The Sophists

Stranger: Of hunting on land there are two principal divisions 
Theaetetus: What are they?
Stranger: One is the hunting of tame, and the other of wild animals.
Theaetetus: But are tame animals ever hunted?
Stranger: Yes, if you include man under tame animals. But if you like you may say that there are no tame animals, or that, if there are, man is not among them; or you may say that man is a tame animal but is not hunted-you shall decide which of these alternatives you prefer.
Theaetetus: I should say, Stranger, that man is a tame animal, and I admit that he is hunted.

Plato, The Sophists

With the Republican convention this week American election season kicks into overdrive.
I am often hard-pressed to explain this peculiar species of collective insanity to my non-American students, but I think no better description can be found than one written 2,500 years ago in Plato’s Republic with his descriptions of Athenian democracy and the sophists.

Of course, Athenian direct democracy was much different from the representative type we have today. In Athens the gap between a decision made and a consequence felt was nothing like chasam we have today, and in the sense of choosing their future, the Athenians really were sovereign. When the Athenian Assembly fatefully voted for the Peloponnesian War, they were sending themselves, their sons, and their colleagues to their potential death in battle, and would bear ultimate responsibility for the conquest of their city and the destruction of its empire.

In perhaps no way but when they sit on juries are citizens of representative democracy sovereign in this sense, nor is the impact of the power we exercise in elections so immediate. The responsibility for political decisions is handed to representatives or the president, and our society is so large that it is often others, for instance soldiers and their families, that bear the brunt of decisions which are almost invisible to us.

In the sophists, however, we get a glimpse of features held in common between the Greek and our own form of democracy. The sophists were wandering teachers, who taught many things, but what they excelled in most, at least according to Plato, was the art of persuasion. It is hard to not see what we would call a “political consultant” in Plato’s description of the sophists that he puts in the mouth of Socrates in the Republic:

Why that all those mercenary individuals whom the many call Sophists and whom they deem to be their adversaries do in fact teach nothing but the opinion of the many that is to say the opinions of their assemblies and this is their wisdom I might compare them to a man who should study the tempers and desires of a mighty strong beast who is fed by him he would learn how to approach and handle him also at what times and from what causes he is dangerous or the reverse and what is the meaning of his several cries and by what sounds when another utters them he is soothed or infuriated and you may suppose further that when by continually attending upon him he has become perfect in all this he calls his knowledge wisdom and makes of it a system or art which he proceeds to teach although he has no real notion of what he means by the principles or passions of which he is speaking but calls this honourable and that dishonourable or good or evil or just or unjust all in accordance with the tastes and tempers of the great brute Good he pronounces to be that in which the beast delights and evil to be that which he dislikes and he can give no other account of them except that the just and noble are the necessary having never himself seen and having no power of explaining to others the nature of either or the difference between them which is immense.” (Republic 191-192)

What the sophist excel at, Plato seems to be saying, is the science of how to seduce the crowd, and you seduce the crowd by finding out what it wants, and giving it to it, or finding out what it hopes, and promising to deliver those hopes, or what it fears, and convincing them that you will protect them from those fears. To hell if what the crowd wants is foolish or unjust, or what it hopes for is an impossible fantasy, or what it fears an irrational paranoia.

I think nothing better sums up this years election and both the Democrats and Republicans are guilty here.

On the Democratic side, you have a campaign of micro-mobilization in which segments of the population are mobilized by fear. Something, I think, of the assumptions behind the political elites can be found in the comments of the former DNC Chair Howard Dean who said recently on an episode of This Week with George Stephanopoulos “Campaigns are not for educating”, (@39min).  The obvious assumptions here being both, that the public needs to be educated, and that the true purpose of campaigns is “mobilization”. What  we do not see here might be something we could learn from the ancient Greeks minus the sophists, that politics is about discussion and debate between adults around choosing the right course of action.

Republicans, of course, don’t escape this criticism. Not only was the micro-mobilization around fear, in this case homophobia, pioneered by Karl Rove , but Romney himself might be the best example we have had of Plato’s sophist, having given the liberal Massachusetts, while he was governor there,social goods such as publicly funded health care that he now wholly disowns to curry favor with the Republican base. Just the most prominent of his many flip-flops that include everything from abortion to global warming and then some.

In this atmosphere of politics as mass mobilization the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, declaring large portions of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, better known  Mccain-Feingold, unconstitutional is an unmitigated disaster.

Plato disliked oligarchy almost as much as he disliked democracy, and it’s easy to see why. In an oligarchy decisions are made on the basis of the interests of the rich, interest again, that more often than not bear little relationship with justice, or even the smart thing to do.

If the poll numbers actually reflect reality then this race really will come down to a matter of who had the best mobilization strategy and the differing strategies of the campaigns were dictated by their varied finances, which have largely been a reflection of their differing attitudes towards the super-rich.   Big money players, most notably George Soros, have largely soured on Obama this time around, something which has thinned the president’s war chest and forced him to follow a slow-and-steady ad-campaign strategy. Romney, on the other hand, flush with cash from mega-rich funders such as the casino magnate and Israel hawk Sheldon Adelson, intends to flood the airwaves with ads from the convention forward.

Surely, what these super-rich contributors hope to “buy” with their massive donations is some degree of influence on the president. Soros soured on Obama after the latter seemed uninterested in listening to the advice of the financial alchemist. Adelson wants lower taxes, and an aggressive stance towards Iran. Why American policy should be any more influenced by these men because they can fund political campaigns than by reasonable arguments about what is best for the country, arguments that can be made by experts and laymen alike, without a similar wherewithal to finance an untold number of television advertisements is beyond me.

Once you base your campaign on large donations from a select group of individuals whether they be what is typical- socially liberal Hollywood types on the left, or business tycoons on the right, what you profess is bound to the views of those paymasters, which is why the most interesting characters in American politics are often politicians with a very low level of support among the rich.  Here you find characters like, Ralph Nader, and on the totally other side of the political spectrum, Ron Paul, who despite his libertarian views is supported mostly by small donations from individuals.  Even, someone like, Ross Perot, was not so much supported by super- wealthy donors, as he was so rich himself that he was actually able to do that rare thing in politics- actually speak his mind.

For all that said, in this election, like all the others I will bite my tongue and vote, (though I can certainly understand why others, out of principle, will not)  for it is the only small piece of influence I have to exercise over the direction of my country, but there has to be a better way; there has to be a way to have more nuanced conversations, for citizens to actually deliberate on the questions at hand and decide on the course of the future for ourselves and our children. There has to be a way to break the spell of sycophants and regain the sovereignty of democracy, for how many more elections will we have to go through run by the logic of sophists?