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A Democracy Does Not Want Great Men

In Constitutional Spotlight, Education, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight on August 4, 2010 at 11:23 am

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Democracy (3 of 3)

The title statement, arising from an anonymous English politician, immediately rubs against all our instincts. It suggests that democracy, in whatever sense we understand it, does not encourage its citizens to excel (by the way, when I say ‘man’, I mean ‘human’). However, this is to invite only one interpretation of this quote. There is ‘want’ in the sense of ‘desire’ and ‘want’ in the sense of ‘lack’. If we say that a democracy does not lack great men, we feel much more comfortable about our democracy.

Let’s also take issue with the word ‘great’. It probably does not take its literal meaning of ‘large’. Democracies have many other things to worry about than the physical stature of their electors, although I shan’t deny that it has been an influencing factor in some policy decisions. It invites ‘great’ as either something like ‘of great influence or authority’ or ‘of great moral worth’. The concept that moral living does not necessarily lead to great political clout is easily established (eg Buddha), as is the idea that political clout does not imply moral excellence (eg Adolf Hitler). Of course, they can come together (eg Martin Luther King), and we could select any number of people who are neither politically influential nor morally excellent. Moral excellence and political influence do not seem to be causally related. In an ideal world, we’d like moral people to be influential, and influential people to be moral. We should consider this at greater length, especially in the light of democracy.

Previously (On Democratic Behaviour), we established that an elected representative in a Western democracy should walk a tightrope between reporting and reflecting the views of their constituents and holding their own personal and political principles. The question is whether such men need to be ‘great’, or indeed are great by definition, and whether our understanding of democracy affects our perception of whether it is good or bad that they be great.

To return once more (and for the final time) to ancient democratic Athens: there was some confusion about this question. On the one hand, the Athenians convincingly argued that each and every of their citizens was great, or at least greater than other Greeks, because of their democratic freedoms. However, they also had a mechanism called ostracism, whereby a citizen would be forced to leave the city for ten years simply because he was wielding too much influence. This would suggest that Athenian democracy did indeed not want great men in either sense of the word; they did not lack them in a polity of 30,000 citizens, nor did they desire a really great man to remain in the city. The ostracisms were often couched in the sense that ‘this person’s influence is diminishing that of the people’, that the greatness of an individual would undermine the greatness of the citizen body. By this device, the Athenians successfully alienated almost all their most inspired statesmen: Themistocles, whose foresight saved all Greece from Persian invasion; Cimon, Athens’ most prodigious general; Alcibiades, Athens’ most brilliant statesman; Thucydides, the greatest of the ancient historians; and others besides. This policy probably caused Athens to lose the Peloponnesian War, which eventually led to democracy’s destruction at the hands of a repressive oligarchy. The issue of great men – and great men not behaving democratically; many of the ostracised went off to fight for the other side – and a quite unsophisticated approach to it led to Athens’ downfall.

The theologian C S Lewis, in his ‘Screwtape Proposes a Toast’, in which he makes suggestions in the voice of the Devil, notes that the Hellish solution would be simply to so diminish the education system that any man capable of greatness would have any delusions of greatness and excellence, in any field, let alone those of virtue and statesmanship, thrust from his mind as grossly undemocratic while he was still young. Thus we find that this Hellish sort of democracy simply does not desire great men. Interestingly, Screwtape likens this to the policy of the Greek tyrants. This invites the definition of democracy that Athens tended towards; that democracy existed simply to enact the whim of the populace, whether it was beneficial to the state or not. It falls prey to the critique in Aristotle’s question. And we have to say any system that represses excellence in all its citizens has to be bad. If democracy is beneficial to the state, it will encourage and nurture moral and/or political greatness in at least some of its citizens. However, if we swing radically in the other direction, and say of democratic leaders that they should pursue greatness even to the expense of those they represent, we will approach Marx’s ideas, that democracy should be suspended until the populace has been educated by those enlightened, which is not democracy at all. We thus have to arrive at the middle ground between these two ideas; a place where democracy finds itself desiring and not lacking great men.

The key then, is to find some way to ensure that the greatness of these great men is directed to the amelioration of the state, rather than to their own greatness, and some way to ensure that new greatness is not curtailed. This is why the situation in Plato’s Republic is so appealing on many different levels to so many; the ‘Guardians’, a class selected not by birth but by propensity for moral virtue, governing with the consent of the governed as kings, but directing their greatness (moral and political) towards everyone’s benefit. It is interesting that, even in this earliest of texts, the ideal is seen as a fusing of moral and political greatness, which is provocative in an age where we are happy for our cabinet members to be adulterous, our Prime Ministers to tell half-truths or untruths (but not lies, Mr Campbell reminds me), for our Lords to set down private and personal discussions and sell them for personal profit, and many of our elected representatives to accrue ridiculous salaries advising companies, and using their contacts, even before they leave office. But these things are easy to condemn, and much harder to fix.

It seems that our discussions have required that our political leaders be people of great humility. By this, I don’t mean walkovers; rather, people who appreciate that there are things more important than themselves and their own power or trinkets. This humility is a difficult thing to develop generally, but particularly in those who are being encouraged from a young age to be great, and especially in those who believe there is nothing greater than the pursuit of the glory of themselves. In my opinion, there are a couple of really easy strategies we can use to make it easier.

Firstly, we can carefully choose our representatives. This may mean swallowing our party line and voting for the person we genuinely believe to be the most humble. This assumes that we have a system of direct election of our representatives, with one person per constituency, and that is something that we should keep, because if we do not, it becomes more important for an MP to cosy up to his party than serve his constituents. Imagine if Parliament were filled with humble people seeking the best for the country: how much better would our government be if people thought first of others and not of themselves or of their party? To aid this consideration, it is important that a local community get to know their MP. If people used this as their primary consideration, there would be less of these MPs like Jack Dromey lifted as if by crane into ‘safe seats’. In fact, the only ‘safe seats’ would be for those MPs who consistently served with humility their constituents; this shift in voting attitude will do more to sort out the problem of ‘safe seats’ than any voting reform.

This leads onto a second point. We need to see an end to ‘professional politicians’; people who do nothing but sit around focus groups, read opinion polls, and worry about being ‘electable’. Unfortunately, the two parties in government are led by people who have been employed in political occupations for much of their life, and this is also true of the front-runners of the Labour leadership contest. That’s why the field has become increasingly younger; politicians are not doing jobs outside politics before venturing into politics. That’s why the Romans set minimum age limits on their offices of state; people had to do something else before becoming a politician. What the Romans sought to avoid, and what the UK is increasingly getting, is a less effective and less humble legislature, as those who have experience of business or education or any ‘real world’ field are marginalised by those who pander to the electorate without much knowledge of what they are doing. I do not advocate withdrawing a living wage from MPs or raising the minimum age limits for MPs or even ministers; a cultural shift will be much more effective. Incidentally, one thing we could do is vastly cut the salary of ministers so that there is limited fiscal advantage to being one, by this device hoping to ensure that only those who genuinely want to serve in such a capacity serve as ministers. The Romans tried not paying their magistrates anything, and it let to rampant corruption. Late Republican Rome was so corrupt, that they couldn’t even convict people of corruption because of excessive bribery of juries. We do not want the same in this country.

Thinking about people who actually want to serve their communities also puts paid to these politicians, who often arrive about two years before a general election to nobble the local party. Humility and desire to serve the local community will also manifest itself in specific ways. Good representatives will be able to listen to whatever members of the community ask for attention. This does not require people to come from the same social group. For instance, I am a white, male, private-school educated, affluent, well-spoken, conservative, evangelical Christian. It does make associating with a black, female, uneducated, poor, English-as-third-language, socialist, liberal Hindu difficult. But if I have enough humility, it is possible, particularly if I have built up a reputation for being principled and caring in the constituency over a significant number of years.

This is particularly important in the latest incarnation of the left, where the majority of its leading figures have been educated at exclusive schools and attended exclusive universities. The left has been the traditional voice of the poor, a group that it is very important society hear. If we find, on the left particularly, but ideally elsewhere, a group of well-educated yet humble people, who are prepared to live among the poor and experience poverty, who passionately and humbly pursue their welfare among the corridors of power, then society is in a healthy state. If, however, we find, as I increasingly think, a group of people who have no real concept of poverty or desire to talk to and serve the poor, we find candidates on the left looking increasingly hollow, as well as the poor losing their voice. That, I think, is what is happening in this Labour leadership contest; the front-runners are not as passionate as we would like about what they believe and not as humble as they need to be government. Perhaps this is part of New Labour’s victory of style and spin over substance. Or perhaps it’s part of a general problem on the left. Or perhaps I have no authority to speak on it at all.

These criticisms can be levelled at the right as well in various areas. But ultimately, if humility begins to be ingrained in our culture, however that happens, our democracy will never find itself wanting either in the sense of lacking or desiring great men. This is because if all the great men are humble, they become truly great. And our democracy will not desire greatness in its citizens, since it – and its constituent citizens  – will not desire to be great for themselves, since they are humble. But cultural shifts are hard to manage, and I doubt many people will shift their opinions simply by reading the seemingly random ramblings of some classicist blogger in the UK.

This is the last in a series of article s considering democracy and related issues. The articles beg the question, does the author actually believe in democracy? The author probably doesn’t, if he’s honest. But, insofar as it works in preserving a broadly virtuous and stable state for all its nuances, imperfections and downright flaws, it will do. To complete the quote with which I began this trilogy: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time throughout history.”

Click here to read the first article in the series.

  1. […] have begun to do) what the concepts and problems of democracy mean for our leaders in the UK. Click here to read the next article in the series. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)A […]

  2. […] the nuances of democracy, intended as something of a response to polarii’s epic summer trilogy. Do take a read of that as well, if you have a spare […]

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