Plato said that democracy and tyranny can be natural bedfellows. Sometimes we see it happen.
The Trump victory, and the general disaster for Democrats, was the victory of ignorance, critics moan.
Writing in Foreign Policy, Georgetown’s Jason Brennan called it “the dance of the dunces” and wrote that “Trump owes his victory to the uninformed.”
New York Times columnist Neil Irwin noted the unprecedented list of inexperts and political novices filling out Trump’s administration. These include Chicago Cubs owner Todd Ricketts as deputy secretary of the Commerce Department. Irwin observes that “the Trump transition’s news release announcing the appointment cites the Ricketts family’s success in building the Cubs into a World Series winner.” This has led to a steady stream of apocalyptic warnings from Irwin’s colleague, the esteemed economist Paul Krugman, who, among other things, has declared this is “How Republics End.”
For liberals, Trump’s victory was the triumph of prejudice, bigotry and forces allied against truth and expertise in politics, science and culture at large. Trump brandishes unconcern for traditional political wisdom and protocol – much less facts – like a badge of honor, and his admirers roar with glee. His now famous rallies, the chastened media report, are often scary, sometimes giving way to violence, sometimes threatening to spark broader recriminations and social mayhem. This is a glimpse of how tyrants rise to power, some political minds worry; this is how tyrants enlist the support of rabid masses, and get them to do their bidding.
For the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Rancière, however, the Trump victory provides a useful reminder of the essential nature of democracy – a reminder of what precisely makes it vibrant. And liable to lapse into tyranny at once.
Rule by the rabble
In “The Republic,” Plato says that democracy and tyranny are natural bedfellows. Among the various types of political constitutions he ranks, aristocracy is at the top – specifically, a government ruled by philosopher kings. A more realistic goal is timocracy, or military rule, which is preferable to oligarchy, or rule by the rich. At the bottom of Plato’s list are democracy and tyranny. Democracy giving way to tyranny is the logical transition – and constant flirtation, according to Plato.
Democracy is rule by the rabble, in Plato’s view. It is the rule by the lowest common denominator. In a democracy, passions are inflamed and proliferate. Certain individuals may take advantage of and channel the storm of ignorance, Plato feared, and consolidate power out of a desire to serve their own interests.
As Rancière explains, there is a “scandal of democracy” for Plato: The best and the high born “must bow before the law of chance” and submit to the rule of the inexpert, the commoner, who knows little about politics or much else.
Merit ought to decide who rules, in Plato’s account. But democracy consigns such logic to the dustbin. The rabble may decide they want to be ruled by one of their own – and electoral conditions may favor them. Democracy makes it possible that someone who has no business ruling lands at the top. His rule may prove treacherous, and risk dooming the state. But, Rancière argues, this is a risk democracies must take. Without it, they lack legitimacy.
The necessity of chance
Rancière maintains people more happily suffer authority ascribed by chance than authority consigned by birth, merit or expertise. Liberals may be surprised about this last point. According to Rancière, expertise is no reliable, lasting or secure basis for authority. In fact, expertise soon loses authority, and with it, the legitimacy of the state.
For one thing, voters know that experts are not superhuman. They are liable to temptation and greed – including the desire for power. Experts still make mistakes. They should not be heeded instinctively, and unquestioningly trusted with power, but suspected because they feel entitled.
What abuses of power might their sense of entitlement allow, especially when they look down their noses at the boorish masses? What’s more, in a state like ours, where the people are accustomed to freedom, they will instinctively bridle at the notion that they should defer to those who know simply because they know.
In a state devoted to upholding the principle of equality – as a democracy does – chance is the proper and only foundation of authority. As such, Rancière maintains, liberal critics of democracy have lost faith in equality – if they had it to begin with. These critics reveal they don’t really believe in equality, and the equal chance to rule, but think themselves superior.
But they must deign submit to the rule of Donald Trumps, on occasion, who cavort with reality TV stars and flirt with shirtless autocrats. Ironically, Rancière maintains, if we fail to affirm our essential equality, the notion that anyone can rule – even a man with the distinctly un-American name Barack Hussein Obama – then government lacks requisite authority. That is to say, it lacks requisite respect from the people, who, in this democracy, still believe anything is possible; people who believe the system is still fluid, and not irreparably corrupted. Anyone can rise to temporarily occupy the office of the president.
Expertise ossifies into entitlement, if not in the eyes of officeholders, then surely in the eyes of the ruled. For many, Hillary Clinton represented such reprehensible, and corrupted, entitlement. The rule of chance built into democracy, provided it is honored and active, destroys entitlement periodically. This is the necessary lifeblood of democracy, Rancière suggests.
In that light, the Trump victory may prove to reaffirm our democracy – though that hardly seems his intent – by energizing all its participants, those encouraged by the election and those terrified by it. And democracy is only properly vibrant if everyone is engaged, invested and paying attention. When this is not the case, and we cede control to experts, that is aristocracy.
Rancière is no fan of Plato’s disdain for democracy, but he agrees that democracy necessarily runs the risk of slipping into tyranny. The point for Rancière is that there is no other option. Chance is the most enduring foundation of governmental legitimacy and authority. All other bases of authority, like violence, persuasion – wealth and expertise – wear out, and then states die.
Chance may deliver hungry autocrats and pliable masses, on occasion – but this is a sign that democracy is operating as it should. This is, Rancière wants us to know, its natural course. Liberals, bemoaning the triumph of ignorance, would do well to recognize this, stop their hand-wringing and double down on opposition. If some decide they cannot abide the dunces, turn away in disgust, cede control or flee the scene, then tyranny is their just desert.