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Ennobling Democracy

WARSAW -- Ever since democracy appeared in ancient Athens, it has generated suspicion among those who believe that humanity’s highest purpose is virtue, not freedom. In the Eighth Book of The Republic , Plato rather unceremoniously defines political leaders in a democracy as “those who deprive the rich of their estates to distribute them among the people, at the same time taking care to reserve the larger part for themselves.” Of course, Plato’s disdain for democracy is never far from the surface of his prose, yet he has a legitimate point: how, after all, can high ethical standards be ensured when democratic elections tend to reward self-interest and the lowest common denominator?

The citizens of today’s free societies are (almost always) democrats out of conviction, custom, and habit. Only a small minority exhibit populist tendencies that, if they gained power, could lead a society from democracy to dictatorship. Nevertheless, today’s democratic citizens mostly lack confidence in the public sphere, and are suspicious of their own economic and political elites. Among the youngest voters, indeed, this impulse is very strong, with their participation in elections falling sharply.

In Europe, this apathy is often seen as a reaction to the slowdown of what once looked like an unending postwar economic boom. But this is really only part of the story. Of course, if we could guarantee rapid and universal economic growth, democracy’s other weaknesses would probably be forgotten. But we can’t, instead what is offered is a hollow vision of the common good that consists merely in successive rounds of cuts in state expenditures. It is little wonder, then, that democratic citizens nowadays focus increasingly on the low ethical standards of their national elites.

Subconsciously, citizens expect their leaders to display the ancient leadership virtues of disinterestedness, courage, and devotion to service. But what they see is small-mindedness and the pursuit of narrow self-interest. Moreover, the dramatic democratization of mores in the last 20 years has resulted in a tremendous increase in ordinary human curiosity about people in the limelight: who our leaders are, how they live, and what they really believe.