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The best and the brightest

A famous scene of Cicero addressing the Roman Senate
A famous scene of Cicero addressing the Roman Senate

It is entirely appropriate that the midterm elections should come right after Halloween, when we have been softened up by a heavy dose of irrationality, deception and blackmail. Halloween is a magical time, and politicians are magicians of a sort, or at least conjurers. Look at how they make our money disappear.

This is nobody’s fault but our own. That’s the whole embarrassing problem with democracy; we do it to ourselves, so can hardly blame anyone else. Democracy is a brilliant and liberating idea. It’s a pity that the results are so often disappointing, and especially that the chosen representatives so seldom appear to be the best and the brightest, let alone the most noble and honest of citizens.

The Greeks and the Romans created the earliest experiments in democracy more than 2,000 years ago. So, it was the Greeks and the Romans who first discovered the problem with it — or rather two problems — candidates on one hand and voters on the other.

In ancient Rome, elections were corrupted by candidates’ false promises, threats, prejudices, fantastic lies, conspiracy theories, and not a little cheating, bribery, and violence. It was very exciting, and citizens got passionately involved. In the end, the passions ran so high that Roman democracy collapsed into civil war, and the empire was ruled by a series of dictators who promised to make Rome great again.

We don’t want that to happen to us. This is one of the most highly educated nations in the world, and we should have the best and most intelligent representatives in the world. You may have noticed that this doesn’t always happen. One problem is that the most qualified people are trained to respect facts, logical thought and, yes, truthfulness. This is different from training in show business, where the main and only lesson is to grab and hold the attention of the audience in any way possible. Politics in its present form is almost pure show business, which is why actors and sports stars do so well.

Every responsible profession except politics demands rigorous training, an examination of competence, and a code of ethics. Politicians need no qualifications: they get into power simply by putting on a good show and making themselves popular. Plato made this complaint about democracy almost as soon as it was created and suggested that we would be better off ruled by what he called “philosopher kings.” But potential philosopher kings have been remarkably scarce in recent elections.

Surely, at the very minimum, the leaders of a society like ours should understand the economic and social sciences, know at least something about the physical sciences, and (perhaps most important) to know some history.

These qualifying rules would instantly reduce the field of candidates by 99%. They could be further refined by a few basic psychological tests measuring aptitudes like teamwork, honesty, and psychological stability. That’s surely not too much to ask. The surviving candidates (if any) could go forward to the election, with their test scores posted on the polling machines for all to see.

The only problem I can see is with motivating the voters. If elections were to lose the drama and violent emotions that agitate our political system now, and instead voters were offered a calm, rational, democratic choice, they might simply choose not to vote at all.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.