Was Plato right after all when he remarked in ‘The Republic’ that the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavey rises out of the most extreme form of liberty.? For students of this political classic, contemporary events have never been so meaningful as Western democracies are going through a crisis of confidence in their social, political and financial élites. Popular sovereignty is being reclaimed throughout Europe by movements such as Indignados in Spain, Direct Democracy Now! in Greece or Nuit Debout in France. By pointing out the clear dysfunctions of present democratic regimes and appealing directly to the people themselves, a young generation of political activists incite their followers to bypass the traditional decision-making channels and activate reform processes in the wake of their sustained protest campaigns. Is this form of political activism a positive new form of democracy or is it the resurgence of the dangerous ‘populist’ politics of the 1930’s?
The greatest theorists of democratic government have, from Locke and Jefferson down to Mill and Rawls, regarded the sovereignty of the people as the bedrock of all legitimate democracy. The power to debate and pass laws must be entrusted to elected representatives whose legislative authority must never exceed the mandate conferred on them by the sovereign people. Even for a staunch supporter of direct democracy like Rousseau, representative democracy was the most practical way of promoting the rights and best interests of citizens. Short of a multitude of local, autonomous agoras, parliaments have become the home of modern representative democracies. Crucial to the success of such a system of government is the political education of a citizenry, able to judge carefully and fittingly over what constitutes their own ‘common good’. However, the ‘good’ citizen, envisaged by Mill is not an actively involved person, prepared to join ranks with equally-minded individuals in order to address social injustice and change the system from the bottom up. Representative democracy is now under the constant scrutiny of social media, eager to expose its slightest lapses and indirectly undermining its very legitimacy.
The enemies of democracy thrive on a world drowned in non-stop, unchecked information which turns potentially ‘good’ citizens into systematic critics and easy preys to unscrupulous demagogues. Populist political parties such as UKIP in the UK or Alternativ for Deutschland are exploiting the well-founded fears of millions of European citizens about their economic future. Plato warned about the slippery path, leading from weak democracy to open demagogy and finally tyranny. Having absorbed the frustrations of a discontented and disenfranchised population, the tyrant is free to project on the wall of the cave, the distorted image of the people’s forfeited sovereignty.