Plato would have run a SuperPAC?

In The Republic, Plato warned of the dangers of unchecked democracy, in that it can open the door to chaos, tyrants and demagogues.

It is an apt warning in the midst of one of the muddiest campaign cycles in American history.

Plato’s caution was that democracy is vulnerable to the manipulation of those who care more for personal power than public good.

USA Today ran an op-ed this week arguing, nominally in the name of Plato’s Republic, that campaigns financed by small donors are bad for democracy because they encourage a turn to base demagoguery in order to bring in the big bucks. Of course, as Charlie Pierce points out, “Plato didn’t say fck-all about campaign finance.” Pierce nicely mocks the central argument of the op-ed, namely that the grassroots campaigns of Obama and Sanders lead directly to the media circus that is the Trump campaign (with or without small donors), but I want to add a few words about Plato.

I am not an expert on Plato or his political philosophy; in fact, one of my biases is that I dislike Plato. However, I do know something about politics in the ancient world. The editorialist is not wrong that Plato was not fond of democracy as a form of government, and he even provides a link to a website that has the citation to the Republic that, by and large, offers an accurate representation of the perils of democracy. Nor is Plato alone in this, with the cycle of constitutions (Monarchy-Oligarchy-Democracy-Monarchy) appearing in the work of Aristotle and elsewhere. It reaches a particularly full form in the start of Polybius’ Book 6, where he argues that there are six varieties of constitutions, each form having a higher and lower variation and the cycle going from one viable type and degenerating into a corrupted type. The solution for Polybius, anyway, is a mixed constitution that will be stable. Plato has a less practical solution to provide stability by reordering society.

The contention made in the editorial about SuperPACs is that the large donors can hold a candidate accountable for his or her actions—-going so far as to say that:

if a campaign is wasting money on frivolous expenses, they can object. If a candidate says something overly hateful or extreme, they can walk. They often serve as an executive board of sorts, challenging campaigns to act worthy of their investment.

Without explicitly saying so, the author offers SuperPAC donors as the Guardians of Plato’s city. He admits that this is not a popular argument, but it is blatantly in favor of oligarchy. If one were to take Plato’s utopian society where everyone is treated according to his or her capabilities and serves the proper purpose, including the absolute impeccability of the guardians this might be viable. As it stands, not so much.

The editorial is designed to be anti-Trump, arguing that there needs to be a check on demagoguery. Fine, though Trump certainly benefits from the bottom line of cable companies that give him oodles of free airtime, too. What this piece misses is the underlying assumptions of ancient political thought. The fact that Trump is not accountable to donors would have been considered one of his greatest strengths. Trump might be the best demagogue of the current crop and therefore resembles Cleon, supposedly the bloodiest man in Athens, but the problem elites had with Cleon was that he used public funds to effectively purchase the support of the masses, not the other way around. In a similar vein, the problem with oligarchs is that they create laws that support oligarchs and have a tendency to punish citizens who stand in their way. If one is to look to Plato, it may be appropriate to look a bit more widely. Plato came from a wealthy aristocratic family and his relative Critias was the most vicious of the Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchic board that ruled Athens in the immediate aftermath of the Peloponnesian War.

So would Plato have favored SuperPACs? Quite possibly, in all likelihood, but because they would have benefited him as a political being, not because they ensured high-minded election cycles,

Anecdotal History

It is easy to look at Archaic Greece or the mythic history of ancient societies and be incredulous at the role ascribed to the nomothete, whether those laws given are the product of divine fiat (Moses), or the reasoning of one wise man (Lycurgus or Solon). Even Polybius, who notes that Rome came to its ideal constitution through trial and error seems to buy the idea that Lycurgus crafted the Spartan state that, until it decomposed, required only minimal modification. It is possible to look at the gradual development of governmental systems and, for instance, how Plutarch’s biography of Lycurgus collapses a century or two of constitutional development into a single lifetime, sometime back before living memory. The one magnetic personality attracts this accreditation for the development of something, and may have been canonized at a time when the situation they are credited with is either in place or on the wane–i.e. when there is a compelling interest to explain a particular state of affairs and then perpetuated or expanded upon at later times for similar reasons.

These developments are themselves fascinating and worth studying on their own merits, but a True Story version of institutional or legal history would seem to require making the history dull by excising the characters. Anecdotes reveal something about the larger theme and are particularly prominent in biography–as Plutarch says in his life of Alexander, a quip or small act can be more revealing as to the character of the person than are the great battles.† Likewise, one of the ways to humanize a big idea is to use a person (sometimes through a series of vignettes) as a case study.

The class I TA for uses a reader does this through a pair of individuals who share a number of characteristics, but differ on one or two key issues. One of these pairs was Ellen Richards and Emma Goldman, trying to explain various approaches to the position of women in the 1910s. The short answer identifications on the last exam (who/what/where/when/how/significance) included Emma Goldman. There were some really good answers, though only a few people noted her immigrant status and fewer still discussed her anarchism and deportation. Instead, anecdotally at least, students gravitated toward her role in support of women’s rights, protections for homosexuality, and her thoughts on birth control. The most common answer given for her significance was “without E.G., we wouldn’t have birth control today.” I suspect that this was, to an extent, a cop-out answer when nothing else became immediately evident– [[we read about her so she’s important, they didn’t have x then, but we do now and she supported it, ergo…]], but I do not believe that the answer is merely the product of stress-induced, lazy test logic or an inability to grasp the nuance of historical process (though the former should not be totally dismissed, either).

A chronological timeline is misleading and barring a tardis‡ coming for you or a wealthy billionaire scientist, etc, there really only is the present, the past exists only in physical remnants and memory. The former decay, the latter are notoriously flawed. I suspect that the process by which the development of the current state of affairs–particularly where one has incomplete information–are collapsed into a single actor are completely natural. This doesn’t mean that the answer was correct in the most basic historical sense, but neither is the “modern mind” with a glut of facts and rationality immune to the perpetuation of these myths. Sure, this itself is just one anecdote, but it is still something worth thinking about instead of, say, dismissing it as a primitivism that needs to be indoctrinated away and forgotten. Each has its place and time.

† How historical anecdotes are is open to debate, however.

‡ note, I do not watch Dr. Who.