Are You Smarter Than a Freshman? What Political Philosophy Has to Say About Elections
ere are some thoughts and some readings for freshmen (or first-years) excited about our election and heading for college. They also apply to the rest of us long-time voters who might care to think about the meaning and the nature of elections. Do we know more than freshmen? “Live and learn” says we do; “it’s never too late to learn” says we don’t. It’s safer to think that we don’t, and that we would profit from taking another look at things we take for granted.
What I will do is identify and introduce half a dozen passages on elections in famous books on politics that every educated person, or serious citizen, would reasonably wish to be acquainted with.
Aristotle and Aristocracy
To start, we all take for granted that elections are the touchstone of democracy. If a country holds elections, it’s democratic; if not, it isn’t. That’s a rule of thumb, not a universal truth. For though democracies hold elections, not all elections are democratic in the sense that they maintain democracies. Some may be dangerous to democracy, when democracy turns on itself and elects an enemy who puts an end to democracy.
Aristotle’s Politics calls into question the assumption that elections are democratic. Democracy stands for living as you please, he says, which means as you choose. But choosing means taking better over worse, or a respectable life over doing menial tasks, the noble over the necessary. In choosing to have an election—the word for choice also means “election”—you give your support to someone or a party you admire or at any rate think better of. What is this preference but the choice of an aristocracy, literally, the rule of the best, or of the best in this situation?
Therefore, an election is essentially aristocratic, not democratic. Aristotle’s analysis shows that if you begin from democracy, you move into aristocracy as soon as you choose. Of course, if everyone chooses, and chooses from everyone, this is more democratic than if only the few best choose from the few best. Democracy as we have it, with the representation of the people rather than their direct rule, appears to be a mixture of democracy and aristocracy, as we say a “liberal democracy.” Such a mixture combines elitism (aristocracy) with dislike of elitism (democracy).