Yet again, Americans are being forced to choose between two candidates that don’t quite represent the ideals of the common citizen. There’s Donald Trump who is openly against liberal values, and plans to use the government as a tool to achieve whatever aims he sees fit. Then we have Hillary who, in the eyes of many, represents the established ruling class. In The Republic, Plato outlines a very similar situation and explains how a democracy can easily be taken over by a tyrannical leader.
We must pay attention to our history because, in the words of philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” America is about progress, we can no longer afford to waste time repeating the mistakes of the past. In the spirit of continuing our march forward into prosperity, let’s recap a bit of history.
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The foundation of America was based on the rejection of authority. Colonists originally left Great Britain because they lacked personal and religious freedom. Great Britain tried to maintain control over the new world through taxes and other political trappings. After years of taxation without representation, the colonists rebelled against the authority and forever earned their place as the land of the free. This set the stage for America to test out a an ancient Greek style of government, democracy.
Plato acknowledges the ideals of a Democratic society as a place with, “liberty and freedom of speech in plenty” which creates the “greatest variety of individual character.” As this great experiment has gone on, we are beginning to see the flaws of democracy. Plato points out that when a society gives power to the majority our leaders become easily corruptible.
Democracy encourages individuals to live out their desires, whether they are productive or not. It may be commendable for the individual, but not for the political leader. Plato writes:
“Democracy with a grandiose gesture sweeps all [norms] away and doesn’t mind what the habits and background of its politicians are; provided they profess themselves the people’s friends, they are duly honored.”
We see this with voters who support a presidential candidate because they feel like the candidate is someone they could sit down and have a beer with.
Many Trump and Hillary supporters have something in common: they look at their persona rather than their politics. Trump has sold himself as a conservative’s ally. Supporters do not care about Trump’s habits or background; they rally behind him because he is their friend. For example, Trump recently backtracked from his statement about the total ban on Muslims. When supporters of the total ban were asked about this flip flop they simply said, “so what?” They just want him in office, no matter what he says — this is exactly what Plato is warning us about in The Republic.
The same argument applies to Hillary. People tend to forget that she supported the Iraq war and was heavily involved in the invasion of Libya. Until recently she was vocally against gay marriage. This is not even considering the recent scandals she has been involved with.
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As an educated and informed public, we should not be swayed by personalities (yet many of us are). There’s a lot of fluffy discourse we must look past to find the truth of what our leaders are actually advocating. Democracy works when people engage ideas that challenge the way things are, even if it makes people feel uncomfortable.
Hillary and Trump both claim to represent the people. Trump is often thought of being anti-establishment because of his radical conservative views. But now that he is the official Republican candidate he has flip flopped on some of his most fundamental views. The key here is not that every president must accept liberal values to represent their constituencies, but they must accept liberal values if they choose to represent democracy.
Plato argues that a democracy can only exist when the nation embodies liberal values, he writes “the mind of the citizens…in their determination to have no master they disregard all laws written or unwritten.” We see this with the rejection of war, the rejection of police power, resistance against government surveillance, and liberation from race and gender norms. The rejection of authority will always create a conflict between the two classes, the ruling and the ruled.
The ruling class, in their attempt to resist liberalism, rally behind a charismatic leader, a leader that Plato claims “is the root from which tyranny invariably springs.” Both Hillary and Trump represent the values of the established class, therefore they will always be at odds with pure conceptions of liberty and democracy.
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Whether it’s Hillary or Trump, a growing number of Americans seem to be realizing that neither candidate truly represents the values of a liberal society. Yes, Democracy is flawed, but it’s a heck of a lot better than Tyranny. If we don’t take seriously the lessons of history, we can very quickly plunge ourselves into a dark and dismal situation. Plato describes precisely the process of how a Democracy is corrupted into Tyranny, and we are certainly on the exact path that Plato is describing. Therefore, for those who wish to keep liberty alive, we must take heed the warnings of the ancients and work to prevent the one thing America has tried to resist since its conception — the tyrannical ruler.
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