Prior to the election of Donald Trump, Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece warning that America had become ripe for tyranny. In doing so, he explicitly draws on the critique of democracy first set out by Plato thousands of years ago. The same symptoms of democratic excess that Plato had diagnosed in ancient Athens, Sullivan argues, can also be found in modern American society today. Plato had held that the excesses of freedom and equality in democratic society would eventually undermine respect for authority, invert the traditional social order and create the conditions for a populist leader to overthrow the elites and seize power. This in fact was the scenario that Sullivan saw playing out on CNN and Fox News, as Trump’s campaign antics and populist rhetoric saw him become the Republican presidential candidate.
“Plato had planted a gnawing worry in my mind… about the intrinsic danger of late-democratic life. It was increasingly hard not to see in Plato’s vision a murky reflection of our own hyperdemocratic times and in Trump a demagogic, tyrannical character plucked directly out of one of the first books about politics ever written.”
Plato was the first great anti-democratic thinker, contemporaneous with the institution of democracy itself. But as Sullivan himself concedes, Plato was not clairvoyant. How is it possible that Plato’s characterization of democratic life in a small city-state of ancient Greece could so closely resemble what Sullivan calls “late-democratic life” in the mass society of 21st C. America?
In chapter two of Hatred of Democracy, Jacques Rancière asks precisely this question. And the hypothesis he proposes is that the “portrait of democratic man” drawn by critics of democracy from Plato on is actually a powerful fiction motivated by the desire to keep politics at bay (p. 38). By ”politics”, Rancière means something very specific. He does not use the word in a general sense to refer to politicians and elections and political campaigns and parties, i.e. all the things we typically associate with the practice of politics today. These things can be political in Rancière’s sense, but they do not constitute its essence. Rather, politics is what you get when all principles justifying the existing social order are called into question. And Rancière argues that it was the threat of politics in this sense that Plato sought to curtail through his anti-democratic writings.
To show this, Rancière turns to Book III of Plato’s Laws. There, the Athenian stranger and his interlocutors consider the “titles of authority” by which men claim to rule over others. Four such titles are a consequence of birth: parents rule over their children, noble families over commoners, the old over the young, and masters over slaves. A further two titles are a consequence of natural attributes: the strong rule over the weak, and the wise over the ignorant. Finally, there is a seventh title which is not a function of nature either through birth or attributes. It is the title that is bestowed through the drawing of lots, a consequence of chance or luck, which the Athenian stranger tells us is considered by some to be the most just. Allotment or the drawing of lots was the mechanism by which Athenian democracy constituted its ruling councils. And so the seventh title of authority is the one most closely associated with democracy. It is also the title through which the social order makes a radical break with the natural order, since it is neither a consequence of birth nor a consequence of natural attributes.
Now Sullivan does not refer to the Laws in his discussion of Plato. It is clear though, particularly in his discussion of the historical evolution of American democracy, that he too understands democracy as the dissolution of the link between the social and natural orders. He notes that against the intentions of the Founding Fathers, “the franchise has been extended far beyond propertied white men,” i.e. beyond titles of birth. The “elitist sorting mechanism” which had once ensured only experienced candidates and military commanders could be elected to public office, attributes which could be used to justify a title to authority based on nature, had “imploded” in the 20th C. and “nonpolitical candidates have proliferated”. Sullivan contends that even wealth is starting to lose its efficacy when it comes to determining who can hold office. This “widening of democracy” has resulted in “our increased openness to being led by anyone”. It is not yet literally a case of drawing lots; nevertheless, the idea that “anyone” can rule over anyone else points to the absence of any foundation or principle of social hierarchy. And that very absence is the advent of politics in Rancière’s sense.
Sullivan recognises that it is only on the basis of this “inclusive democracy”, i.e. politics as the absence of a foundation, that the first black president became not just imaginable but a reality. He acknowledges as an “unmitigated advance” the fact that “outsider candidates, from Obama to Trump and Sanders, have brought millions of new people into the electoral process,” and that “the inclusion of previously excluded voices helps, rather than impedes, our public deliberation.” At the same time, however, politics has resulted in a democratic culture fuelled by “feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness.” This is the portrait of democratic man we have inherited from Plato and with which Sullivan had begun his essay. Here, though, we can see how this picture is intertwined with a particular conception of politics, and not merely a sociological observation.
When Sullivan ends his essay with an appeal to Americans that the elites be restored to positions of power and influence, he is in effect calling for an end, or at least a suppression, of politics in Rancière’s sense:
“But elites still matter in a democracy. They matter not because they are democracy’s enemy but because they provide the critical ingredient to save democracy from itself…. It seems shocking to argue that we need elites in this democratic age — especially with vast inequalities of wealth and elite failures all around us. But we need them precisely to protect this precious democracy from its own destabilizing excesses.”
Note that Sullivan is not arguing that the elites are entitled to rule because of their wealth, and certainly not because they are smarter or more noble than the rest of us. It is rather that they represent a limit to politics. Their very existence seems to oppose to the idea that “anyone” might rule the idea that there are indeed people who are entitled, by some principle (whatever it may be), to rule over others. Without such a reassuring limit and foundation for democracy, Sullivan believes tyranny is inevitable. It’s just a throw of the dice away.