Plato argues that the best form of government is rule by a single person, a philosopher-king, who knows what Justice is. His argument is simple. We need someone who knows about medicine to treat us, so too, should subjects demand that the ruler knows about statesmanship. Such a person, Plato said, would have to be forced to rule; anyone wanting the job, is not fit for it.
Plato lived in the first democratic society, a city-state ruled by the male property owners of Athens. He disliked democracy, perceiving it to be rule by the mob, with emergent leaders inflaming people’s passions. These politicians are pretenders, he thought, who had a knack for persuading others to serve their need for pompous self-glorification.
Plato could not imagine societies as complex as ours today. A few hundred people in Athens were the influential citizens who spoke at the assemblies and charted the direction of the government. Votes, in Athens, were called on every major issue and raised hands were counted. Thousands attended the assemblies. The votes were final. Plato, like Socrates before him, enjoyed proving that these speakers (politicians and their teachers) did not know what they were talking about.
In our form of democracy, we have three branches of the government, each serving different functions (executive, judicial, and legislative) providing checks and balances, thereby limiting the power of any individual or political group. Unfortunately, unjust people learn how to wield power inside and outside the government. Inside the government, quite a few play the power game well, advancing their own interests by building coalitions and attacking other positions simply for the sake of promoting the power of their group. Outside the government, quite a few “fools” speak about matters they know little about. They appeal to the herd instinct, hoping to derail the train or hoping to railroad those making successful cattle calls.
Plato’s fear was that an ignorant few could lead a mob using rhetoric rather than logic. But, today, rule by the mob is not what we should fear most. Today, it is unlikely that anyone, no matter how skilled, can unify our diverse populous. The days of the rule by mob, which wasn’t the worst form of government according to Plato, died when technologies supercharged our democracy.
We live in an age of digitally supercharged communication. The mob is never really unified; it is fragmented because so many persuasive messages are constantly being sent through multiple media channels chosen by individuals to reflect their own biases. The entire spectrum of views is espoused in the digital world. The place for learning, the Agora in Plato’s time, no longer exists. The free and open market for the consideration of ideas has been changed by electronic communication. Today we have markets for the sale of ideas and profit goes to the Ruler. There is no Assembly where everyone considers if the proposals are well thought out. Time is too compressed to consider the worth of all the proposed ideas. The checks and balances, once clearly delineated in our democracy, have morphed into polarized pushes and pulls between many factions, most of which are ignorant or intolerant of the views of others. The differences of opinions in this country were at one time debated, and while the debates were often heated and politics played a role, decisions were ultimately made and accepted grudgingly by the majority of the people. But in the digitally supercharged world, the debate never ends. The same arguments are repeated over and over again. Those who lose a debate communicate to like-minded people and plot to relaunch the debate, seeking total victory, no matter what the consequences. No decision is ever final. The human connections we share in real world are lacking in the digitally supercharged world. Plato’s democratic Mob has become “the electronic mobs.” Multiple groups contend for space in the new digital public square. With so much digital chatter being created, citizens typically only hear those who share their opinions or notice those who are shriller, sexier, or stronger.
The electronic genie is out of the bottle. There are no philosopher-kings. If one came along, she or he would probably suffer the same fate as Socrates. We’d turn on any leader who had our best interest at heart. This betrayal has happened repeatedly in human history.
In some ways the digitally supercharged democracy is democracy is its ideal form. Think about it. Everyone has the opportunity to speak freely. Every view can be proposed. All classes can participate. We are equal behind the cloak and clatter of the keyboard. But there are downsides. The power of reason is no longer forceful. Good character is replaced by ideological purity. What matters to the mobs is not the ends the leaders seek but the number of followers the leader has. More people know what Justin Beiber had for breakfast than what cases are before the Supreme Court. The result is that individuals know a little about a lot, rather than a lot about a little. We are overwhelmed by the quantity of irrelevant, unimportant, and inaccurate information. The political leaders of ever shifting mob sentiment who have maneuvered people through these treacherous landscapes, know precisely what every segment of the population is thinking as they dissect the polls and counts hits. Although we now have free speech times ten, the right of assembly times one thousand, and the ability to vote times ten thousand, the People’s power has been diminished.
We no longer debate public policies in a way that everyone hears. We seek entertainment. We no longer speak face-to-face. We tweet, message, instragram, pin, like, and snapchat. We live in electronic worlds, connected by apps, where we communicate more with people we have never met than we do with our own families. We become anxious whenever our wifi is out.
We can associate ourselves with whomever we please in the digital world. We can find information rapidly and on a scale unimaginable a few decades ago. But, for all its virtues, the supercharged democracy may fail to bring us peace, prosperity, and happiness. Instead of freedom, it provides for exponentially expanded opportunities for division. Plato’s democratic mob may splinter into anarchy.
Why the lengthy reflection about the state of the nation and the digitally supercharged democracy? There’s a two word answer: Donald Trump. A synonym for these frightening words is Ted Cruz. These two men use emotionally charged rhetoric to temporarily turn splinter factions into a mob large enough to win an election. They espouse a style of rule without compromise. They play on people’s fears and prejudices and promise the world. Perfect anti-interpersonal communication role models. Insult others, don’t listen to anyone, focus on your own ego, seek power no matter what the consequences. Let’s vote: Anarchy Anyone?