The problem with a pure democracy, Plato pointed out, is that being popular isn’t always best.
I’m sure you’ve been asked the question before: would you rather be rich or famous? More often than not, we try to skirt the issuing by answering, “Both.” We all like the idea of being rich and famous, though we rarely stop to think exactly what all that might entail. How does one become rich? What makes one famous? The answers to both those questions might just as likely be negative as positive.
Stop and think for a moment. How many times has the most popular kid in school turned out to be a bully, or misogynist, or racist? Or how often has the richest person in town also been the most miserly, the most selfish, and the one person in town with whom one would not want to do business? Think of the character Mr. Potter in the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. Sure, he was rich, but his financial control over the town almost ruined it.
Being rich and famous can be a horrible combination, but either one on its own can be a blow to democracy. Most often, it is not the wealth that causes the problem as it is the popularity of a leader that ends up putting them on the wrong side of history. Popularity can cause people to die for an empty cause or keep a people enslaved.
This morning, two headlines are dominating the news. The first is the death of long-time dictator of Cuba, Fidel Castro. The second is Wisconsin’s agreement to recount the presidential votes in that state. Both contain an element of popularity to them, but at least with Castro we can look back and see how his popularity worked against the people of Cuba. Popularity isn’t always a good thing to have.
Popularity Versus Democracy
In Book VI ofT Republic, Plato lines out the philosophical issues with trying to maintain a pure democracy versus a representative Republic. Without spending days trying to explain the details of his reasoning, we can sum it into three major points:
- People are too stupid
- People are too busy
- There’s no reason for people to care
At the crux of his argument, Plato realizes that it takes a given amount of intelligence and the time and ability to reason for one to make the best choices. In the absence of such, for any of the reasons above, the greater portion of the population simply votes for whoever is the most popular. The average citizen, Plato insisted, is largely incapable of choosing either leadership or policy correctly. En masse, he reasoned, the citizenry is far more likely to select the wrong government and steer it in the worst direction. That which is most popular rarely aligns with that which is best.
This is the very reason that our founding fathers positioned the electoral college between the popular vote and the actual selection of a president. The electoral college was never meant to be a rubber stamp of the popular vote, nor were the electors meant to be forced to vote for a particular candidate. The concept has always been that the electoral college was in place to prevent “we the people” from making a mistake based on who was most popular.
Sounds a bit frightening given the most recent elections, doesn’t it?
Popularity Gone Wrong
Fidel Castro is a perfect example of a popular leader who became a dictator. When Castro overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista in July of 1959, it was on a wave of extreme social popularity. The Cuban people were tired of the extreme corruption of the Batista government and Castro promised to change the system, to remove the corruption, and restore political and civil liberties.
None of that rhetoric actually resulted in the freedom the Cuban people desired, however. Castro instituted a one-party government. The people had no choice in leadership but him. Upper and Middle-income Cubans left while they could. Everyone was just stuck. The popular choice left the country poor and languishing.
This wasn’t the first time a popular leader steered a country in the wrong direction. In 1917, it was an extremely popular Vladimir Lenin that denounced the provisional government established after the murder of the czarist Romanovs. He promised to establish a Soviet government that was run by soldiers, peasants, and workers. Again, it was fighting against a history of corruption and cronyism that had led the fiery speaker to take hold of Russian loyalty and push him to the top of a very divided country.
The civil war that followed the October Revolution tore the country apart, but coming back from an assassination attempt that saw him shot twice, Lenin’s popularity only grew. He utilized his secret police in what came to be known as the Red Terror to root out his enemies. Millions died. His dictatorial reign gave rise to Joseph Stalin, who took the country even deeper into hard-core communism. The promise of a country ruled by the people never happened.
I could easily go through much of the 20th century and cite other examples. We don’t have to reach very far back to see that the effect of getting behind the most popular person was absolutely the wrong thing to do. Popularity looks good, sounds good, and feels good on a strictly emotional level. However, in following the most popular leader, we prove Plato’s point of lacking sufficient intelligent to choose the correct person.
“Majority Rules” Doesn’t Work
Americans are a people who have taken to the mistaken concept that “majority rules.” Even our schools teach the incorrect notion that what is popular must be what is best, regardless of what they know to be true. Students vote for school menu options that are inherently unhealthy because adolescents are stupid about such things. What does the school do? More often than not, they give in because, you know, majority rules.
We talked earlier this week about the fallacy of awards shows based on popularity rather than actual talent. The fact that the New Artist of the Year award went to boy band defector Zayn underscores the foolishness of the popular vote.
For decades, people bought the prints and paintings of Thomas Kincaide because he was popular. Never mind that his works were the result of a mass production scheme and that even his “originals” were completely dismissed by anyone and everyone who actually understands art.
Being popular doesn’t mean one has the best ideas or the most talent. Being popular simply means one has the ability to manipulate the masses. Being popular means knowing how to work social media so that they look forward to your pronouncements on Twitter. Being popular means having the ability to sway popular media to cover whatever you’re doing.
Being popular has nothing to do with the ability to govern justly and correctly. We’ve seen this before, over and over and over. It rarely ends well for the people being governed.
We need an Electoral College that is free to correct the stupid mistakes of the ignorant masses. Perhaps the time has come to let them do what they were meant to do. We don’t need another Fidel Castro. We need someone who knows how to lead even when it’s not the popular thing to do.