Posted on September 30, by Scott Alexander [Content warning: Try to keep this off Reddit and other similar sorts of things. All the townspeople want to forgive him immediately, and they mock the titular priest for only being willing to give a measured forgiveness conditional on penance and self-reflection.
Democracies end when they are too democratic. Zohar Lazar when they are too democratic. And right now, America is a breeding ground for tyranny.
It has unsettled — even surprised — me from the moment I first read it in graduate school. The passage is from the part of the dialogue where Socrates and his friends are talking about the nature of different political systems, how they change over time, and how one can slowly evolve into another.
And Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: Democracy, for him, I discovered, was a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become.
Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed — with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema.
But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.
The very rich come under attack, as inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Patriarchy is also dismantled: The foreigner is equal to the citizen. And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.
If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further. He is a traitor to his class — and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee.
Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites.
And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself. And as I watched frenzied Trump rallies on C-SPAN in the spring, and saw him lay waste to far more qualified political peers in the debates by simply calling them names, the nausea turned to dread.
And when he seemed to condone physical violence as a response to political disagreement, alarm bells started to ring in my head.
Plato had planted a gnawing worry in my mind a few decades ago about the intrinsic danger of late-democratic life.
Or am I overreacting?
In the wake of his most recent primary triumphs, at a time when he is perilously close to winning enough delegates to grab the Republican nomination outright, I think we must confront this dread and be clear about what this election has already revealed about the fragility of our way of life and the threat late-stage democracy is beginning to pose to itself.
Plato, of course, was not clairvoyant.V iktor Korchnoi, who turned 80 yesterday, is one of the great figures of twentieth-century chess, but also one of the most controversial.
Evgeny Vasiukov, who’s known him for 60 years, felt compelled to voice what he considers the truth about Korchnoi, both as a man and a chess player.
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