Plato, one of the earliest thinkers and writers about democracy, predicted that letting people govern themselves would eventually lead the masses to support the rule of tyrants.
When I tell my college-level philosophy students that in about 380 B.C. he asked “does not tyranny spring from democracy,” they’re sometimes surprised, thinking it’s a shocking connection.
But looking at the modern political world, it seems much less far-fetched to me now. In democratic nations like Turkey, the U.K., Hungary, Brazil and the U.S., anti-elite demagogues are riding a wave of populism fueled by nationalist pride. It is a sign that liberal constraints on democracy are weakening.
To philosophers, the term “liberalism” means something different than it does in partisan U.S. politics. Liberalism as a philosophy prioritizes the protection of individual rights, including freedom of thought, religion and lifestyle, against mass opinion and abuses of government power.
What went wrong in Athens?
In classical Athens, the birthplace of democracy, the democratic assembly was an arena filled with rhetoric unconstrained by any commitment to facts or truth. So far, so familiar.
Aristotle and his students had not yet formalized the basic concepts and principles of logic, so those who sought influence learned from sophists, teachers of rhetoric who focused on controlling the audience’s emotions rather than influencing their logical thinking.
There lay the trap: Power belonged to anyone who could harness the collective will of the citizens directly by appealing to their emotions rather than using evidence and facts to change their minds.
Manipulating people with fear
In his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” the Greek historian Thucydides provides an example of how the Athenian statesman Pericles, who was elected democratically and not considered a tyrant, was nonetheless able to manipulate the Athenian citizenry:
“Whenever he sensed that arrogance was making them more confident than the situation merited, he would say something to strike fear into their hearts; and when on the other hand he saw them fearful without good reason, he restored their confidence again. So it came about that what was in name a democracy was in practice government by the foremost man.”
Misleading speech is the essential element of despots, because despots need the support of the people. Demagogues’ manipulation of the Athenian people left a legacy of instability, bloodshed and genocidal warfare, described in Thucydides’ history.
That record is why Socrates – before being sentenced to death by democratic vote – chastised the Athenian democracy for its elevation of popular opinion at the expense of truth. Greece’s bloody history is also why Plato associated democracy with tyranny in Book VIII of “The Republic.” It was a democracy without constraint against the worst impulses of the majority.
‘Our democracy is what’s at stake’: Pelosi shreds Trump in blistering endorsement of impeachment
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Thursday endorsed drafting articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump and made the case that the president's actions made him a threat to American democracy.
During her address, Pelosi explained that the stakes in impeaching Trump were the very foundations of American government.
"Our democracy is at stake," she said. "The president leaves us no choice but to act because he is trying to corrupt, once again, the election for his own benefit."
The also said that Trump's attempts to shake down the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden were "a profound violation of the public trust" that has "seriously violated the Constitution."
InfoWars made up lies about Islamic community to help Alex Jones generate more traffic: former writer
On Thursday, The New York Times reported that Josh Owens, a former staffer at the fringe conspiracy theory site InfoWars, admitted that his team knowingly promoted fake stories about Islamberg, a rural religious community founded by mostly Black Muslims from New York City on the border between New York and Pennsylvania.
According to Owens, InfoWars initially conducted interviews with people near the community, hoping that they would tell horror stories about a group of militants hellbent on enslaving America under Sharia law. Instead, locals described the people of Islamberg as "kind, generous neighbors." This wasn't a story Alex Jones would have been able to sell to his far-right conspiracy theorist audience — so, Owens said, his team decided to just lie.
‘A president the world is laughing at’: Biden releases new ad attacking Trump — and it’s getting widely praised
Former Vice President Joe Biden, still the Democratic frontrunner, Wednesday night released an ad that has many people talking – it's already been viewed 5.4 million times – and it's getting praise from even non-Biden supporters.
The ad uses footage from the viral video of world leaders at NATO mocking President Donald Trump – a video that upset the American president so greatly he left London early, canceling a press conference and bilateral meeting, to head back to D.C.