Democracy versus the Strong Man: An Inquiry Into Values


“A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” – Oxford English Dictionary

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” – Abraham Lincoln

Around 500 years before the birth of Christ, Greece changed the world.

In a nutshell, things were quite similar to the world today: the rich were very rich, the poor were very poor, and the general public was very unhappy with their lot. Wealth, power and poverty were inherited. So was nobility.

After several revolutions, Athens decided it had enough. Mostly under the leadership of Cliesthenes, an Athenian noble, Athens was reorganised, its laws modified to favour the many over the few. They called this δημοκρατία (dēmokratía): the ‘rule of the people’.

By the time the 4th century BC was done, Athens was entering its Golden Age, forever reserving Greece’s space in the history books. The city was a democracy. Granted, there had been democracies before – but this was the first democracy as we would recognise it, buttressed by laws, backed up by political factions and enforced by a brutally direct voting system, courts and public offices.

marathon-democratic assembly

Aristotle, studying governments, classified them as followed: rule by the many (democracy); rule by the few (oligarchy); rule by one (tyranny). Athens was so firmly in the first camp that it set the model for every democratic government to come.

Given all this, you would expect the subsequent history of Athens to be one where the masses made the decisions, the government upheld them, and footnotes were basically reduced to ‘Athens collectively did this’ ‘Athens collectively did that’.

It isn’t. The history of Athens is mostly of extraordinary men pushing others around to get what they wanted done. Despite democracy, this summary isn’t radically different from Sparta (which basically took the military boot camp model and turned it into a government and later, into a very successful movie).


In fact, that’s the history of pretty much any country. America was a bunch of powerful people pushing others to get things done. So was Russia. So was India. Leadership is simply power contained in a different vessel. The only revolution where there wasn’t someone egging on the horde was possibly the French Revolution, and even then, Voltaire did quite a lot of the urging. Look hard enough at any event in history and you’ll eventually see a handful of people pulling the strings that matter.

The end results of princes and presidents are very much alike. There have only been a handful of leaders in history who did just what the majority wanted and nothing more, and those leaders eventually end up getting replaced with a key man with a lot of power in his hand – the strong-man government. Aristotle’s tyranny.

So, the question today: do we need a tyranny – or a democracy? This is an important question for Sri Lanka, with its rather schizophrenic constitution. While democratic amendments seem to have made some progress, the debate still rages: do we want the weakness of a true democracy or one strong man steering the ship?


“On occasions of this sort it was, I must admit, very pleasurable to be a monarch: to be able to get important things done by smothering stupid opposition with a single authoritative word.”
Robert Graves, Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina

Firstly, the word ‘tyranny’ has bad connotations. ‘Tyrant’ used to be a title once; now it has roughly the same meaning as ‘dictator’. Let’s replace ’tyranny’ with ‘autocracy’.

Sri Lanka is an interesting example.


As a nation, our greatest moments have been under kings. They, by all accounts, waged wars, built temples, set up entire cities, and generally made their mark on the world.

History glosses over things like character (Vijaya, by all accounts, was a criminal; Kasyapa, who built Sigiriya, was a patricide hiding from the wrath of his more righteous brother), lifestyles, the human cost of the glory, but there’s no denying it: back in the days of tyranny, people got great things done.

Indeed, by giving a visionary an all-access pass, civilisations have traditionally made moves that changed history. Japan’s Meiji Emperor, who turned an isolated, technologically backward nation into a modern giant; Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew; Stalin, who turned Russia into a superpower; even Hitler, who turned Germany from a disgraced country limping from one world war into a terrifying machine of a nation that trod a significant portion of the world beneath its boots.

Singapore: before Lee Kuan Yew and after

This is not an endorsement, but fact. The ancient Pharaohs built might monuments that today are practically all that’s left of the Egyptian civilisation. Alexander the Great conquered the known world in his time. The British Empire was built by kings and queens and an East India Trading company run along the lines of a military operation.

Throughout history, a handful of leaders have shaped their countries forever at the expense of a generation or so of lives. In fact, Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapakse is a good example: a focusing of power was actually needed in order to finish the Civil War.


That’s the case for autocracy – for having one ‘strong man’ in the driver’s  seat. The case against it is simple: when the man in the driving seat is a fool, a charlatan, a crook or simply does not have the ruled masses’ best interests at heart, you end up a disaster. Human history is full of examples.

Nor is autocracy sustainable. One good king is not necessarily succeeded by another, as any student of history can testify. Think of Rome. Or Zimbabwe. History has proven that bloodlines don’t transfer skill.

Let’s rephrase kings and queens, then; let’s make this an elected autocracy, like Sri Lanka was since before the 20th Amendment. You can print the word “DEMOCRATIC” in big letter at the top of the page, but make sure that when push comes to shove, one man has all the power needed to do anything.

Put the right person in the seat and ten, twenty years down the line, you have another Singapore story. Put the wrong person on the throne and you have bullets, screams, and all manner of messy explosions.

Even when the right person is chosen, this approach – high-risk, high-reward – has no place in it for dissenting opinion. That is not a path the majority of the world seems to be willing to tread. That way lies China.

Commodus, one of Rome's many mad emperors. A scene from Gladiator.
Commodus, one of Rome’s many mad emperors. A scene from Gladiator.

Autocracy, then, is at best a ticking time bomb: somewhere down the line of succession is a disastrous failure waiting to happen, and because of the concentration of power, that disaster can often only be contained by civil war.


Democracy, at its heart, is fundamentally appealing, because it promises a way for every citizen to have a say in how their government is run. A balanced democratic system also decouples power from bloodline – a critically essential thing. One only has to look at England’s mad kings to see the dangers involved in bloodlines.

Democracy is a great and beautiful thing. It is capable of radical change and greatness. Take, for instance, the death of apartheid in South Africa, or the rise of the USA during the Space Race.


However, it has a weakness. Coincidentally, this weaknesses is also its greatest feature: the opinion of the masses. What happens, asks the autocrat, when that opinion is stupid?

If you were tasked with writing a computer program, who would you take advice from – one software engineer, or nine dentists?

Likewise, if you were running a nation, what good would it do to listen to the innumerable street hawkers, software engineers, greengrocers, salesmen, secretaries, marketeers and random bloggers out there? Why on earth would you allow the rabble to weigh in?

There is the proverbial story of a man building his house according to everyone’s wishes: it doesn’t work out.  This, says the autocrat, is why America has trouble with gun laws. This is why India elected the Gandhis. This is why a sizeable percentage of Sri Lanka clamours for a man proven to be a narcissistic dynasty-builder. People are not very rational. People do not see the bigger picture.

Why should the people be allowed to rule?


“The only way, they argued, to prevent a revolution was to rule Russia with an iron hand. This meant defending the autocratic principle, the unchecked powers of the police, the hegemony of the nobility, and the moral domination of the Church, against the liberal and secular challenges of the urban-industrialize order.”
Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924

Fortunately, modern democracy is not the democracy of Athens. We solved this issue long ago with something mostly meant to tackle issues of scale: representative democracy. The people are divided into lots – generally along administrative and geographical divisions. These lots appoint a representative, who, as a domain experts, then holds responsibility for both representing the lot and governing them according to laws set down in stone.


This neatly infuses democracy with the expertise needed for government (in theory). In doing so, we confer power upon a handful of people, a few who will rule over the many. We expect them to do a good job of it.

Here the problems set in. Modern democratic systems are surprisingly relaxed on the standards they set for these all-important representatives. Often, they’re assembled from a motley cast of whoever is rich enough to afford election campaigns – then make the decisions. Due to flaws in the setup, the people are then unable to hold these representatives to account until their terms are up.

This is why every country has crooks in Parliament.

It takes a very educated and civic-minded voter base to make democracy work. Most countries do not have such a voter base. Inject money into the mix, and you find that the ‘will of the people’ essentially turns into the will of whoever is willing to spend money on the people. Or, even worse – people just turn out to be stupid. A lack of civic education combines with well-spent advertising by a powerful elite to form a vicious cycle that feeds on itself.

Our systems, though defined in paper as dēmokratía – rule of the people – become in practice aristokratia – the rule of an elite. We shed democracy and become an elective oligarchy.


Unfortunately, this is a problem we haven’t solved yet. This is a problem common to any system of government: power is the amount of money you can throw around and the number of opinions you can influence. Basic offences – like first-degree murder – drag both the rich and the poor into the same light, but complex, more abstract offences – like shaping a country’s political or economical future – do not.

The democratic system allows the public to raise a hue and cry when the misuse of the power of money occupies the limelight; it has no checks and balances for wealth tossed around in the darker halls and private dinners where the light does not shine.

Autocracy’s checks and balances are purely dependent upon the whim of one person. Anybody wanting to see how that works out should study the history of Sri Lanka from 2009 to 2014.

An oligarchy has virtually no mechanism to protect against this phenomenon. Probability almost guarantees that at least one of the few in power will be crooked. One person with power seeking to circumvent the system is all that is needed.

The Pyramid of Capitalism, circa 1911.
The Pyramid of Capitalism, circa 1911. Not very useful as an analysis of capitalism, but quite interesting as a critique of social structure, elective or not.

This was true in ancient Greece; it is true today. It’s harder to get away with stabbing someone in the back, but with enough wealth, intelligence and ambition, it seems possible to catapult oneself over the heads of others into a position where one can stab an entire nation in the back.


Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. – John Adams

 Picture a school.

Picture a school with one purpose: to train and develop the next ruler of a country. Everything he or she needs – knowledge of people, economics, leadership, ethics, even acting – is taught. The training is intense and the effects are permanent.

Every decade, this school puts forth a batch of students – the cream of the cream. They are set to work in respective areas of government and their progress is tracked and publicised with great care. Then, at the end of another five years, the public votes which one of these should be their next leader. The leader selects his or her Parliament from among the rest of their batch. This Parliament is then refreshed five years later, when the next batch of students enrols into government service.

They are not allowed to have families or children, ever.


That’s a radical solution. It’s probably been thought of before – or at least, parts; this problem is something people have been thinking of for over two thousand years, and if someone didn’t think along the same lines, I’ll eat my hat.

That’s one solution for a functional autocracy with built-in failsafes. The chances of that really being implemented are minimal – we’d need a complete reset of the world order to pull this one off.

The second is to fix democracy.

How does one fix everyone? There are two options.

One is long-term: education.

Educate everyone on things they should know – not what’s inside a plant cell wall, but about how society works, how a country’s legal systems work – and should work – the ideals on which the nation was founded, and the situation of the world at large.  An indoctrination of sorts; the imparting of a carefully constructed decision-making framework, rigorously designed and basic enough so as to not trip itself up over future issues.

Drum that into their heads and wait.

It will take years.

Generations. Democracy, as current practiced, isn’t something we can fix with a Supreme Court ruling. It’s not as simple as gay marriage. This is a problem that has to be fixed, one day at a time, one human at a time.

The other is a temporary autocrat: a creature who can take control – absolute control – long enough to steer the ship onto the right tracks. To completely rewrite constitutions and government operations and depart when its time is done, and be motivated by nothing other than love for those it rules over.

If this hypothetical creature exists – I hesitate to call it a man, for men are too fallible – then we, the people, should probably consider an advertisement in the morning paper. In fact, we might have to do this on a regular basis. *

One ethical dictator, please. We’ll have dēmokratía for dessert.

*I’d hazard a guess and say that finding a selfless dictator is right up there with finding a unicorn. 

4 thoughts on “Democracy versus the Strong Man: An Inquiry Into Values

  1. first let’s look at a term you missed … dictator …

    yeah, has a bad connotation now (like tyrant), but back in the days of rome it had a very specific meaning … someone who was given extraordinary powers rei gerundae causa … “for the matter to be done” … here’s a specific mission, get it done, and then quit … ( ) and pretty much all of them until gaius julius caesar (yeah, THAT guy) did so …. he upgraded rei gerundae causa to a year, then remained dictator rei gerundae causa for ten years and went on to become dictator perpetuo .. seem familiar?

    one of the greatest examples of dictators who did their job and fucked off is lucius quinctius cincinnatus ( )… he’s the guy he city of cincinnati is named after … and also many organisations who believe in not holding on to power for a day more than is necessary …

    but yes, democracy is flawed … massively so … people are stupid … and democracy has been often (and accurately) described as “three wolves and a sheep, voting on what to have for dinner”

    of course the way around that is to have checks and balances in the form of an independent judiciary that can say “hold on, that’s not right” … but that requires a constitution written in that way … that requires an intelligent group in the legislature …

    yeah …. this may need some work …

    but you forgot one thing … the greek democracy was not REALLY democratic … in order to vote you should be male, not a slave, and a land owner … of the 250000 – 300000 athenian population, only between 30000-50000 could vote …

    churchill (the man who won the war for britain, but was kicked out because people knew he wasn’t good enough to handle a peace) said .. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    but a democracy needs checks and balances to keep it honest, and needs to be based on a constitution dedicated to freedom and equality …

    unfortunately for us, we have neither

  2. The only “ethical dictator” our country had was JR. And he thought others will be the same. Unfortunately not.

    1. It’s interesting to postulate a system that enforces ethics on anyone who wants the dictatorship.
      Of course, knowing us, we’ll probably end up overthrowing that as well.

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