Ted Cruz is the bad guy in his own philosophic narrative

One of the stranger and yet wholly predictable developments in the 2016 presidential race has been doubly Ivy League-educated Ted Cruz oozing disdain for elite education. The grossly elitist Cruz, who while at Harvard Law refused to debate with anyone who hadn’t attended Harvard, Yale or Princeton as an undergraduate – no time for dealing with the riffraff from “minor Ivies” like Penn or Brown – is now charged with courting throngs of conservatives in Real America. And Real Americans don’t like being spoken to in that tone of voice.

Cruz has squared this circle brilliantly throughout his campaign, railing against the “Washington cartel” of (liberal) elites and warning of the “philosopher kings” that are currently wreaking havoc on the good, God-fearing Real Americans who just want the “atheist Taliban” to stop forcing marriage equality and health insurance down their throats. In so doing, he’s presented himself to the GOP electorate as the dressed up alternative to Donald Trump; the candidate who can bridge the divide between outsider grievance and establishment respectability (much to the chagrin of the actual GOP establishment, which can’t stand him).

The problem with squaring circles, of course, is that you have to cut around some rather important details – details that the twice-Ivied Cruz is perfectly aware that he’s cutting. Being the learned intellectual that he is, he’s no doubt been assigned Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Republic at some point, which means he should know what the term “philosopher king” implies, and how badly he’s misused it.

The classical Greek philosophers thought rather highly of philosopher kings. That is, in the abstract. The works of Plato and Aristotle suggest that of all of the people in the city, and all of the forms of government that could be devised, a philosopher king would be both the best and least likely option. By nature of their being suited for critical reasoning and logical decision-making, an enlightened philosopher would do a better job of governing than aristocratic elites or democratic masses. However, a true philosopher wouldn’t want to rule, and the masses wouldn’t accept their leadership if they did. The very qualities that make them a good philosopher would lead them to prefer sitting under a tree and philosophizing all day, rather than getting caught up in the day-to-day drudgery of governing and, perhaps more importantly, the inherent sliminess of the political process. As Socrates remarks in the Republic, “there would be a fight over not ruling” if a city were only populated by good men such as philosophers.

What’s more, the people are distrustful of philosophers: As Adiemantus, one of Socrates’s interlocutors in the Republic, describes, they are often seen as being “vicious” for exposing the inconsistencies and falsities of opinions the rest of the polis holds dear. Democracies often present tradeoffs between being right and winning. Philosophers, by nature of being dedicated to capital-T Truth and capital-G Good, wouldn’t be willing to make the political compromises necessary to retain the support of the people.

Ted Cruz, throughout his political career, has seemed both keenly aware of and particularly adept at navigating this tension between philosophy and democracy. If there’s one thing we know about Cruz, it’s that he is utterly convinced of the fact that he is, at all times, the smartest person in the room — the candidate most suited for philosophy. As one Democratic aide told GQ for a 2013 profile, while everyone in the Senate looks in the mirror and sees a superior intellect, “Cruz is utterly incapable of cloaking it in any kind of collegiality. He’s just so brazen.” Again, this is a guy who thinks you aren’t even qualified to debate with him unless you’ve attended one of three specific schools – not exactly suggestive of someone who holds the collective decisions of democratic bodies politic in high regard.

Which is why this story from Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War, which I’m going to assume Princevard grad Cruz has also read, sticks out:

The leaders of the city of Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos in the middle of the Athenian empire, revolted against the empire. With the aid of the city’s common people, Athens was able to put down the rebellion. In the aftermath, Athens’s leader at the time, Cleon, decided that the entire island — loyal citizens and all — must be wiped out, and he dispatched a fleet of ships to do so.

Shocked by the decision, the Athenian citizens prompted him to enter into a debate over whether to send more ships out in order to bring the death squad back, pitting Cleon against Diodotus, a common citizen who is possibly the personification of Thucydides’ own views (he isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the book). The outcome and particulars of the debate aren’t particularly relevant here, but even thousands of years later the contrast between their differing approaches to democracy and democratic citizenship are instructive.

Cleon opens the debate by arguing that the citizens of Athens don’t know what’s good for them and that they are unfit to rule. Democracy at its core is dangerous, he argues, since it affords too much power to impulsive, irrational, uninformed citizens who we shouldn’t trust with high-stakes decisions. As he says, “Fears or plots being unknown to you in your daily relations with each other, you feel just the same with regard to your allies, and never reflect that the mistakes into which you may be led by listening to their appeals, or by giving way to your own compassion, are full of danger to yourselves.”

Unlike Pericles, who in his Funeral Oration praised the Athenians’ excellence in their abilities to govern themselves, Cleon makes them question their own judgment, preying on their fears so they will defer to him on matters of national security. Additionally, he goes on to warn the Athenians against clever speakers who would trick them into acting against their own interests, insisting that anyone who disagrees with him:

…must plainly either have such confidence in his rhetoric as to adventure to prove that what has been once and for all decided is still undetermined, or be bribed to try to delude us by elaborate sophisms…The persons to blame are you who are so foolish as to institute these contests; who go to see an oration as you would to see a sight …the easy victims of new-fangled arguments… asking, if I may so say, for something different from the conditions under which we live…very slaves to the pleasure of the ear, and more like the audience of a rhetorician than the council of a city.

As far as Cleon is concerned, the citizens shouldn’t bother themselves with politics, as they will only be confused and deceived. Instead, they should let him do the talking and deciding. His argument in the debate rejects the very premise of debate; he calls on the Athenians to realize they are too stupid to declare a winner, and should therefore let him do what he knows is best for them.

Ironically, Cleon becomes the very thing he tells his constituents to be wary of. He attempts to pull one over on the Athenians by telling them not to trust politicians, who are always trying to pull one over on them.

Diodotus responds to Cleon’s cynical argument directly, saying that, “Plain good advice has thus come to be no less suspected than bad,” and that if such paranoia prevails in the city so that leaders’ good arguments are dismissed over the mere suspicion of bad motives, then “it would be better for the country if they could not speak at all.” Free political speech will inevitably entail some degree of manipulation; there’s no way around that tradeoff. As Diodotus argues, “The city…can never be served openly and without disguise; he who does serve it openly being always suspected of serving himself in some secret way in return.” The marketplace of ideas will have its fair share of used car salesmen, and the polis must choose to either tolerate them or close the market down entirely.

Insisting that his motives were genuine would have played right into Cleon’s hands. Instead, Diodotus responded to Cleon by admitting that he was exactly right: The citizens can’t rule out the possibility that the person they side with does not have their best interests at heart. The trick is to keep this reality in the back of their minds while making their decision. By being blunt about democracy’s limitations, Diodotus places a great deal of responsibility on the Athenian people. They can’t fully trust the advice of their leaders, so they have to think critically amongst themselves as to what the best course of action is so as to better be able to judge their leaders’ rhetoric. When the time comes for them to make a decision, the Athenian citizens side with Diodotus.

Everything Ted Cruz has done in this campaign suggests that he read all of these ancient works, like the major Ivy League intellectual he is, and decided that Cleon was the character he wanted to emulate. The “constitutional conservative” doesn’t like the part of the Constitution that says we can’t vote on Supreme Court justices. The “religious liberty” advocate thinks that non-believers are unfit to even run for – let alone win – the White House. He has insisted, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the only way for the Republican Party to win in November is to promise to make life really, really difficult for Latinos. He responded to the Thanksgiving weekend terrorist attack on a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood by misdirecting about the attacker’s motives, suggesting that the shooter, who told authorities “no more baby parts” and whose wife says that he’s a religious conservative, was as likely a “transgendered leftist activist” as they were an anti-abortion crusader.

If Cleon were a senator he’d run as a Washington “outsider,” too.

Cruz’s campaign is an exercise in “making the weaker speech the stronger,” putting a face to the vicious sophist Adiemantus was worried about in the Republic (and that Socrates was wrongly accused of being in the Apology). What’s more, Cruz has done so while throwing around insults – “Washington cartel,” “atheist Taliban” and, of course, “philosopher kings” – that accuse his opponents of being exactly the same kind of charlatan that he is, deliberately making it more difficult for the voters to tell the difference.

Ted Cruz invokes classical Greek literature in his campaign knowing full well that the voters he’s targeting have no idea that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Thucydides would be positively horrified by his campaign. In their stories, people like Ted Cruz are the bad guys.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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