Friday, October 12, 2012

The Undecided Voter: Or Why Plato Hated Democracy

Mitt Romney is right: 47% of Americans will never vote for a Republican. But another 47% will never vote for a Democrat like Obama.  That's means that this extremely important election will basically be decided by the votes about about 6% of Americans.

This wouldn't be so bad of these 6% were the wisest, most politically astute, most intelligent individuals in our country.  Unfortunately, they are what has come to be known as "low-information voters" -- people who are either too lazy or too apathetic to adequately inform themselves about the issues facing our country and the differences between the two candidates running for office this year.

Some political pundits have celebrated undecided voters as being somehow more discerning and contemplative than those of us who know damn well who we are planning to vote for this year.  But I for one find it very troubling that the votes of the most politically ignorant among us count more than the votes of those who have actually taken the time and trouble to study the positions and records of those running for President.  So, instead of celebrating the undecided voter this year as paragons of civic virtue, let's just call them what they really are (in Bill Maher's terminology, not mine): ignorant dipshits.  

Actually, the Philosopher Plato believed that democracy itself was the problem.  When political decisions are made by those who don't have the proper knowledge, training, and expertise, the end result can only be harmful to society.  That's why he had his special elite -- his Philosopher-Kings -- be responsible for running the society.  These men and women would live a spartan-like existence, uncontaminated by the lure of filthy lucre, and would have the vision of the Good (not your good or my good, but THE GOOD) to guide them as they rule.

Now, very few people in contemporary society would probably support the idea of a political aristocracy led by a small philosophical elite.  But Plato's critique of democracy -- government by those who really don't have the knowledge or temperament to govern themselves -- is worth considering, especially in our own society, where our democratic institutions seem to be in crisis. 

The solution, however, is not to eradicate democracy, which may be not be the most perfect system of government, but is certainly the best of all those that have been tried.  I tend to agree with Thomas Jefferson, when he wrote, "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion."

If Jefferson is right, the solution to our own political malaise is to better educate Americans -- that is, to provide as many of our fellow citizens as possible with the knowledge and wisdom they need to exercise prudent self-governance.  What we need, in other words, is for the vast majority of our citizens to become Plato's philosopher kings and queens, and to have a vision of the good that can help guide our country through the 21st century.

Of course, this is almost an impossible goal.  When you consider those millions of undecided voters out there and millions more that are simply focused on their own economic self-interests, you have to wonder whether true government by the people (as opposed to the fictitious sort that we currently have in our own country) could ever be possible.

Hence Plato's wholesale rejection of democracy as a viable political system.

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