including authorities in form of expertise (sounds familiar?). Any kind of instruction or advice is considered as an encroachment to liberty. However, this also means that any kind of leadership that functions as a barrier to unlimited freedom is accused of authoritarianism. The only kind of leadership that is able to stand is one that promises to remove obstacles to freedom. There is an important notice here: obstacles insofar the support base considers that to be so – the leadership in question functions as a mouthpiece for the wishes of the supporters. It is, in other words, not a leadership at all (hence the contradiction).

Stage 2 – unlimited freedom

Secondly, each democratic state is understood to comprise of three classes:

  1. Those who can use unlimited freedom effectively will rise to the top of state functions.
  2. Others will gain economic advantages through their use of (somewhat limited) freedom.
  3. The largest part of the population will remain at a lower level, who live off their hard work on a daily routine kind of basis.

Socrates argues that in such situations, it is not surprising that the state functionaries and those who have gained economic advantages will work together to maintain the status quo. Legislation will follow in favour of the rich, who in turn will pay for the ‘favours’ to the political elite (sounds familiar?).

This is not going to last forever, however, and Socrates notes that the rich second class will finally come to a kind of rebellion. Legislation cannot endlessly be in favour of their class; so they will have to either come to terms with the third class, or endanger the existence of the first class. They will, in other words, see legislation as yet another obstacle to their unlimited freedom. This is where freedom, precisely because it is unlimited, plays a dominant role – unlimited freedom is how every class was created, and unlimited freedom is what maintains it. In order to come to terms with the third class or to surpass legislation of the first class, the rhetoric turns to freedom.

In this second stage, in other words, the wealthy class will proclaim that it is the politicians who are stealing from everyone; through their corrupt and shady deals, or unfair legislation (I am tired of writing this, but sound familiar?). Not surprisingly, the ‘free elections’ will lead to electing someone from the second class.

Stage 3 – new leaders

At the third stage, the ‘new leader’ (from the second class) is by definition corrupt. After all, their role is not leadership; their role is to increase the advantages of their class. Promising freedom and end to corruption, they can take any extra-legal measures. Their actions are deemed legitimate to the final goal – even more freedom. And so, the people will look the other way as long as the promises are made. It is here that Trotsky’s dictum on means and ends – loosely paraphrased as ‘the end justifies the means as long as the end is justified’ – gets its full meaning and becomes apparent.

Interestingly enough, Socrates goes a step further and even notes how violence towards certain parts of the population will be considered as legitimate: violence is but a means to an end – freedom. What follows is a trichotomy between allegiances: the new leader is part of all classes (because they lack leadership skills) and promises too many things to too many people. Nevertheless, at this stage, they still enjoy a wide popular support due to promises they have made.

The third stage is somewhat of a let-down.1 Until this point Socrates had a fast-paced rhetoric and clear indications of the stages. Here, it seems, he pauses to address the new leader’s lack of initiative. The new leader is now understood as a moderate, someone who aims to gain the trust of the people through gestures of good will and execution of orders.

Stage 4 – designation of enemies

At the fourth stage, the illusion of the new leader as someone who is close to the majority of the people becomes apparent. Keep in mind that we are addressing a democratic institution, so the majority is pivotal here because the new leader’s rise to power has been through addressing corruption in the state prior to their ascension.

At stage four something else happens that is quite interesting, or at least something interesting with someone who is closely familiar with Carl Schmitt: Plato introduces an enemy. This move is somewhat predictable, but nevertheless it is fascinating. Unfortunately, going into detail will derail us, so suffice to say the new leader will have to identify two kinds of enemies: domestic and foreign. A dual enemy is essential for our understanding of democracy and the ‘move to the right’; because it is through both internal and external conception of enmity that division within society can be created – and division is necessary to maintain a political society. After all, politics is only possible because there is division; there is no politics in a world filled with agreement and/or apathy.2

Next to introducing internal and external enemies, the new leader shall also postpose any promises ad infinitum. Frustration of the population is the fuel behind the leader’s position of power; it is through frustration with the enemies that the leader can maintain their role without leadership skills. And finally, the new leader shall resort to violence in order to silence any and all critical positions. This may seem paradoxical and already ‘undemocratic’, but it is not. Democracy does not imply liberalism, and as Fareed Zakaria noted over a decade ago, there is a hard and steady rise of ‘illiberal democracies’.

The fourth stage is thus already fraught with violence and polarisation (sounds familiar?). Nevertheless, the new leader still garners wide popular support and is able to offset any harm to their persona as a political disagreement, an internal enmity.

Stage 5 – staging violence

Let me pause with another passage from The Republic in preparation for stage 5:

And the protector of the people is like him; having a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; by the favourite method of false accusation he brings them into court and murders them, making the life of man to disappear, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizen; some he kills and others he banishes, at the same time hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands: and after this, what will be his destiny? Must he not either perish at the hands of his enemies, or from being a man become a wolf – that is, a tyrant?

Plato’s The Republic, Book VIII.

By now, we have a tyrannical / dictatorial regime in place and it has gradually become clear that the new leader only assumed a role, only made a promise to fight off corruption during their rise to power (this must sound familiar!). It becomes clear that the by-now-not-so-new leader, lacking leadership skills, has always been interested in maintaining their wealth, that their elevation to the first class of a political leadership was meant for a singular goal of maintaining and further advancing their previous position of a wealthy citizen.

But it is also at this stage, as the new leader finds themselves further enriched, that their actions become apparent the population at large. The promises of unlimited freedom have always been nothing but a promise. Here, too, the oppressed classes realise that their position can only be changed through more violence; the only way to oppose oppression is through a (civil) war: the people vs. the new leadership.

Lessons drawn

Thus far, I have shown similarities in Socrates’ arguments with Trump and right-wing populism. I have called this ‘move to the right’ for the sole reason that this is what we are witnessing today. It should be abundantly clear that populism takes many forms and can just as easily be understood as a ‘move to the left’. What is important is that there is an underlying cause for ‘populism’ in democracies that lends itself to civil unrest and possibility of civil war. The lesson is rather simple: a democratic institution is by its very design one where elite exploits the population. Indeed, the very idea of rulership has at its core a dichotomy between the rulers and the ruled, which in turn lends itself to exploitation, subjugation, and violence. Democracy does not solve that dichotomy, it only masks it.

This is not to say that we ought to accept the flaws of democracies at their face value, or consider the ‘move to the right / left’ as natural processes and therefore without any further human direction. The Republic is, for a good reason, a book that maintains its force for over two millennia. Our problem today is that the solution Plato provides is counter to our ‘liberal democratic’ sensibilities. Nevertheless, there remain boundless possibilities in political theory. I will not name them one by one, though I will make a reference to Hannah Arendt because she stands out in my research as a paragon against ‘new leaders’.

There is more. The US system, and the ‘founding fathers’ had very likely read Plato; they clearly show to have read philosophy more generally and in particular deal with Rousseau and Locke. At the very least, they show to have dealt with the issues that Plato is dealing with in The Republic. It is not surprising, therefore, that modern democracies contain checks to contain bouts of populist outbursts. You will find these in the division of powers and all other seemingly boring, though certainly important, parts of introductory political science courses at universities. What matters, from a politico-theoretical point of view, is that every democratic institution must enforce clearly anti-democratic policies in order to prevent the rise of demagogues and dictators; and these policies are not only anti-democratic by design, but also by definition. Every aspect of ‘checks and balances’ is meant to restrain a possibility of the rise of the next new leader: next to the well-known legislative and judicial powers in courts and senates, there are special commissions, ministries, cabinets, etc.

To be clear, I am not proposing anti-democratic measures to curb executive power. As I noted above, my interest is political theory and I am rarely interested in actual politics – in fact, I follow Zizek’s dictum: if you have a good theory, forget about practice.3

I set out showing the relevance of philosophy today, and I hope I have done so. Perhaps a frequent reminder in the form of ‘sounds familiar?’ was a tad annoying, it certainly reads that way. Nevertheless, I think I have shown where philosophy is not only relevant, but also a fruitful point of departure in understanding old battles and rich analyses. Whether Trump is re-elected, or whether he is superseded by Bernie Sanders / Elizabeth Warren (or whoever else) is immaterial to the discussion at hand. What we ought to understand is to what extent democracies lend themselves to our liberties and in what ways they can jeopardise them. The rest is technicality.

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  1. Or perhaps it is the transition between the third and the fourth stage that lets us down.
  2. I do realise this is short and requires more attention. Perhaps I will delve into this in another article.
  3. I say Zizek’s, but the statement can just as easily be applied to Einstein in the early 1920s.

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