The Origins of Democracy Reflected In Modern Day

by Cloey Aconley

design by Aneri Vasavada

It has been said by political figures that democracy is “the worst form of government” Excluding, of course, “all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” This is taken from Winston Churchhill, after losing the 1947 British election, just months after the second world war. Democracy often leans right or left, depending on the body of voters. Despite the fact that not everyone can get it their way, democracy is universally acknowledged to be a better option than suppressing the views of the citizens through dictatorship or tyranny. But despite the fundamental belief that democracy is necessary, We live in a world where politicians are constantly twisting their words, thus utilizing language as a form of manipulation. Understanding the foundational elements of government is important when evaluating the political tolerance of world leaders today.

Following the establishment of democracy, Socrates, as portrayed in Plato’s illustrations, and Aristotle, were amongst the golden age of political philosophy. This involved nuanced discussions of the foundational elements of democracy. Socrates believed in a monolithic doctrine, this meant that one person, with their own motives and implicit biases, should instil ideology. Following this installation, everyone was expected to agree. As we know, the idea that everyone should agree is unrealistic, but Socrates had a wonderful solution to this problem; lying. He believed that the choices of government should be left to the expert, thus he formed the term “foundation of myths” to appease the population. He believed that social conscience was up to the expert to craft, and if necessary, the government should be able to lie in order to bring about their ideals. At this point in time, the average citizen didn’t have access to education and thus was mostly unaware of the politics at play. Maybe for that time period, the expert government was alright. But despite what was ‘ideal’ for the state, this fundamentalist belief shows that it is important to balance our views against the opposition, in order to create a more critically educated society.

Aristotle, however, viewed democracy for the people. That the best governing body constituted of opposing views, to arrive at the best compromise for everyone. This is why the Canadian house of commons relies on its oppositional body, to encourage discussion and prevent total control in parliament. These checks and balances are important when trying to limit the amount of bias present in politics. Aristotle believed that man is “by nature” a political animal, and because politics impacts our lives so directly, he believed everyone deserved a say in government. Consequently, the idea of democracy was popularised. Despite Socrates’s belief that we should be governed by experts, Aristotle countered his point by stating that having a centralized viewpoint lacked checks and balances, and the common person had a right to be represented in government.

Due to a large income gap in the US, parties often are marketed towards a demographic, catering to certain beliefs. This “marketing” of political policies was exactly what Socrates was afraid of, obscuring facts with jargon in order to gain support from the masses. He foresaw the issue of common politics dividing our society and leaned away from this. But in spite of Socrates’s semi elitist beliefs, humans remain with the ability to speak, and in turn, the ability to debate, proving that we have the tools to make educated political choices. Aristotle knew that despite what his mentor had previously stated, politicians had a moral obligation to allow mankind to exercise their political nature. Socrates was later sentenced to death on a vote from an, ironically, democratic council.

The marketing of political policy takes shape today in the form of populism, an approach to politics that “appeals to the modern person”. Alternatively, populism exists to manipulate via oversimplification. Populism is in essence, a way to harness those who are considered ‘underdogs’ and provide an alternative solution, pushing another agenda altogether. In 2018 Donald Trump addressed the crowd at one of his ‘Make America Great Again’ rallies, stating “America is winning again, and America is being respected again”. Referring to their trade agreements with Canada and Mexico. Populism can be characterized by the use of glittering generalities referring to the “success” or “prosperity” of a nation. These words are unquantifiable, and thus, offer no promises. Though trade agreements are a very serious discussion, using the term “winning” in something that was never considered a race, is inherently misleading. Populism as a manipulation tactic feeds into Socrates’s “foundation of myths” as Trump continually misguides his voting body to push for a more authoritarian, or single state-led agenda, mirroring Socrates’s ideal. Thanks to Aristotle's outline of what it meant to balance viewpoints, The US government has enough opposing courts to disallow proper authoritarianism. But even despite what Aristotle envisioned for future governments, the manufacturing of public belief through systems of democracy is still a relevant theme.

The defining difference between populism and total control (something like totalitarianism) is the ever-present reliance on electoral results. Populism is essentially upholding this “foundation of myths” as an early indicator to an aim at total control. In more extreme cases, populist government bodies can seize control of multiple courts of justice. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) has complete control of the constitutional tribunal and the national court of the judiciary and is pushing for control of the senate. This is the court responsible for verifying election results, a critical element to the democratic process. Despite facing international criticism, the party was originally voted into power by the use of populist rhetoric to alienate immigrants, while aiming to preserve the economy. This is a dangerous use of “traditional values”, often without representation in government, historically under-represented groups are left unprotected. In Poland specifically, the LGBTQ+ community has seen a steady uptake in violence over the past five years. Post modernization, Aristotle's idea of a diverse government is more important than ever. Evaluating this situation in regards to Aristotle’s original democratic model gives us the tools to understand the enormity of the problem we face within modern populism.

Even when election results are still in the picture, a populist leader will often try to deny this, undermining another democratic principle. Former President Donald Trump continually denied the results of the 2020 election and incited violence against the capital. Trump stated in his final speech “We won this election, and we won it by a landslide.” He also told his followers on Twitter to “never concede” and to “fight like hell.” Legally, these statements have immediate cause and effect, making this a direct incitement of violence, and an affront to the democratic process. This relies on the foundation of myths, in order to manipulate the democratic process. This is the reason Aristotle expressed the importance of exercising our political nature, so we do not fall victim to populist manipulation tactics.

Believing humans are political by nature is a foundational element of democracy, but in today’s world, the claim requires some modifications. Our society is much larger than a single Athenian city-state, reaching all parliamentary discussions based on a public referendum is utterly unachievable. However, we have a representative democracy, allowing us to vote for MLAs, and for them to make choices on our behalf. Canada’s representative democracy walks a fine line between the two philosophical beliefs, whilst allowing a choice in governance, political banter is left to the professionals. This accommodates the fact that a lot of people aren’t interested in politics, and would far rather vote in a representative instead of being actively involved.

In a representative democracy, we are left with a choice. We have a vote to cast, and often the words of politicians are marketed between socio-economic standing, trying to appeal to one demographic or another. Understanding the underlying philosophical beliefs behind party platforms, we as voters are able to make more informed choices.



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