Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? (introduction)

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? (introduction)


No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

—–Winston Churchill



In philosophy, it is generally considered a good and worthy strategy to start with a thesis to which everyone can agree, and see what can be learned from closely examining that notion. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that everyone in the other political tribe is a f—ing moron. Since the parties are pretty evenly divided (Democrats supposedly have more numbers, but Republicans have the Presidency, Congress, most state legislators and governors, and are currently cementing control of the Supreme Court for the next twenty or thirty years), that means that, if we provisionally accept this judgment as true, half the country are idiots, whose votes count just as much as the smart, moral, caring and good people who agree with you.

Why should this be? Or perhaps better, should this be? One news report quotes a professor of political science as saying:


We go in assuming a baseline among students, which is that they are uncritically, unreflectively fans of democracy, right? America is a democracy, we all love America. Democracy is good. This election season, that baseline—-my experience has been—-can no longer be assumed…[1]



Half the country, according to polls, believes that colleges are actively trying to subvert American democracy, and have been doing so for years. In fact, this professor and others report that until this year they’ve just been able to assume that their students had such immediate faith in democracy that there was no need to sell it. Now, a generation is coming into our colleges who are looking at the nastiness, the accusations of vote-rigging and vote-suppression and political intimidation and even violence, and those young people are basically ready to say, “Well, democracy had a good run; but I guess it’s time to find something that works.” And why shouldn’t they? Half our government—-the party that runs the Congress and most of the states and half the Supreme Court—-has been telling them for years that democracy has failed and is failing. Now, they feel they see the proof with their own eyes.

Philosophers have discussed the merits and demerits of democracy almost as long as “philosophy” has existed. The first sustained political treatise, Plato’s Republic, was written as Athenian democracy was collapsing. Later Greek and Roman philosophers wrote extensively about the relationship between citizen and State, rulers and ruled, and whether self-rule was desirable or even possible. As the Roman Empire transitioned from pagan to Christian, an entirely new tradition of political thought entered the conversation, and political thought in Europe became an ongoing synthesis of Greek, Roman, Hebraic, and pagan traditions. Some of these traditions allowed for far more individual autonomy and social mobility than did others, but none were what we would really call “democratic.” Still, the notion of democracy did not vanish completely, returning in religious communities such as the Quakers that rejected human authority over others. After the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Enlightenment began the project of looking for human-based political theories to replace Christian theocracy. British Empricism gave us the totalitarian monarchism of Thomas Hobbes, the representative democracy of John Locke and the utilitarianism of David Hume, among others. As the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth we saw the rise of Marxism and fascism. The Twentieth Century has been called “The People’s Century” because it saw the rise of democracy and the collapse of colonialism, and growing millions gained the freedom to exercise political power in their own countries; yet for much of that century it was openly debated whether democracy or totalitarianism would ultimately triumph. By the end, it seemed that democracy had won and the popular press tossed around terms like “the end of history;” the thinking was that humanity had resolved the tension between the State and the individual, and that the rights of the individual had been admitted to be fundamental. Even as the 21st Century began with religiously-inspired terrorism, no one seriously thought that they posed a serious threat. As Christopher Hitchens put it, terrorists could unleash events, but the progress of civilization would not be stopped. And the religious zealots themselves admit that the task of overthrowing democracy to establish theocracy is humanly impossible; they rely on a faith that God will miraculously intervene to slaughter all their foes and give them the ultimate victory and domination over others.

And then came the presidential election of 2016. Republicans routinely claim that the election of Hillary Clinton will mean the end of democracy and the end of the United States. Since this is the same group that claimed the same thing about Obama, that claim lacks credibility to most people; but to the 40% or so of Republicans who believe Obama is a secret Muslim sleeper agent waiting for his chance to destroy America, the vow by Clinton to “continue the progress made by Obama” sounds like a death threat.[2] On the other hand, Republicans have been talking about taking up arms to kill liberals since the beginning of the Tea Party Movement, including various threats by GOP candidates to use “Second Amendment” remedies to get rid of Harry Reid or Obama or Hillary Clinton, threats by Republican governors to call up the National Guard to fight off “federal overreach,” and a multitude of militias and Sovereign Citizens threatening or even committing violence and terrorism. Now, they have a candidate for President who openly talks about removing constitutional protections for free speech, who urges his supporters to attack protestors and promises to pay their legal bills, who regularly retweets posts from a variety of white supremacist militants. Almost overnight, then, we went from believing democracy was the ultimate culmination of the forces of history, which was opposed only by lunatics bent on some sort of magical return the Middle Ages, to a situation where millions of Americans believe that democracy is in fact under attack and could be destroyed in a few months. And even elected officials, such as the governor of Kentucky, talk about the possible need to resort to violence and force if the election turns out the wrong way and conservatives don’t win.[3]

Philosophers need to contribute to this discussion. It is clear that many millions of Americans have in fact lost faith in democracy. Hillary Clinton caught a lot of flak for labeling half of Donald Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables,” but in fact polls indicate she is mathematically correct: on a variety of issues, about half of Donald Trump’s supporters express racist, homophobic, and otherwise intolerant views and delusions.[4] And as Clinton admits, about half of is supporters don’t. Perhaps, like Mike Pence, you don’t think racism or intolerance or contempt for America’s heritage as a nation of immigrants and nonconformists merits the word “deplorable.”[5] Or given that half of the conservative candidate’s base falls into this “basket of deplorables,” perhaps you don’t want to offend them. What cannot be denied, however, is that roughly half of Republicans think democracy is destroying America, because the majority is voting to weaken “traditional values” of white patriarchy. That’s millions of people. Add to that the millions more who think democracy is failing because it led us to the Trump candidacy and the empowerment of the deplorables, and that’s almost a landslide. In these circumstances, philosophy is needed. Political science tends to ask, “How is power gained and used?” in a value-neutral way. Philosophers need to step in ask, “SHOULD power be gained and used in this way?” Philosophers can ask the questions about value, whether and why democracy is “good” even if you don’t like the results of the last or next election. And they have a history of analyzing and debating these concepts that goes back thousands of years, which can inform and guide today’s debates.

To be continued….

[1] Sam Sanders, “How Do You Teach Politics during an Election that Defies Convention?” Morning Edition (NPR) Oct. 6, 2016 (

[2] Louis Jacobson, “Do 59 Percent of Americans Believe Obama is a Muslim?” Punditfact Nov. 23, 2015 (

[3] David A. Graham, “Matt Bevin’s Apocalyptic Warnings of Bloodshed;” The Atlantic Sept. 13, 2016 (

[4] Charles M. Blow, “About the Basket of Deplorables,” New York Times Sept. 12, 2016 (

[5] Matthew Nussbaum, “Pence Declines to Call David Duke ‘Deplorable’”; Politico Sept. 12, 2016 (

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

21 Responses to “Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? (introduction)”

  1. Nemo Says:

    The meaning of Churchill’s quote on democracy is questionable to me.

    1. Is he suggesting that all the other forms of government have been tried and failed except democracy? If so, what are his criteria for success and failure? An argument can be made that democracy too has been tried and failed as early as the Athens of Socrates’ time.

    2. Which characteristics of government fit his conception of democracy? The British have a form of government that is different from the US, and both are called democracy.

    3. If democracy is the best among a bad bunch, so to speak, of governments. What are the criteria for good government and why?

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      I think you’d have to ask Churchill these questions. I’m not a Churchill scholar and I don’t know if he ever discussed the quote. I doubt it though, since it was part of a speech to Parliament and not part of a scholarly analysis. And that being the case, perhaps you are overanalyzing just a bit. On the other hand, it is useful to stop sometimes and ask what one of these famous quotes or clichés actually means.

      To answer 1 and 2, no, clearly he knows that democracy has been tried. He seems to be using the term here to include a wide range of forms of representative government “by the people, of the people and for the people.” He knows the British, American and Athenian forms of government are different, and he is referring to that which they have in common and which they do not share with the two main historical rivals of his day, Fascism and Communism, as well as the absolute monarchy which had existed in Europe up until the early decades of the 20th Century. So if you want to know what he means, look at those forms of government and assume he is referring to what they lack, and the opposite of what they have in common.

      He is speaking at a time when many millions of people were rejecting democracy or at least acquiescing to totalitarian rule, a time when even many intellectuals and political theorists in democratic nations were questioning whether democracy could survive. The speech was delivered in 1947. Europe was in ruins, having been almost conquered by a Fascist alliance of Germany, Italy, Japan and other smaller allies. Much of Europe was dominated by the Soviets, and much of Asia by the Maoists. Fascists still ruled in Spain and would for another thirty years, and former colonies were agitating for freedom and contemplating new political structures of their own. Often, the models they would choose would be totalitarian. Democracy had won WWII, but in the early days it had proved weak and divided; and it was largely democratic capitalism that had caused the Great Depression that precipitated that war in the first place. The totalitarian governments seemed more capable of quick and decisive action in the face of crises, and of putting the whole nation on the same course to tackle the great problems of the day.

      This quote acknowledges democracy’s imperfections. It is the worst form of government, if by “government” you mean strong, decisive, unified, coordinated action. It takes forever to make a major decision and generally whatever decision is made is a compromise and, at best, an incremental change, a small step in the right direction. But then, consider the alternatives that have been tried: monarchy, theocracy, totalitarianism, or even anarchy. Which of these can balance protecting the individual’s life with respecting the individual’s liberty and dignity as well as democracy? Which of these can balance the various interests and voices within a society and preserve some sort of social harmony, without resorting to force that becomes a war of the leadership against its own citizens? Which can solve problems consistently in ways that find the best outcomes and most stable resolutions, solutions that will last beyond the life of some particular leader? At there are several other Churchillian comments. One common theme is this: the foundation of democracy, and of good government in general, is the little man, the ordinary individual without claim to noble blood or holy chrism, who makes his voice heard and helps create a government that works for him.

      • Nemo Says:

        government “by the people, of the people and for the people.”

        Isn’t it ironic that Lincoln made that famous speech immediately after hundreds of thousands of people had been killed in the War initiated by their government?

        I’m wondering what logic or objective criteria can be used to prove the claim that democracy is the best form of government in terms of protecting the rights of the individual.

        I tend to think that finding “the best outcomes and most stable resolutions” is the product of civil and rational dialogue, but that is not synonymous of “democracy”.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        For now, I don’t think I want to respond in detail. I’m going to try to do a series of articles, looking at different philosophers’ comments on just those questions. I think Churchill is indicating that he thinks that democracy is the form of government that best encourages “rational dialogue” insofar as it gives everyone a voice, not just an elite few or one. That would seem to emphasize the “dialogue” part more than the “rational” part of that phrase. Democracy means a bigger conversation and no one (at least in theory) is shut out by force, or by class or any other arbitrary criterion. But as we know from experience, that conversation is not always rational; that is one of the problems facing democracy.

      • Nemo Says:

        The most commonly practiced form of democracy is not so much a conversation as a shouting match, and the majority rule a variant form of “might is right”. I admire your effort, but I’m afraid the problem you’re trying to address is not one that can be solved by philosophy.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        I prefer to say, it is a problem that cannot be solved without philosophy.

      • Nemo Says:

        nor without philosophic spirit. 🙂

        Do you think it is possible to instil or foster a philosophic spirit in your students?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        If I’m doing my job appropriately, I might help to awaken what is already there. If there’s nothing there then perhaps that person is beyond human help. Kierkegaard is pretty clear that the spiritless person, who has thrown away his or her ability to reflect because it awakens anxiety, has in essence thrown away his or her personhood. That level of despair is sin, “the sickness unto death.” And as his pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis puts it in Concept of Anxiety a case like that is beyond the understanding of psychology, and must be handed over to dogmatics. In other words, human understanding might describe the fallen state, but cannot redeem it; only the religious can do that. I think and hope that most people have at least a spark of actual humanity left, and thus have a capacity to be interested in these things and at least partly open to new ideas.

      • Nemo Says:

        How can you tell whether you have succeeded in helping to awaken, at least to some degree, the philosophic spirit in your students?

        (I don’t mean to be impolite and questioning whether you know you’ve done your job, but I am curious.)

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Well, my calling may be to help others awaken a love of wisdom in themselves; but my job is just to teach measurable knowledge and skills that are helpful and suggest a capacity for wisdom. The truth be told, that’s all any of us can really do, since we don’t know the heart. Maybe, if I had a more lengthy relationship with my students I could have a better idea what their souls were like; but in one semester I am sure I can only develop the most basic guess. I suppose the best indicator, though, would have to be whether the student asks good questions.

      • Nemo Says:

        What type of questions do you think are good philosophical questions (and why)?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        What sorts of questions do you think are worth asking?

      • Nemo Says:

        I ask questions mostly to satisfy personal curiosity and for clarification of ideas. But those are not necessarily good philosophical questions.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Those sound to me like the best sort of questions. If a question has no connection to your own existence, why ask?

      • Nemo Says:

        Well, if everyone is connected to everyone else within six degrees of separation, there is no question that is not connected to my existence. 🙂

        I think Socrates would say that natural science is not as closely connected to our existence as philosophy/ethics, and Kierkegaard would contend that speculative philosophy is not closely connected to our existence, though I think neither is Existentialism.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        First, and least importantly, there’s a difference between being personally connected and gossip. The meaning of my life would not be significantly different if I had not seen Tremors or if the villain in “X-Men: First Class” had been played by Ethan Hawkes.

        More relevant: Kierkegaard never described himself or Socrates as “existentialists.” He said they were “existential thinkers.” An existential thinker is one who thinks seriously about the nature of existence, and particularly about what is relevant to his or her existence and what counts as a significant, fully human existence. Existentialism grew out of phenomenology and the philosophy of Husserl, who examined the nature of perception to try to derive ontological insights. Heidegger also examined human existence and perception primarily out of a metaphysical interest, and had little interest in ethics. That is why he could have a philosophy that discussed how human individuality is swallowed up by mass culture, have an affair with his Jewish graduate student, and be a member of the Nazi party, all at the same time. An existential thinker lives his (or her) philosophy. Sartre studied Heidegger’s philosophy while a prisoner of the Nazis (I’ve always assumed it was a form of torture) and developed his own philosophy, partly in reaction to it and partly building on it. Unlike Heidegger, Sartre took ethics seriously; but like him, much of his philosophy was more about using the conditions of human existence to understand Being, so it was at least as much ontology as it was ethics. But Sartre seems to be the one we could really call “existentialist” and the founder of “existential-ism.” He made an ism out of existence. Earlier philosophers get lumped under the existentialist banner through a sort of anachronism, either because they influenced Sartre or they foreshadowed him in some way; and a lot of of what Kierkegaard calls “existential thinking” gets labeled “existentialism” through a certain sloppiness of terminology. Even Heidegger, who explicitly denied that his philosophy was “existentialism” because he thought what he was doing was so different than what Sartre was doing, gets called an “existentialist” because he was so profoundly influential on Sartre.

        So yeah, I agree, “neither is Existentialism.”

      • Nemo Says:

        I’ve always wondered why philosophers who seem to have very little in common are all called “Existentialists”. What you said explains it.

        But my comment was mainly regarding Kierkegaard’s suggestion that the speculative philosophies of Plato and Hegel are not “existential thinking”. I’m not exactly clear on what he saw as the difference between them and himself.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        He discusses this in the

          Concluding Unscientific Postscript

        . In Part II, section 2, chapter 2 he writes about the doctrine of recollection that for Socrates it was an interesting point which he did not pursue, because it would have been a distraction. It was an invitation to speculate about metaphysics and pre-existent realms, and Socrates was only interested in finding the good and living according to it. Plato took the doctrine of recollection, and turned it into a metaphysical system and a chance to speculate oneself away from existence and the world we live in and seek instead to understand the ideal world of Forms. The ethical was supplanted by the epistemological, and that was supplanted by the metaphysical. In Hegel, this movement is fulfilled, and Kierkegaard never seems to tire of mocking the professor who spouts Hegelian philosophy and grand statements about world-history, and cannot answer a simple question about how a simple person is supposed to live in the here-and-now, and seems even to forget that he himself must live as a simple individual—until it comes time to draw his paycheck, when suddenly he comes back to reality, briefly, before returning to considering existence only sub specie aeternae.

      • Nemo Says:

        But, ISTM, Kierkegaard does not and cannot answer the question, “how a simple person is supposed to live in the here-and-now”, either. What is his ground for mocking Hegel?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        If you mean, “Kierkegaard does not give me specific answers,” then yes, that is true. In his pseudonymous works, for example, he does not say “go be a street preacher.” He says only, “Everyone has a duty to work for a living.” You have to look at your own concrete talents, and your own God-relationship, and determine what precisely you are supposed to do.

        Hegel does not discuss individuals at all. He talks about world history and how Spirit is unfolding. Are you supposed to join in Spirit by being a good society man? Are you supposed to join a revolutionary movement? Hegel is unclear, which is why there was a split between conservative Hegelians (who dominated Denmark) and the “left-wing Hegelians.” But it is clear that you matter only insofar as you are part of a movement or part of a social institution, not as a simple individual before God.

      • Nemo Says:

        You have to look at your own concrete talents, and your own God-relationship, and determine what precisely you are supposed to do

        I agree, but my point is that neither Socrates, nor Plato, nor Kierkegaard, nor Hegel can answer the question of the individual. This seems to be a limitation of philosophy in general –especially the philosophy of moderns. It is unfair to mock another for failing something nobody can do, including the mocker himself.

        I personally don’t see any direct conflict between being an individual before God and being part of a movement or an institution. However, that’s a different topic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: