Plato was not a big fan of democracy. He felt that handing decision-making and elections over to the people would result in government by and for the lowest common denominator.
Various recent elected governments in Australia and elsewhere certainly give empirical credence to Plato’s view: he would feel justifiably vindicated. Vindication two and a half thousand years late is better than no vindication at all.
Plato’s solution to good governance was the philosopher king: a member of a ruling elite who would rule according to the principles of philosophy for the good of all. The problem with this theory, of course, is that there just aren’t enough philosopher-kings to go around.
Democracy, then, is the next best system. Like any system it is comprised of many integrated elements, and where one fails, all fail. Where we have failed recently is in basic engagement with the political process. An apathy borne of the view that it doesn’t matter who one votes for, you’ll still end up electing a politician. The view that nothing changes so why bother voting for change.
This is the basic paradox underpinning the Platonic critique of democracy. Nothing changes so people don’t change their vote so nothing changes …
The system, that is the democratic process, doesn’t change. What does change is how we, the people, interact with it. In other words, the system ain’t broke, it’s the operators that are the problem.
Our democracy has become moribund, mired down in the minutiae of partisan squabbling and short-term Band-Aids to long-term issues. In order to create a vibrant democracy that addresses real social and environmental issues we (the operators) need to break out of our cynicism and reboot the system.
Rather than shying away from the Big Issues, voters must engage robustly with and within the democratic process and demand change where change is needed: issues for the 21st century. Our democracy is stuck in the 20th century for one reason only: we have allowed it to stall there.
Political engagement is not a matter of “being interested in politics.” It is being interested in the issues that comprise politics, and those are the issues that comprise society. Political engagement is social engagement. Can we afford to leave that up to the lowest common denominators that we elect?