(NB: Cards Against Humanity asked me to write the intro to the edition of Plato’s Republic published as part of their Trump Bug-out Bag. This is excerpted from that edition with CAH’s permission. Internal references to e.g. “Book VIII” are to Book VIII of Republic.)
In Book VIII [of Plato’s Republic], between another hamfisted explanation of an allegory and a long tale about people coming back to life and it going badly, Plato tucks a cautionary tale about the dangers of democracy descending into tyranny. Criticisms of democracy are not rare in ancient political philosophy, and it’s not like Plato is the only person in history to notice that allowing the populace to rule itself has some problems: every cane-shaking, lawn-securing generation prognosticates doom for the generation that follows. We’re perpetually one generation away from fucking it all up, and in many ways, Plato’s criticism reads like this sort of patrician prophecy. After all, the historical Socrates was sentenced to death in 399BC, roughly two decades before The Republic was written, and Plato was maybe still mad at the Athenian democracy that had ordered his teacher to die.
But Plato’s criticism stands out from other naysayers because Plato isn’t worried the next generation isn’t good enough; he doesn’t think that some military tyrant will seize power, or even that a tyrannical majority will eternally impose its will on the unlucky few. Plato is worried that democracy will work too well, giving the people exactly what they want. He worries about a democracy that will devour itself from within. And to hear the details Plato predicted from two millennia ago… well, here it goes.
As Plato tells it, the problems for democracy start because there’s no way to force the very best leaders to lead, so democracies tend toward worthless politicians who pretend to care about what the people want. Over time the populace gets used to being told that they can have everything they want, that they are utterly free to do as they please. But of course that’s just not true; there are limits to what even the most capable leaders can provide, to say nothing of the middling comb-overs and sloppy half-Windsors that democracy elects. And you can only pretend to care about or provide for the people for so long before they notice that they’re not getting what they were promised, that this democracy has not delivered perfect liberty unto them. Eventually, a frustrated populace will try to use the mechanisms of democracy — recalls, referenda, impeachments, elections — to seize power back from their elected leaders, but that doesn’t work right away. The mechanisms of democracy are sort of necessarily complicated and unwieldy — how else do you focus the will of so many people into a single government? — so they’re hard to manipulate with precision, and elected leaders have a better understanding of how to use them anyway. So you end up with this struggle between — I love how Plato puts this — “the commonplace drones and their leaders, who are like drones with stings.” Everyone is an asshole, but some of the assholes have power.
Everyone assumed democracy would express their personal will, but it turned out to express an unexceptional, lumpy aggregate of everyone’s will. No one can wrangle democracy into the shape they specifically want, which causes the people to grow impatient as well as pissed off. And here’s where it get really interesting: there doesn’t need to be some charming demagogue with impeccable timing, or a secret cabal with a sinister plan. The people don’t need protection from a tyrant; instead, they will absolutely clamor for one. Expose the people to the procedural realities of democracy for long enough, and they will demand with frothing mouths agape a strongman they can send to push through all the procedural bullshit and mediocrity. Impatient with democracy’s multi-faceted and diffuse approach to governance, the people will search high and low for a willing figure and promise to be his mob and cheer him on as he gamely destroys everything in his way; they will give him enough power to make democracy go away, and he will oblige them, and by the time the people realize their mistake, it is too late.
Maybe Donald Trump wants you to think he’s a cool sex-having man with a good penis more than he wants actual power, or maybe when he repeats over and over again that he will Build A Wall and Kick Them Out, he is trying to convince us of his sincerity. Either way, he’s not the spectre Plato was warning us about. We are. If Plato is right, we can’t just batten down the hatches and hope this one storm passes; we are the storm, and if Donald Trump won’t tear America down from within, then by God we’ll go out and find someone who will.