“The cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy. It is the only dictator that free man acknowledges. It is the only security that free man desires.” -Mirabeau B. Lamar
Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously asserted that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This oft-cited line bolstered the resolve of the Civil Rights activists in the 1960s, reflecting a worldview in which humankind has been and continues to move linearly ahead towards some ideal of a perfectly just society. While this outlook is understandable in the context of the various progressive movements of the era, continuing to hold such a belief as a given in today’s world is not only incorrect, but even dangerous. There is no reason to suppose that some nameless force is driving humanity to progress; one need only to observe the vast difference in standard of living in Afghanistan from a half century ago versus today to realize that civilizations are absolutely capable of moving “backwards.” There is also no reason to suppose that contemporary democratic societies are somehow immune from the threats of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, and to assume that the “arc of the moral universe” will insulate us from these dangers only leaves us all the more vulnerable to them. Democracy is neither inevitable nor invulnerable; the law of entropy will bend systems against free democracy without continuous input of aggressive civic energy. However, this same energy has been used to the detriment of free society when it has been co-opted by groupthink, nationalism, or zealotry. Therefore, the critical underpinning of a free society is not civic engagement, but, more foundationally, education. Democracy dies in the darkness of ignorance; only the light of education can dispel those shadows.
The defense of democracy begins with a defense of the dignity of the human person. Social existence is predicated on a constant tension between equality and hierarchy; as human communities acquire resources, they must also distribute them, leading to questions of power and autonomy. Did the acquisition of these resources involve all, many, or few of the group? Should they be allocated proportional to the energy investment of each person, according to the needs of each, or strictly equally? Certainly the answers to these questions are neither self-evident nor inarguable, but the way in which each group addresses these issues has significant implications for power structures in the community, and consequently into the way in which the relative worth of the individual is measured.
Although a thorough examination of the diverse answers human societies have invented to address this question is beyond our current scope, democracy in various forms has been adopted (and subsequently abandoned) often through history and around the world as one solution. Democracy develops from a cultural worldview that sees human beings as being roughly equal in value, at least in contrast to societies such as ancient Egypt which viewed pharaohs as being divine rather than merely human. In the West, the centuries-long domination of Christian thought entrenched this idea; if every human is created by God and bears the divine image, then every human life is dignified to a certain degree. The humanist thinkers of the Enlightenment, despite departing from Christian philosophy in many aspects, arrived at similar conclusions through different reasoning. Although they were not the only cultures to develop representative structures of government, it was to some degree a natural progression for European societies and their colonial descendants to begin introducing elements of decentralized political power even in large nation-states. However, it is worth noting that, until the late 19thcentury, actual political power was doled out sparingly and grudgingly to categories of people outside traditional power structures. In the United States, for example, only white, landowning males over the age of 21 were initially allowed to vote, and extension of suffrage to other groups only came with activism, controversy, and some degree of political upheaval. Furthermore, where more radical democracies were demanded all at once, such as during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, resistance was (and continues to be) fierce, and the establishment and perpetuation of communist democracies involved huge amounts of suffering and violence.
It is this resistance to democratic ideals that should concern us here. Why, if all humans possess a God-given soul, should black Americans have been initially excluded from the political system? Why was ownership of land one of the early requirements for political enfranchisement? The answer lies in the social dynamics of resource control and conservation of power. It seems to be a law of sociology that human societies develop hierarchies: of competence, of wealth, of knowledge, and of political power. Even in groups often thought of as strongly egalitarian, such as pre-Industrial hunter-gatherer groups, elders are revered, usually because of the wisdom gained through experience – that is, they sit in a position at the top of a hierarchy, in this case one of knowledge, although their position is not absolute.
Hierarchies are not inherently negative; I gladly defer to my doctor’s extensive medical training in the treatment of my illnesses and ailments. However, as individuals rise within hierarchies, self-interest incentivizes those individuals to preserve what power they have, and to acquire more if possible. This leads to conflict, which escalates as the stakes rise, especially when violence, dishonesty, or deception were involved in the acquisition of this power. This is the problem of political game theory; I must always become more powerful, if only to protect myself from outside aggressions. Merely by being powerful, I now present a threat to others, who build up their own resources out of fear of being dominated by me and thus become my rivals. I must strengthen my position further still, and the whole cycle perpetuates ad infinitum until open conflict erupts. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is the classical example of this problem; with no mutual trust, neither side had any option except to become increasingly destructively powerful as a means of dominating the other and to prevent being dominated themselves.
This same phenomenon of rising stakes can manifest itself in microcosm in interpersonal power structures at any level. It was, in fact, a depressingly logical sequence of events that led to the violence perpetrated by the Bangladeshi government against student protestors last month. On its face, the intensity of the government’s response is puzzling and horrifying; after all, the initial demonstration was merely a protest calling for road safety and infrastructure repair, not a call to revolution. Nevertheless, the reaction from police and pro-government counter-activists was brutal, as students and journalists were attacked with tear gas, batons, and machetes.
One likely explanation involves the principle of escalation of consequences. According to the New York Times, the bus crash which sparked the protests
“…has come to symbolize larger problems of poor governance, nepotism and corruption. Bangladesh’s transportation sector has long operated above the law, with powerful officials either owning private bus companies or relying on bus and rickshaw drivers for political support. Transportation companies are accused of bribing the police to avoid investigation even of deadly accidents.”
If these accusations of corruption are true, then the violence against the protestors becomes darkly logical. The students and allies were angry about lax enforcement of driving safety laws and deteriorated infrastructure; but why were the laws not enforced and the potholes not filled? It seems likely that, due to rampant corruption, funds intended for roads have been grafted and misappropriated. The protest threatened to shed light on this, thus potentially exposing corrupt officials to consequences. This means that there would be strong motivation to quash these protests before full investigations brought such embezzlement to light, incentivizing a strong crackdown. However, the perpetrators of this violence were keenly aware of how their own actions were in some way unacceptable and would lead to further fallout; for this reason, street thugs were logically correct to begin attacking not only protestors, but journalists and photographers, also destroying their cameras and records. This whole sequence of events is completely consistent with the politics of power.
Simply doing away with a hierarchical power structure in favor of a voting system does not overcome these Machiavellian realities. Democracy is dangerous, insofar as the mob is fickle and easily misled by charismatic demagogues. Said Plato,
“is it not true that in like manner a leader of the people who, getting control of a docile mob, does not withhold his hand from the shedding of tribal blood, but by the customary unjust accusations brings a citizen into court and assassinate him, blotting out a human life, and with unhallowed tongue and lips that have tasted kindred blood, banishes and slays and hints at the abolition of debts and the partition of lands?”
History proves that Plato had the right of it; Adolf Hitler was able to seize power through semi-legitimate political process through a combination of charisma, fear-mongering, and efficient political organization. In our own times, a wave of authoritarian political parties and leaders are asserting themselves around the globe through similar tactics, such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Donald Trump in the United States. The advent of the internet and the ubiquitous use of social media have only increased the susceptibility of populations to propaganda. A new report published by the Rand Corporation identifies the tactics employed by Russia to subvert and co-opt public opinion to its own ends: “The Russian propaganda model is high-volume and multichannel, and it disseminates messages without regard for the truth. It is also rapid, continuous, and repetitive, and it lacks commitment to consistency.”In other words, modern democracy is manipulated through what the researchers call a “firehose of falsehood,” where half-truths, mistruths, and outright lies are propagated at such a rate as to either foment distrust and division in populations, or else to subvert trust in governments and media. Both outcomes are destructive to liberal democratic ends.
Democracy has also been justly criticized for the inescapable fact that a victory of a single vote theoretically puts nearly half of the population under the thumb of the other half; this is known as the tyranny of the majority. In modern states with large populations, this often ends up being very problematic, even disastrous, for minorities; as Benjamin Franklin is claimed to have quipped, “democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner.” Narrow elections have indeed caused significant schism in countries with far-reaching consequences. Recently, this phenomenon manifested in Great Britain’s referendum on European Union membership, with only 51.89% of British voters electing to leave the EU. Now, over 16 million British citizens who voted against Brexit must live with the economic, political, and social consequences of the secession. This election seems also to have been influenced by misinformation campaigns and techniques such as the “firehose of falsehood” described above. Discouragingly, such campaigns are highly effective because of a phenomenon known as Brandolini’s Law, or, more colloquially, the Law of Bullshit Asymmetry. Italian programmer Alberto Brandolini stated in 2013 that “the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” Anyone who has spent an afternoon in debate with a family member of a different political viewpoint will recognize the truth of this.
This all, of course, seems quite nihilistic – and that is exactly the point. Modern authoritarians and anti-democratic agents, who stand to gain much from the crystallization of hierarchies in which they hold positions of power, are well served by a narrative which posits that democracy is ineffective, unworkable, or a failed experiment. What, then, is the solution? Do we despair of the viability of democracy, giving ourselves over to increasingly authoritarian political structures? I submit that we should not, and furthermore, that we cannot. We are globally in a moment of great importance, in which we will collectively decide on the trajectory of our future. To state it plainly, democracy is in danger, and its salvation lies in education. As Nelson Mandela said, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
James Madison, chief architect of the American Constitution, identified the danger of popular ignorance to representative governments in an 1822 letter: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”How should a people go about arming themselves with this power of knowledge? First and foremost, through equal access to public education. Again we turn to Madison:
“Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty. They are the nurseries of skilful Teachers for the schools distributed throughout the Community. They are themselves schools for the particular talents required for some of the Public Trusts, on the able execution of which the welfare of the people depends. They multiply the educated individuals from among whom the people may elect a due portion of their public Agents of every description; more especially of those who are to frame the laws; by the perspicuity, the consistency, and the stability, as well as by the just & equal spirit of which the great social purposes are to be answered.”
People who are trained to critically analyze new information are less susceptible to false claims. People who are trained in psychology learn to recognize their own biases. People who are trained in sociology, history, and political science are wise to the techniques of authoritarians and demagogues. An ignorant population is malleable; an educated population is resistant to control. It is for this reason that powerful people are often hostile to education. It is also no coincidence that many of the most famous protests in recent history originated with students, and were subsequently met with violence: in the United States, the Ohio State National Guard opened fire on students at Kent State protesting atrocities of the Vietnam War in 1970; in China, the Tiananmen Square protests were met with tanks; and, of course, the recent protests in Dhaka began with students, who were met with the club and blade.
Furthermore, Madison astutely points out that institutions of learning are beneficial to the whole population, and perhaps the whole world, in that educated people develop talents and skills which are useful to the whole community. If more people are educated, there is a greater pool of talent to draw from for the civil service, making the bureaucracy more efficient; there are more scientists working toward technological or medical breakthroughs; there are more artists and musicians crafting cultural monuments and making life worth living for the rest of us. Most importantly, though, in a thinking society, every problem has a solution. Roads can be engineered to make traffic flow more safely and more efficiently. Cities can be constructed to maximize well-being of all inhabitants, improving health outcomes and community identity. Laws can be sensibly passed to keep citizens both safe and free. The long-term benefits of a highly educated, free, democratic society to the general well-being of the whole population are inestimable.
The Machiavellian approach to politics, although brutally logical, is unimaginative, and it is this lack of imagination that makes it a threat to democracy. The game of power acquisition is zero-sum, and depends upon a zero-sum worldview; i.e., for me to become greater, you must also become lesser. Such a perspective led to the atrocities of colonialism and to the major wars of the 20thcentury. However, the experience of humankind to date provides strong evidence that the contrary case is, in fact, more accurate; mutually beneficial outcomes are almost always possible, in politics, sociology, and economics. Sometimes they are not intuitive or obvious, and they are often stymied by those who have an interest in maintaining hierarchy; nevertheless, human cooperation has taken us as a species much further than competition and conflict. What makes these solutions possible is, as always, education. It requires education to imagine the possibility of non-zero-sum outcomes; to identify and solve technological and logistical problems; and to create political systems which perpetuate the circumstances necessary for the perpetuation of liberal, democratic ideals. Albert Einstein defined education “not [as]the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” It is exactly this capacity for critical thought and creativity upon which free democratic society must be built.
As highly educated populations are resistant to the ploys of dictators and authoritarians, would-be autocrats employ cunning and great energy to subvert the quality of education accessible to most of the population. “Withholding information is the essence of tyranny,” said Bruce Coville; “dictators seek to control men’s thoughts, and so they attempt to dictate science, education, and religion,” said Edwin Grant Conklin. Attempts to utilize these schemes are constant and ubiquitous, at work at all times in every society, including the most liberal and democratic. For this reason, it is not enough to be educated oneself. It is a moral obligation for the educated citizen to also participate vigorously in the political process by voting, protesting, striking, debating, and engaging their fellow citizens. This does not come easily or without consequences, sometimes lethal ones. It requires a fortitude and moral courage to speak out against populist leaders and anti-intellectuals, but it is incumbent on us all to find those within ourselves and to exhort others to do the same. American President Theodore Roosevelt, for all his flaws, knew this when he said: “it is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.”
Abi-Habib, M. (2018, August 6). Violence Intensifies as Student Protests Spread in Bangladesh. New York Times. Retrieved September 19, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/06/world/asia/bangladesh-student-protests.html
Plato. (1943).Plato’s The Republic. New York: Books, Inc.
Paul, Christopher and Miriam Matthews, The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016. https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE198.html.
Barry, W. T. & Madison, J. (1822) James Madison to W. T. Barry, August 4. August 4. [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mjm018999/.
Phil Stewart is a historian and educator based out of Texas, USA. He is an advocate of free speech and human rights, especially in marginalized communities.