Is America a Democracy? Let’s ask Plato

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The sorry state of our democracy seems to be at the forefront of the current zeitgeist. The Washington Post expresses it at the top of its front page: “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. It is not easy to gauge exactly what they mean, specifically, what represents the darkness, but as cryptic as it is, it is accepted by its readers as normal. Whatever it really means, it still expresses uneasiness about our democracy.

Democracy is the most important value for the US, the one that is on everyone’s lips as the institution worth keeping and defending. It is used by US politicians as a basis for foreign policy; the US is the torchbearer of democracy and its foreign policy is supposed to enlighten other countries to follow on its steps.

It all sounds very idealistic and worth defending so it is useful to understand its meaning and check if the empirical evidence of our country’s system meets its definition. It is also important to verify if we really have a democracy, or another type, to understand which government type is the one really dying in darkness.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, Democracy is defined as “the type of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”

Athenian leader Cleisthenes who had the idea for Democracy in 507 BC

Ancient Greece is credited with the invention of this governmental system, so it is quite telling that two of its most important philosophers Socrates and Plato were not that impressed by the reality of its functioning. For them, democracy or rule by the people meant that the affairs of government were decided by people who had no idea about how to govern. It was like a sick person preferring the opinion of a majority of average people for a possible diagnosis, instead of asking a medical doctor.

For the two philosophers, only people with a mind educated for critical thinking, who understand the pitfalls involved in the pursuit of power and pecuniary gain at any cost, should form part of a government. Only the people who have the discipline to consciously avoid these temptations should be considered.

The two philosophers had reason to be wary of democracy since it was Athenian democracy that found Socrates guilty of disrespecting the Gods and perverting the youth. As a result of the trial, Socrates had to commit suicide which made Plato think that the consensus of a majority can easily be manipulated by clichéd ideas that will allow a brilliant and inquisitive mind like the one of Socrates, to be unjustly put to death.

Plato’s Republic deals with his preoccupation with the right type of government that will ensure justice for the many. His categorizations, though quite idealistic and bound by the realities of the time he lived in, are useful for checking if our democratic system’s empirical evidence fits in the democracy box or has elements of other types of government.

The ideal government for Plato was an aristocracy, not understood as we do today, as the rule by a noble class with pedigree, but as the rule by people with nobility of mind. Plato’s aristocracy is a rule by people who know about government, use reason to find the truth as much as possible, and have as an aim to truly take into account the quality of life of a majority.

In the real world, European history shows us the way aristocracy was exercised with the rule of hereditary kings. The king would surround himself with nobles who proved loyal to his cause and in return received pedigree and land. This created a concentration of wealth around the king while leaving the rest without much. Some kings and nobles were fairer than others, but the inequality inherent in the system precluded a true aristocracy of the mind. The concept of “noblesse oblige” was supposed to positively modify this basically unjust system, but it wasn’t enough or often enough to make a dent.

According to Plato, when the level of discipline and critical thinking in an aristocracy of the mind goes down, it can degenerate into a timocracy. For Plato, this was the second-best type of government, exemplified by Sparta. Once the people in government forget the value of virtues like selflessness and moderation and instead transition to a purely materialistic pursuit of wealth, there is no longer an aristocracy. This leads in turn to a need for war in order to conquer and plunder other areas for wealth accumulation. For both Plato and Socrates, war wasn’t completely bad, since it implied a disciplined training of the body and hopefully of the mind, plus a high dose of courage. A timocracy can be as good as an aristocracy if the discipline of thought and moderation is equal to that of the body.

Sparta had a system that approached an ideal timocracy the most. Spartan culture valued courage, body and mind discipline, frugality and collectivism. Women had more freedom than in democratic Athens -they were able to exercise outdoors, receive an education, mingle with men in public places and own land. In Athens, women were confined to the house, not allowed an education and couldn’t vote.

The degeneration of a timocracy ends in oligarchy, another type of Plato’s government. This is the type in which there is a clear distinction between rich and poor and only the rich can form part of the government. In this type of government, the qualifications don’t include moderation, courage, knowledge of government or selflessness, just having more money than other people. It precludes poor people, even if they are wise and knowledgeable. Plato reasoned that this unjust situation would lead to revolutions in order to reverse the injustices.

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An oligarchy is a system in which the people with money rule whether directly or indirectly. According to the study of political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, average citizens only get what they want if their issues coincide with the economic elites and their interest groups. In other words, in this so-called democracy, government policies are guided by the desires of the rich.

The rich don’t have to be necessarily elected to have power over government decisions, all they need is to use the power of their money to influence politicians directly with campaign contributions or with lobbyists, making sure that the government doesn’t do anything against their interests. The rich also use their money to create think tanks to manufacture ‘experts’ that will appear in the media to vouch for corporate interests. Just six corporations own the media, so it is easy to see how they can control not just most of the government, but the information to which people have access to.

The fact that the average person only gets their needs if they coincide with the rich is evident with Medicare-for-all. Repeated polls show that the majority of Americans want it, but the establishment of both parties insists with straight faces that it will never be. If the US were a democracy, the richest country in the world would have truly affordable healthcare for all, like most industrialized countries and even most of the world. If the US were a democracy, there would be accountability for the elected people, and people would not vote for politicians who refuse such an essential human right as affordable health care.

According to this political establishment, there is no money for it. Yet, there is money for the Pentagon to not even bother about auditing its accounts, allowing the waste of billions of dollars. There is money for endless wars, but not for decent affordable healthcare for the average person of the richest country on Earth. It is evident that Medicare for All is not what the health care corporations and elites want. Defense contractors don’t want it either since they benefit from the Pentagon’s overspending. The media parrots what suits the corporations and elites while insisting that the US democracy would be perfectly fine if only other countries would not interfere with our elections.

Most of the issues that are important to the average person like affordable health care and education, good-paying jobs with benefits and a reduction in war and corporate subsidies don’t coincide with the needs of corporations. These business elites rely on low wages and reduction in worker benefits in order to shift profits to the upper corporate echelons and investors. They claim they believe in good education for everyone, but instead, they propose public money-grabbing schemes like charter schools that leave the public school system drained and the most vulnerable people without access to a decent education. When a really progressive candidate proposes free college, as is the rule in most industrialized countries, the establishment of both parties laughs at the proposal, as though millions of Millenials weren’t burdened by high college debt that is difficult to pay due to the low paying jobs that are available.

In this oligarchy, money is what counts; the establishment of both parties wants candidates that will bring big money donors to their coffers and to their own bank accounts. These elites buy the candidates, who in return spread their opinion about how Medicare-for-all, affordable education, and good-paying jobs are an impossible dream. This isn’t the candidate speaking; it is the speech of the oligarch’s money, which according to Citizen’s United, has as many rights as any individual.

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Protestors against Citizens United

The landmark Supreme Court case Citizen’s United was decided in 2010. Associated Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed in the majority opinion that the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act’s prohibition of all independent expenditures by corporations and unions violated the first amendment of free speech. Citizen’s United isn’t the only way that corporations and elites can use money to get what they want, but it certainly expanded the repertoire in order to complete the definition of the current US system as an indirect oligarchy in which politicians are figureheads for the moneyed interests.

In our certainty about the excellence of our democratic system, we believe that democracy involves voting for a candidate that we choose freely, based on unbiased information; we believe that the chosen candidate will do what he or she were elected to do, though if we checked the empirical evidence, we would see that this is far from the truth. A true democracy of the people would require the end of the influence of money on our politicians and our media. A true democracy would require a healthy dose of accountability in politics.

In reality, we choose candidates based on biased information manipulated by moneyed interests, we content ourselves with the information of a media that uses labels of progressive or conservative to make us believe they align with our values. As a result, people vote for a candidate, just because the media says he or she is progressive or conservative, without verifying if their values really correspond to what they want, or even checking their record as politicians.

The US is the most profitable type of oligarchy, the one that uses money to control government and the information most citizens rely on, while masking their power under the facades of freedom and democracy. We are told what to think about, how to think about it, and what to feel outraged about, while we still feel proud of our freedom; we even commiserate with the people devoid of freedom in places where democracy doesn’t exist. We don’t realize that we live in a rotten oligarchy that has nothing to do with democracy.

Going back to Plato’s ideas of government which considered democracy a failed system because it quickly leads to an increased misunderstanding in the exercise of freedom and extreme consumerism, we find that the US has arrived at this chaotic state.

A good example of the extent of our misunderstanding of freedom is our acceptance of the system that rules us, what we could call in the present context, savage capitalism. Laws don’t matter for the rich; their only interest is to increase their profits by avoiding their responsibilities to society, like being fair to workers and respecting the environment. Excessive wealth inequality in a society allows for an unequal exercise of freedom that benefits always the same people at the top, leading to tyranny.

Parents Bringing the Ashes of their Children to protest Exorbitant Insulin Prices

In this system, a corporation has the ‘freedom’ to charge exorbitant amounts for a necessary drug like Insulin, just because their money can do its magic in the right places in government and assure no accountability for their greed. Banks can destroy the wealth of a majority of people by being reckless, and then get rewarded by a bought government who will bail them out while allowing the ruin of the average person causing the loss of their house, pension or job. In this system, politicians can pass a budget that spends $700 B for the military including a new branch for war in space, and gives $450 B in tax breaks to medical device manufacturers, race track owners and similar “special interests”, while the people are distracted by the media with the scandal of the moment.

After reviewing the four types of government according to Plato, I think that he would consider our system a hybrid of democracy, oligarchy and the worst type of profit-seeking and war-mongering timocracy, that has degenerated into a tyranny of corporations. The tyrant is not just one capricious and ruthless person; it is the whole system and its elites. When there is no accountability for the moneyed interests, tyranny ensues. So maybe at the top of the front page of the Washington Post, it should say: corporate tyranny dies in darkness, instead of democracy dies in darkness.

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