Philosophy, Democracy and the Demagogue

Or how Plato can help us deal with Donald Trump:

Professor Angie Hobbs

24th March 2017

Angie Hobbs is the first academic to be appointed Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy in the UK (if not the world). With demagoguery on the rise Professor Hobbs believes it is imperative to keep in mind the wisdom of ancient greek philosophers, such as Plato, who themselves lived in tumultuous times.

After defining ‘democracy’ (rule by the people) and ‘demagoguery’ (leading of the people, often manipulatively), Professor Hobbs explored why she regards the ‘will of the people’ to be such a misleading term.

Who are ‘the people’ exactly? Everyone in a state or group? Everyone who can vote? Everyone who did vote? Or only those who voted for the winning side? It is dangerous to equate some or all of the electorate with ‘the people’ as a whole since this implies that those who did not or could not vote, or those who voted for the losing side, are not part of the people.

‘The majority’ is another term, which warrants further scrutiny since it is not as fixed as it may at first appear. Following election individual voters may have a change of heart. Also the composition of the electorate is in a state of flux: new voters come of age and others die, for instance. Such changes could produce a different majority outcome.

Clearly it would be impractical to have constant elections to take account of possible shifting majorities. Nevertheless, opined Hobbs, it is important to recognise that a democratically elected government may often not be supported by the majority of even the electorate – let alone the populace – for most or indeed all of its duration. Which begs the question, what does ‘rule’ by the electorate really mean?

Is ‘rule’ no more than a ballot on a particular day? On the contrary, urged Hobbs, the intellectual foundations of liberal democracy recognise that each individual person has the right to a voice and to be heard. A ballot should, therefore, be seen as playing an important role in an on-going conversation in which citizens – regardless of whom they voted for or even if they are of electoral age – can take part. Thus it is more accurate to refer to the ‘wills of persons’, than the ‘will of the people’.

True ‘rule’, Plato controversially claimed, can only take place if each individual ‘ruler’ (or voter), acts on well-informed, deliberative rational choice. Those who don’t are at risk of being manipulated by an opportunistic demagogue, who, claiming that only they truly understand the ‘will of the people’, are elected to power and then proceed to subvert democracy into tyranny. Plato depicted just such an alarming chain of events in Republic 8 (562a-569c). It makes for a sobering read.

In terms of Plato’s analysis the United States is at a turning point, said Hobbs. Now is the time to heed Plato’s warning and stand up for liberal democracy in every peaceful way imaginable.

Thanks to Ingrid Marshall for this report.