Like many others who noticed the latest Supreme Court decision concerning the ability of corporations to fund political campaigns I wonder if this was good for our country? Some time ago, I read a book called: Why Socrates Died? written by Robin Waterfield, a British historian.
If I correctly understood what I read, Socrates was disappointed in the political process of the day, namely DEMOCRACY. He had grown tired of living in a society where the uninformed rabble made the decisions. Back at that time, a group called the Sophists were formed. They had figured out that when decisions are being made by unintelligent mobs, it was possible through strong oratory skills that had nothing to do with the fundamental truth to carry the vote through oration (or what I will refer to as “advertising”). As such, they would sell their influence and training to be influential to anyone who could afford it. And, as a result, trials and political decisions were being carried by oration, or more precisely by money.
Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of his day. And, while some thought that he was put to death because of his sexual preferences, it was, as the author points out, his political views that were more dangerous to the ruling powers. But, what in fact did he stand for? If his goal was to support the revolution by the oligarchs, who were better educated and richer, wouldn’t it in fact have had the same outcome, specifically that political power would be concentrated in the hands of a few. He did believe that there were underlying truths that should drive decisions, and that it should not be simply the capricious whim of the rabble, but I suspect that he believed that a “ruling class” that was benevolent and well educated would be better suited to enforcing the “truth” as opposed to counting on the analysis by a drunken mob.
Well, when I thought about it, what was funny to me was that both processes ended up in the same place: the power to influence decisions was in the hands of the rich and well educated. Whether you did it through sophism or through revolution didn’t really matter (except revolutions often kill people). The key then, and now, is the integrity of the leadership and its respect for “the truth.”
So here we are 2500 years later. The adults, just like back then, are complaining about the music of the kids and the way that they wear their hair. And, the political process is decided by money. The only difference is that we’ve changed the name of the influential group from “the sophists” to “the advertising agencies.” And, nobody died in the revolution.
So where does this leave us?
My conclusions are: Socrates was basically right, sophism or advertising can be used to manipulate democracy with money. The key is how to make sure that the ruling class (the elected few) have the best intentions to serving the common good as possible. It’s not counting on the voting process. We’ve seen that this just doesn’t work. Karl Rove and the sophists were identical.
I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that if over 2500 years it hasn’t evolved, possibly it doesn’t exist. (There, I got evolution into the argument). It is apparent that large corporations whose only goals are to increase profits have demonstrated frequently that they will sacrifice people to their goals and use advertising in apolitical ways to accomplish those goals. The best example being the tobacco industry. So it’s clear that putting advertising power into the hands of corporations for political decisions is not aligned with the common good. But, I see no real difference between putting the power into the cold hands of corporations versus the cold hands of some billionaire who made his (or her) money appearing nude on television. Neither meets the intended goal.
I suspect that the most satisfying answer will be to create a “test” for leadership. A demonstration of their ability (or tendency) to act towards the common good in ways that are fair and just along with a basic level of education and brains that suggests that they are capable of performing the task of serving in the role of leadership. Gosh, we even have a test for people who work in a hair salon. Why not the Senate? Then, there’s no advertising allowed. None at all. The test scores and resumes are distributed over the Internet. We read, and we vote. Oh one last thing. The only ones who can vote have also passed a test.
Again, what’s interesting to me is that while advertising is more effective than sophism it is only in its reach through media. This is in fact no real difference since in the time of Athens the population was small enough to fit into one city, today it covers the country. The effect is identical – 51% of the vote.