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The present American election is worth significant attention from a philosophy blog because it is a philosophically interesting one. (This is very much the sense in which “May you live in interesting times” is a curse – though not actually a Chinese one). Philosophy has already played a significant role in the election. At first philosophy’s role was mere whipping boy. In one single debate in November, three different Republican candidates attacked philosophy: Marco Rubio said “We need more welders and less philosophers”, Ted Cruz disparaged the Federal Reserve by calling them “philosopher-kings”, and John Kasich insisted “philosophy doesn’t work when you run something”.

All three candidates lost, of course, and lost to a man far less philosophical than any of them. But that man’s ascendance has led to significantly more explicit attention to philosophy than is common in ruthlessly pragmatic Anglophone North America. In their long columns on this election, Robert Kagan cited Alexis de Tocqueville in the Washington Post; Andrew Sullivan invoked Plato. They each did so for the same reason: a worry about what happens to democracies. Colleagues of mine who teach political philosophy have noted: “This year it’s so much easier than usual to teach criticisms of democracy!”

I’ve characterized this American election, like recent politics in Thailand, as a clash of populism against technocracy,in addition to the more usual clash of left against right. The populist revolt against technocracy seems to be spreading rapidly worldwide as well, as evidenced by the surprising British vote to exit the European Union. Populism is many things, but it is above all a politics that privileges the popular will: what the people want, the people should get, whether or not they reason about it, whether or not it makes sense. And as Sullivan and Kagan note, what the people want often turns out to be a strong leader – like Thaksin, like Berlusconi, like Mussolini, like Trump, perhaps like Putin.

Populism, by privileging popular will over popular intellect, in some sense takes democracy to an extreme: irrespective of what it is the people want, the deciding factor should be that they want it. “The people” here usually has to mean a majority (or sometimes even a plurality); anything stronger than a majority requires some degree of consensus-building and thus a move away from populism, from will back to intellect. Yet here we find democracy’s paradox: often it turns out that what a majority of the people want is democracy’s end. Hitler and Mussolini were both elected. Kagan cites Alexander Hamilton‘s correct observation of the French Revolution: “that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.”

Trump, if he were to be elected, would be far from the first or the most anti-democratic candidate to be democratically elected. The important point in the long run – this is where Plato and Tocqueville come in – is that the idea of the will of the people is, in many cases, self-undermining. It has been demonstrated many times, and will continue to be, that many times a majority decides that what they want is exactly the absence of majority rule. The majority believes the majority has failed; it wants a Mussolini to make the decisions for it.

So when an election like this is upon us, it is a good time to reflect on the question: why democracy? Why do we think that it is a good thing for “the people”, however defined, to rule? That isn’t and shouldn’t be a rhetorical question. Trump and Thaksin, or even Hitler and Mussolini, do not prove that democracy is bad – but they do strongly suggest that democracy is not always the supreme principle on which political decisions should be made. In this respect it is quite important to note that the United States is at a very important level not a democracy: the will of the unelected Supreme Court is able to override the will of democratically elected politicians. Over the past thirty years this fact has had some disastrous results – most notably decisions on campaign finance that have seen democracy itself fade into plutocracy, in a way that helped pave the way for Trump. Yet the fact would also be a critical bulwark against the excesses of a President Trump – who, no matter how much popular support he has, cannot legally override a Supreme Court veto.

But the point here is not about the specifics of the American political system – it is about the idea of democracy itself, which is and can only be a philosophical idea. To what extent should the people rule? Should their rule be one of intellect or of will? And most importantly, why? In most political discussions we take it for granted that the people should rule – but at times like these it becomes important to ask the closely related questions of why they should rule, and what it means that they should do so. Philosophy becomes essential at exactly that point when what we have taken for granted comes into question. This year’s events seem to be forcing that questioning upon us.

I will be off the continent in two weeks, so the next post will be about a month from now.