The Achilles’ Heel of Democracy

It is never more important to second-guess your own beliefs than when you find yourself in agreement with the majority opinion.

Aristagoras, the puppet tyrant of the Miletus (an ancient Greek city on the Eastern coast of the Aegean Sea), was never one to miss an opportunity to expand his political power.

Sensing a chance to leverage fear over the growing power of Persia, he concocts a rebellion against the Persians who propped him up on the throne. It is a brash bid to establish his own regime. But his attempt to overthrow his masters fails miserably. Now, suddenly, he realizes that he desperately needs more troops if he is to survive Persia’s retaliation for his treachery.

To recruit help, Aristagoras travels across the Aegean Sea, imploring other Greek cities to join his insurrection.

His first stop is Sparta. Gaining an audience with Cleomenes, the Spartan king, Aristagoras promises an easy victory and vast riches if Sparta would only join his cause. Cleomenes asks for two days to consider the alliance proposal. When two days had passed, Cleomenes asks for even more information, in order to estimate how long the campaign would take. Weighing the matter further, Cleomenes finally refuses Aristagoras’ invitation to go to war.

Aristagoras desperately stoops to bribing him into an alliance, but Cleomenes’ eight year old daughter reminds her father to walk away before he could be corrupted by the promise of money. (Herodotus 5.49-51)

Having failed in his attempt to recruit the Spartans, Aristagoras makes his way to Athens, his need for allies now critical.

Before a large, democratic assembly of Athenians, Aristagoras repeats the arguments he had used in Sparta, promising easy victory and vast spoils. Anxious for Athenian support, Aristagoras proceeds to promise everything he can possibly imagine, bowing to the assembly’s every whim, dream, and inclination. The Athenians are won over, and pledge twenty ships to join the uprising against Persia.

It is here that the chronicler of this story – the fifth century BCE Greek historian Herodotus – inserts a compelling observatory remark: “Apparently it is easier to deceive many people than one person, for Aristagoras could not impose on Cleomenes, one single man, but he succeeded with convincing thirty thousand Athenians.” (Herodotus 5.97.2, trans. Aubrey de Selincourt, )

While Herodotus’ comment might be interpreted as a sarcastic jab at the Athenians for so foolishly joining such an ill-fated military mission, it is also a prescient sociological hypothesis. Sometimes convincing a crowd does indeed seem less cumbersome than convincing a single individual: all you need to do is appeal to the urges of the broadest common denominator, and then let the power of affiliation and in-group/out-group identity do the rest of the work for you.

Convincing a single, isolated, rational individual to join you in a war can be difficult, especially when that individual stands to personally bear the responsibility for the outcome of their decision. However, put that very same individual in an agitated mob of thirty thousand other people and it might be a whole different story. In a huge assembly, it feels like no single person is really on the hook for the collective opinions and decisions of the body.

This is partly why crowds create such powerful feedback loops of anonymous self-reinforcement. And sometimes, as Herodotus observed, they only need a small nudge to initiate this snowball effect. Once they get rolling, bandwagons are a force unto themselves: they become dangerous threats to passive onlookers on the ground, and they only gain momentum as more people jump on board.

Remember that being a member of the crowd makes you think differently. When you feel like you resonate with the majority opinion, it might be a good idea to ask for a few days to think about it, and then show up with some objective questions.

Herodotus’ account of the Athenian assembly is also a timeless warning: an inflamed populist agenda is the Achilles’ heel of democracy. The destruction of the state is always as imminent as the next provocateur who can whip the masses into an irrational frenzy — into a spiral of ideologically nonsensical self-destruction.

One of the greatest lessons taught by the history of democracy: be extremely suspicious of the person who promises anything and everything to the mob. Time shows such individuals for what they truly are: needy, desperate tyrants.

[An earlier and shorter version of this post appeared in Caesura Letters Volume XIII – Inventing a Planet]

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