This paper argues that Plato’s critiques of democracy are fair, correct, and have manifested themselves in modern American politics. His criticisms seem to come in two major categories, one being that democracy is an inevitable road to aggravated tyranny, and the other being that democracy itself is inherently flawed due to its hyper-egalitarian nature. However, this is not to say that an authoritarian system like that detailed in The Republic should be imposed, merely that Plato’s issues with democracy are valid.
Plato’s first issue is with democracy itself. He believes that its over-commitment to equality leads to catastrophic relativism. This is true both on the legal scale of all people getting equal say, but also the metaphysical one with all values receiving equal consideration. Plato says it best himself when describing the mentality of the democratic man and by extension the nature of democracy itself. Plato writes, “...he does not admit any word of Truth into the guardhouse for if someone tells it that some pleasures belong to fine and good desires and others to evil ones and that he must pursue and value the former and restrain and enslave the latter he denies all this and declares that all pleasures are equal in must be valued equally.”(561c, pg 231). The devaluing of the good and the elevation of evil to equal footing renders the labels arbitrary within that societal context. This inevitably leads to ruin because certain behaviors are more pragmatically helpful than others, and the failure to recognize that does not make it less true. However, it does make those beneficial behaviors less common and therefore makes society less healthy. It is for this reason that no society that has eliminated the concept of the ideal, the universal good, can long endure.
Plato even gives some examples, “Having thus emptied and purged these from the soul of the one they have possessed and initiated in splendid rites, they proceeded to return insolence, anarchy, extravagance, and shamelessness from exile in a blaze of torchlight wreathing them in garlands and accompanying them with a vast chorus of followers. They praised the returning exiles and give them fine names calling insolence good breeding, anarchy freedom, extravagance magnificence, and shamelessness courage.”(560e, pg 231).
If Plato could see the world today, these comparisons would be vindicated. Live performances that would have been considered pornographic a decade ago are now cheered on as courageous, rather than decried as shameless (Source 2). The riots over the summer of 2020, largely unmitigated by any police presence and causing billions in property damage were called exercises of freedom, rather than examples of anarchy. (Source 3)(Source 4)(Source 5). Among the elite extravagance is praised as magnificence, the 2021 Met Gala being the best example as of late. Political statements printed on clothing worth tens of thousands of dollars are often called brave and magnificent rather than shameless and extravagant. (Source 6). All these traits, formerly seen as insolent, are now flouted, praised, and widely considered good breeding.
These developments track with the logic of Plato’s theory, not just its predictions. If morality and values are relative in a democracy, then it is simply up to each individual to decide what is good and what is not. Under this context, shame is an arbitrary social construct imposed upon people to control behavior, so of course bucking it is courageous, nearly regardless of how or why the bucking is done. It is an expression of freedom, the only virtue remaining. Extravagance is mistaken for magnificence because any sense of moderation or tactfulness is necessarily thrown out with the other values: just a matter of personal taste. And since it is in line with the freedom to disregard the restrictions of others, extravagance is considered magnificence, and to be praised.
This attitude of cultural hyper-freedom exists across the political spectrum, from the vast majority of left to a sizable chunk of the right. To be fair, there is a particular part of the right side of the aisle that is fighting this, standing largely on religion and tradition to proclaim the existence of objective moralities, but the broad culture has moved straight past it, labeling it antiquated. After all, it is considered arbitrary too.
One might argue that this moral relativism is not a necessary result of democracy, as a culture can be separate from a governmental style, and is better attributed to the materialist and globalist cultural shift. It is certainly possible that globalism and materialism are to blame for the pull away from objective morality, but this line of argument does not attack Plato’s theory, just offers another, non-contradicting one. If the governmental system is set up to take all individuals into account on equal grounds when making decisions, the logical extension of the underlying philosophy is that all people and all values get an equal say when it comes to other enterprises like morality. Which is essentially what law itself is: rules for moral behavior. One can argue that this trend is good or bad, and could argue whether it is the only trend producing this effect, but the logic of the theory itself seems rather unassailable. It is both logically sound and historically supported. America’s governmental structure was originally so permissive because it assumed a religious and moral people. It assumed that governmental structure and culture could be contradictory yet preserved indefinitely. This assumption was wrong. It worked in the beginning, the vast majority of people were strictly faithful, but over time the culture eroded in the face of governmental practical pressures. The more democratic a nation is, the more morally relativistic its culture becomes in the meantime. There is no exception to this rule.
This leads to the second major critique of democracy: it is tyranny on a timer. Socrates, as written by Plato, says this in regards to the inevitable results of democracy, “Extreme freedom can not be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery whether for a private individual or for a city.” (564a, pg 234). This transition he proposes happens through a change in the public consciousness. Much like a man ruled solely by his passions becomes a slave to them, the same holds for a state. Under democracy human beings begin feeling entitled to an absolute and unmitigated form of freedom, holding it as a virtue above all others. As this process occurs, Plato claims that people become more and more resentful of any restrictions at all, and begin ignoring the written law as well as the unwritten. This can be observed with the bucking of all traditional values and norms mentioned earlier. When this happens, chaos and anarchy ensue, rendering the population suddenly desperate for order once more, ushering in the tyrant. While Plato’s alternative to this process is also rather authoritarian, it is an authority based on competence and wisdom, not an arbitrary and opportunistic power grab.
To apply this theory to modern American politics is a bit difficult because, despite popular opinion, America is not a democracy. It is a representative republic, with various checks and balances installed in an attempt to nullify the tyranny of the majority and avoid the pitfalls of democracy. That said, America is still an exercise in self-government and acts essentially as a steelmanned iteration of democracy.
Over the last few decades, there has been a significant decrease in the cultural and social order, as well as the legal one. In the summer of 2020, law-breaking in major cities was widespread with nearly no state response to put an end to it. CHAZ/CHOP and the BLM riots were mainstays on cable news for months. In some cities the police were massively hamstrung, occasionally not being allowed to police at all, to disastrous effect. (Source 5)(Source 7). High-profile legal cases are primarily decided by mob rule via threats of rioting rather than legal principles. COVID-19 also put people in this mindset, creating the same mental uneasiness and sense of insecurity, leading to the people desiring more borders and control and generating fear of free movement and even of other people just living normally. While none of this is full-on anarchy, it approaches the mark and puts the populus in a similar headspace to that which they would be in in a state of anarchy- looking for order, no matter the form.
As in Plato’s theory, this anarchy among the masses precedes more tyrannical practices from the government. As time has gone on, more and more power has been forfeited by the legislature to the executive via bureaucratic agencies such as OSHA or the FDA. This has been done by lawmakers to avoid culpability and therefore protect re-election. Instead of voting up or down on specific issues to be held accountable for, lawmakers vote on massive pork-barrel spending bills no one has fully read, then let the bureaucracies essentially do as they please. These massive spending bills are considered essential to the functioning of the nation, meaning lawmakers can always post hoc claim that they did not like whatever the parts of the bill are unpopular, but did it anyway out of necessity. This is a centralization of power that not even the Constitution could handle, after all, who would have thought that lawmakers would willingly give away their lawmaking authority?
This deterioration of the representative parts of the US government into something closer to tyranny leads to actions akin to royal proclamations. The federal vaccine mandates are a good example. Congress never voted on it, OSHA did not even abide by its own bylaws and entertain public comments, and the letter of the Constitution does not provide for such an action at a federal level, let alone from the executive, who is meant to enforce the law, not make it. At this point, the President is even encouraging businesses to ignore the pause put on the order by the courts and to just implement it anyway. (Source 1). All of this because the President made an executive order. When this much can be unilaterally set into motion by just one man giving the word, that is approaching tyranny. Regardless of whether one supports mandatory vaccination or not, this is a much more authoritarian way of doing things than how the initial republic was set up, let alone a true democracy.
It seems that Plato was on the money. Democracy is breeding moral relativism, anarchic tendencies, and tyrannical responses in America today. The only question now is if there is a better option.