(Washington Post illustration; iStock; Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Last week, in his first major piece since his blogging hiatus, Andrew Sullivan joined the frenzy of pundits trying to make sense of Donald Trump. Sullivan's completely straight-faced take is that the final days of the republic are upon us. “In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event," he writes at the end of his 7,600-word cover story for New York Magazine.   

Sullivan is less interested in dissecting the particulars of Trump than in blaming society for allowing his rise. He argues that our nation has become so fractured and self-absorbed — so “hyperdemocratic” — that we are now at serious risk for a demagogue to seize power and extinguish democracy. “I think we must … be clear about what this election has already revealed about the fragility of our way of life and the threat late-stage democracy is beginning to pose to itself,” he writes.  

These warnings are more than a touch melodramatic. Critics describe Trump as a demagogue — he represents a populist, nativist streak in American politics and his rallies have been occasionally marred by violence — but does he really herald the unravelling of a 240-year-old democracy?

Sullivan's fascinating — though arguably mistaken — essay borrows from a section in Plato’s "Republic." The Greek philosopher was a famous skeptic of democracy, which he equated to self-destructive mob rule. Plato believed that democracies naturally degenerate into tyrannies. Democracies, he said, are fated to fail, because too much freedom makes people become self-centered and disorganized. As chaos mounts, along comes a demagogue, who appeals to the people's greed by promising land and riches. As this person rises to power, he slowly replaces the democracy with a tyrannical regime.

Sullivan sees parallels to Trump’s ascent in 2016 America. We are in the throes of “late-stage democracy” he writes, a state of unprecedented disunity. He blames in large part the identity politics of the left for creating a rift that Trump has taken advantage of. He accuses the Black Lives Matter movement and the gay rights movement (“for whom the word magnanimity seems unknown”) of sneering at white, working class America.

“[S]o our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump,” Sullivan writes.

Sullivan is hardly the first to interpret current events through the teachings of Plato. The problem is that he takes Plato a little too literally.

Plato was a genius political philosopher but a shoddy political scientist, as it turns out. “Plato was a theorist — but he wasn’t much for testing his theories,” says Andrew Hanssen, a political economist at Clemson University in South Carolina, who studies Ancient Greece. “If Plato had been interested in collecting data, he would have found his view to be incorrect.”

Were democratic societies in Ancient Greece doomed to degenerate into tyrannies? The evidence, actually, points to the contrary.

Hanssen and his colleague Robert Fleck, also an economist at Clemson, are pioneering the use of modern techniques from economics and political science to learn about the political institutions of Plato’s time, over 2,000 years ago. Social scientists have long sought to understand how democracy became so popular over the last few centuries. Fleck and Hanssen believe there are lessons to be drawn from reanalyzing Ancient Greece, which had some of the world’s first democracies, and some of the longest lasting. 

Ancient Greece had a network of least 1,000 independent city-states, like Sparta and Athens, each with its own form of government. City-states were often in political turmoil, switching between different regimes. “You had all this competition between tyranny and oligarchy and democracy in the Ancient Greek world,” says David Teegarden, an associate professor of classics at SUNY Buffalo. “It provides an interesting laboratory to test modern theories of political science.”

At the outset of the 7th century B.C., the city-states that we know of were mostly monarchies (ruled by a hereditary king) or oligarchies (ruled by a group of elites). Over the next hundred years or so, many of those oligarchies became tyrannies instead — infighting among elites led to the rise of single despotic leader. By the 5th and 4th century B.C., however, democracy was on the rise, and a large number of city-states switched from tyranny to democracy.

This chart from “Death to Tyrants!,” Teegarden’s history of tyranny in Ancient Greece, shows the trend. In the 7th century B.C., oligarchy was the most popular form of government. But by the late 6th century B.C., over half of the city states that we have records for were ruled by tyrants. Then, in the 4th century B.C., the most popular form of government became democracy. (The percentages on the chart don’t always add to 100 because some city-states had two different kinds of governments in a single period.)

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The chart more or less proves Plato wrong, if you take his teachings literally. It’s just not true that the democracies of Ancient Greece were breeding grounds for tyranny — it was the other way around. “Transitions to tyranny were more likely to happen from oligarchies than from democracies, even in Plato’s own time,” Hanssen says.

When Fleck and Hanssen dug deeper into the data, they found something even more surprising. The most prosperous democracies of the 4th century B.C. tended to have gone through a period of tyranny in the previous century. Moreover, city-states with a history of tyranny were much more likely to later end up as democracies.

Fleck and Hanssen believe that tyranny may have been a “bridge to democracy” in Ancient Greece because early tyrants created economic opportunity and strengthened the middle class. They point out that many of the city-states where tyranny took hold were on the coast, where there was a lot of potential for economic development if citizens were willing to invest in building ports and ships. But it was difficult for oligarchies to muster those resources because only some of the elite stood to benefit from increased trade. Under a single ruler, it was easy to make those infrastructure investments because all the taxes went to one person.

One of the best examples is the city-state of Athens, one of the longest-lasting democracies in recorded history until the United States. But before Athens became a paragon of democratic rule, it was under the control of the tyrant Peisistratus. Peisistratus and his sons grew Athens and made it prosperous. They built aqueducts, improved the harbor, and started a coast guard. These investments in trade enriched a middle class that included merchants, manufacturers and olive-oil exporters. 

After Peisistratus died, his sons ruled for a while. They were soon deposed by a group of nobles seeking to make Athens an oligarchy again. But the people rose up against these new oligarchs, laying siege to the Acropolis and taking back control of the city. They subsequently created a democracy that lasted for nearly 200 years. Fleck and Hanssen believe that a key factor in the rise of Athenian democracy was the strong middle class that had blossomed under the tyrannical rule of Peisistratus. United in their economic interests, these merchants and farmers had gained enough power between them to seize control of their own city.

Andrew Sullivan's argument veered off-track the moment it mistook Plato’s musings for actual political science. “It's not as though Plato was trying say something based on history,” Teegarden says. “He was a philosopher.” A better way to interpret Plato’s teachings on government is to understand them as a morality lesson. Plato believed that the ideal society should be captained by a philosopher-king — a saintly figure who understands true goodness. Plato was skeptical of democracy in large part because he believed it embodied selfishness — he shuddered to think of a society in which everyone pursued their own interests without any sense of civic obligation or higher purpose.

Plato had little interest in the economic institutions behind political regimes. Likewise, Sullivan's essay largely ignores the economic factors behind Trump's rise. It may be true, as Sullivan claims, that American culture is more fractured than ever. But we also know that many of Trump's voters are experiencing real economic pain. Any explanation of Trump has to acknowledge, for instance, the withering of the working class in areas where Trump draws the most support. These economic divisions are just as significant as the cultural ones that Sullivan fixates on.

The irony is that Sullivan had a great idea here. There are lessons to be learned from the politics of Plato's time — just not from Plato himself.

As Fleck and Hanssen have shown though their study of Ancient Greece, economic forces motivates politics in powerful ways. Societies fall under the sway of demagogues not because they suffer from an excess of democracy but because they suffer from an excess of suffering. In contrast, a healthy middle class was one reason that democratic regimes began to flourish during the 4th century B.C. Fleck and Hanssen note that in Athens, democracy was particularly long lived thanks to a system of progressive taxation and transfer payments that strengthened economic and political ties between citizens.

"Throughout Athens's history, there were people screaming about how stupid voters were," Hanssen says. "People were constantly horrified by the demagogues arising in the assembly. Educated people were terrified of them. But Athens survived them all."

It should be noted that Plato, chief complainer about the depravities of democracy, was also a citizen of Athens.