Interesting thread, that has wandered a ways from the original question: “how do you prevent a democracy from degenerating into an ochlocracy?”
That is a truly interesting question. The opposing principles in it are the mostly constructive power of the individual, and the destructive power of the mob. We have the psychological research to know what we’re up against: Zimbardo and his Lucifer Effect, Elias Canetti with Crowds And Power, and onwards. Now we have the Internet combining the power of the written word with the insidiousness of demagoguery, propaganda, and rumor. The central problem is the willingness of sociopaths to use the mob for their own purposes. It is alive and well today, the most recent example is the tacit support offered by some Republican members of Congress to the Birther fringe, who believe Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.
The only practical way to create a citizen fit for democracy is to teach the individual to withstand the power of the mob. There is no way around it as far as I can see. It is a slow grind, an endless effort by decent people to educate their children and demand behavior from others that makes it possible to live together. Someone once expressed it as “all that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.” I think that is at the heart of it: an unglamorous, steady insistence on decent behavior, adherence to democratic principles, and a rejection of notions that have been tested in the past and have shown their potential to corrupt. It has been expressed over and over through history, from the Golden Rule, to the Christian and Buddhist reciprocity principles “do unto others” and “do not cause suffering.” All of these, from homilies to philosophical principles, are concerned with creating boundaries between people based on respect, of setting up the psychological turf each needs for comfort and self-realization.
There is no magic in it, and few pat answers. It is the evolving effort to discern a pragmatic good, reject its enemies, and stay ahead of the curve as society evolves. It means speaking up, sticking your neck out now and then, and holding people in power to account. It is a Reason Project in an of itself, full of uncertainty and doubt, without guidelines, except those offered by our failures in the past. I think most people on this thread are involved in this project no matter how much they would like to call each other undemocratic assholes, ignorant assholes, or just plain assholes. In the end it is probably healthy to recognize the capacity of each of us to be assholes, and to keep each other in check.
We all have a part to play in this, and we should wish each other the best of luck.
From Prisons We Choose to Live Inside by Doris Lessing:
“I am talking about people who think about what is going on in the world, who try to assimilate information about our history, about how we behave and function—people who advance humanity as a whole. It is my belief that an intelligent and forward-looking society would do everything possible to produce such individuals, instead of, as happens very often, suppressing them. But if governments, if cultures, don’t encourage their production, then individuals and groups can and should.
“We are back with the concept of an elite, and that is all right with me, in this context. We cannot expect a government to say to children, ‘You are going to have to live in a world full of mass movements, both religious and political, mass ideas, mass cultures. Every hour of every day you will be deluged with ideas and opinions that are mass produced, and regurgitated, whose only real vitality comes from the power of the mob, slogans, pattern thinking. You are going to be pressured all through your life to join mass movements, and if you can resist this, you will be, every day, under pressure from various types of groups, often of your closest friends, to conform to them. It will seem to you many times in your life that there is no point in holding out against these pressures, that you are not strong enough. But you are going to be taught hot to examine these mass ideas, these apparently irresistible pressures, taught how to think for yourself, and to choose for yourself…. You will be taught that no matter how much you have to conform outwardly—because the world you are going to live in often punishes unconformity with death—to keep your own being alive inwardly, your own judgment, your own thought…
“Well, no, we cannot expect this kind of thing to be in the curriculum laid down by any state or government currently visible in the world. But parents may talk and teach like this, and certain schools may. And groups of young adults who have run the gauntlet of state education, or private education, and survived with enough of their critical faculties intact to want more than they have been given may teach themselves and each other what they will. Such people, such individuals, will be a most productive yeast and ferment, and lucky the society who has plenty of them.”