Many people consider democracy the best system of government. We all know the famous quote from Winston Churchill:

Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend of mine, and he opined that democracy works only if the population is sufficiently intelligent and educated. In his opinion, gullible people won't make good choices in elections, thereby paving the way for a failure of the state. He used this idea to argue that dictatorship is the best system for the country we were discussing.

My question: Is there any good example of a current democratic state that refutes the above idea?

A perfect answer would state the name of a country, provide evidence that its population isn't relatively highly educated or intelligent (using statistics and/or studies, e.g., involving IQ population tests), and demonstrate that the country's government system is, and has been for quite a while, indeed highly democratic (for example, using some democracy index).

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    It depends on what one considers genuinely democratic and what level of education is implied. E.g., would the US fit the bill?
    – Morisco
    Commented Feb 7 at 14:11
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    @RogerV. The lower the average educational level is, and the higher the democracy index is, the better
    – Mitsuko
    Commented Feb 7 at 14:19
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    @Mitsuko again, these are apples an oranges. You might have in mind the western-like nation states, where educational level is simply a measure of attainment between elementary school and a PhD program. What about states where the local population have never left their village, and loyal to their clan/tribe, and have no idea that they are part of some internationally recognized political entity with a government? Or nomadic people? These are what Churchill likely had in mind - since he lived in the period of awakening of national consciousness in colonial world (British, French, Ottoman, etc.)
    – Morisco
    Commented Feb 7 at 14:24
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    Of course, any country that becomes democratic, one thing that the people demand is education. Countries like Botswana had a poor, and uneducated population. As a result of democracy, education improved!
    – James K
    Commented Feb 7 at 22:07
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    Democracy developed in ancient Greece. By many standards, everybody was very uneducated compared to almost everybody living today, at that time. Yes, I know, democracy today isn't what it was then, and it didn't last. But the idea that the basic idea has worked in various places at various times for the last >2,000 years is a hint that it can't really be contingent on any specific kind of education. Commented Feb 8 at 13:56

14 Answers 14


He used this idea to argue that dictatorship is the best system for the country we were discussing.

Here is your answer right away, and it is wonderfully self-serving. If the uneducated are gullible, then who is the one that makes them believe in untruths? The dictator, obviously, and the basic untruth he will tell them is they should leave all decisions to him, because he knows better.

The first time in my life I was confronted with this argument was in high school, where we studied Hendrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People. Consider the the following tirade by lead figure "Dr. Stockmann", who is enraged after the people of his hometown fell for the lies of his adversary, "Morten Kill" (translation by Farquharson Sharp):

The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against which an independent, intelligent man must wage war. Who is it that constitute the majority of the population in a country? Is it the clever folk, or the stupid? I don't imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over. But, good Lord!—you can never pretend that it is right that the stupid folk should govern the clever ones! (Uproar and cries.) Oh, yes—you can shout me down, I know! But you cannot answer me. The majority has might on its side—unfortunately; but right it has not. I am in the right—I and a few other scattered individuals. The minority is always in the right...

...to begin with I will confine myself to one well-approved truth, which at bottom is a foul lie...That is, the doctrine you have inherited from your forefathers and proclaim thoughtlessly far and wide—the doctrine that the public, the crowd, the masses, are the essential part of the population—that they constitute the People—that the common folk, the ignorant and incomplete element in the community, have the same right to pronounce judgment and to approve, to direct and to govern, as the isolated, intellectually superior personalities in it.

I have argued then, and I maintain this until today, that the townspeople were right to declare Dr. Stockmann an enemy of the people after this speach. But especially I maintain that Ibsen composed a play with the intent to deligitimize democracy out of pure self-interest – he was trying to set himself up as a member of the ruling class, just because he thought of himself as more intelligent and better educated as his fellows.

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    I think the idea that the main problem with the USSR was it disincentivized people to work is both extremely reductive and also very much ignoring the fact that the USSR did still have ONE way of amassing wealth (in fact, if not on paper), which was to be high up in the party. They were trying to transition to a "stateless, classless" society via a centralized state which very much had a ruling class. The political system was much more of a problem than the economic system.
    – Turksarama
    Commented Feb 8 at 5:41
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    -1 there's no suggestion that their friend thinks they should be the dictator. It's possible that they think someone else (whom they consider highly capable) should be the dictator.
    – Allure
    Commented Feb 8 at 8:12
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    @Allure That seems harsh. No one thinks their friend is building up a power base here. Merely that he has been listening to the siren songs of others that justify ruling over populations by non-consensual means. Look no further than the many apologists of the CCP in China. Commented Feb 8 at 16:42
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica listening to the siren songs of others what's wrong with that? If this actually happened my first reaction would be to be impressed, because it shows that the friend realizes their own limitations and am deferring to people who know better - sort of a reverse Dunning-Kruger effect.
    – Allure
    Commented Feb 8 at 20:25
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    I don't think this actually answers the question. This answer is essentially saying "the only people making this argument are those who stand to benefit from it." While that is certainly a point worth noting, it doesn't actually explain why the argument is false. Just because someone stands to benefit from a plan doesn't mean the plan is inherently flawed. The answer would be improved if it included evidence or reasoning that democracy would be successful even with an uneducated population
    – T Hummus
    Commented Feb 10 at 6:59

Probably a better way to proceed is to work backwards from the Democracy Index.

  • find high index democracies
  • identify poorer countries (just head to a poor region)
  • look up their education levels (because poorer countries generally correlates with lower post-secondary education). Although... it also depends what you mean by education: % w bpost-secondary diploma? literacy rate?

Looking at The Economists' The world’s most, and least, democratic countries in 2022 two looked like good candidates.

Uruguay - 8.91 democracy score, Mauritius - 8.14

Costa Rica, 8.29, might also have been a good one to look at.

For comparison, US scores 7.85, Spain 8.07, UK 8.28, India 7.04 and Indonesia 6.71


  • Hard to tell, but looks low-ish (there's some noise from a lot of enrollment but low graduation rates).


  • Post-secondary is 8.8% which is a solid low.

So, no, it doesn't sound like that conclusive an argument to me.

Rather than education, you probably need to look more at a solid Supreme court system, political accountability, separations of powers, free press ... good government in general. Though basic literacy would certainly help (but solid press via radio stations could overcome even that). As per ccprog's answer, it seems mostly a self-serving argument by those seeking to suppress democracy.

I'll also quote RogerV's comment on another ingredient that is really, really, necessary to overcome:

loyal to their clan/tribe

Which, really isn't that education-dependent and affects some Western countries almost as nastily.

  • You probably need to look more at a solid Supreme court system, political accountability, separations of powers, free press ... — more compared to what? Those are all crucial elements of democracy by definition.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 8 at 8:32
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    @gerrit To my understanding: more compared to the education level of the population, as stated in the question.
    – Cœur
    Commented Feb 9 at 0:19

Who chooses the dictator?

gullible people won't make good choices in elections, thereby paving the way for a failure of the state. He used this idea to argue that dictatorship is the best system for the country we were discussing.

This assumption overlooks a rather glaring problem - in fact, the main problem - with a dictatorship.

That is: Who chooses the dictator? How can we know whether the dictator has people's best interests at heart, and if they do, whether they are any good at managing a country? How is this selection made?

The dictator has quite a good chance of being the most greedy, power-hungry and ruthless of the politicians, in order to defeat the challengers. Not necessarily the kind of person you want managing the day-to-day challenges of running a country. Dictators rely far more on populism and supporting the people who will keep them in power than even poorly chosen democratic governments.

Just the threat that they may be removed in the next election is incentive for a democratic government to do a good job, but for a dictator, it's more of an incentive to have the opposition silenced, locked up or worse.

Besides, even a poorly-educated populace... and remember that poorly-educated doesn't mean it's a nation of idiots zombying around fumbling in frustration at their untied shoe-laces, it actually means things like a higher rate of illiteracy, or a lower number of people with third level degrees or something - maybe a lower-rate of people working in high-skilled jobs, or a lower average I.Q...

...but they still know whether life is good or not! Or have ideas on how it could be better, even if those ideas are themselves not polished or rely on a populistic belief.

Conversely, why do you think someone with a PhD in Advanced Chemistry would be any better at making or judging polices that affect potentially millions of people than anyone else?

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    @Allure: That's not evading the problem - that's kicking it down a step, because now the question becomes "Who chooses the previous dictator?"...all the way to the first one. Even before the "Have a good track record of handling the country" limitation comes in - because then you need to choose a dictator when the previous one had a bad record. Commented Feb 8 at 23:24
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    @Allure: I feel like that technique would have to be fleshed out, because at first glance, that tactic doesn't prevent someone democratically elected from appearing that they are "good" until they're promoted to dictator, then immediately turn around and start doing the oppressive things. In particular, it reminds me of how Palpatine became the Emperor in Star Wars. Commented Feb 9 at 6:20
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    @Allure - but now you're back to the problem of the poorly-educated, gullible people potentially making a bad decision! And they're stuck with that decision for the rest of their lives and the lives of their descendants! And as we can tell from history, the bad dictators often start off well-loved and popular.
    – komodosp
    Commented Feb 9 at 10:20
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    +1 This is the issue. There's no reliable system for selecting 'benevolent dictators' and most dictators in the modern era have been very bad for their countries' as a whole.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Feb 9 at 17:58
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    "but they still know whether life is good or not! Or have ideas on how it could be better, even if those ideas are themselves not polished or rely on a populistic belief." Not so sure about this part, though. It seems to me that if a large part of the voting population doesn't understand the basics of subjects like how the government works, geography, economics, or even basic logic, they are going to be hard-pressed to make good choices in selecting their leaders.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Feb 9 at 18:17

This is pretty contentious and complicated to disentangle in terms of cause(s) and effect(s).

Education has predictable effects on individuals’ income and cognitive abilities. Increases in education are also associated with favorable social outcomes. During the 20th century, several prominent scholars linked increases in education with improvements in democracy (Dahl, 1971; Friedman, 1962; Lipset, 1959). At the individual level, a well-established connection exists between increases in education and those values presumed to foster democratic governance, although there seems to be high cross-national variance in terms of its substantive impact. Findings connecting increases in overall levels of education with increases in levels of democracy, however, appear less convincing. As Lipset (1960: 39) noted, the evidence was stronger when looking at individual behavior within countries than in cross-national analyses. More recently, Acemoglu et al. (2005) challenged the entire premise, criticized the prior empirical literature, and presented evidence showing that increases in education within countries do not improve levels of democracy.

This article takes advantage of an expanded dataset on educational attainment that covers most of the postwar era (Barro and Lee, 2013) to examine the link between education and democracy. We find that increases in levels of education improve democracy and that the democratizing effect of education is more intense in poor countries.

We argue that increases in education favor democratization and that the effect of education on democracy is conditional on income. [...] The results using the Freedom House/Bollen and the Unified Democracy Scores datasets also suggest that the democratizing effect of education is stronger at lower income levels, although the results are not as strong as with the Polity data. [...]

enter image description here

As you can see, the democratic gap between the low- and high-education countries has narrowed over time, so it's hard to say it's inherently impossible to close. And while this 2015 paper finds that wealth conditions the strength of the relationship, it doesn't provide a clear theoretical model why it has to be that way. In that regard, at best, they write something like

greater levels of wealth lead to outcomes that can be thought of as substitutes for some of the outcomes of greater education. For example, the benefit of education in terms of political tolerance is likely to decline with increases in income. In high income countries, political tolerance is partially supplied by reductions in individuals’ perceptions of insecurity. Low levels of individual intolerance are typically found where poverty rates are high.

Which sounds pretty muddy to me as a theoretical model.

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    I've tried to translate the unreadable verbiage of that last quoted paragraph into everyday terms, and come up with: "Becoming rich has the same effect as becoming educated. The richer you are, the more difficult it gets to teach you tolerance. The rich are tolerant because their wealth protects them. The poor are more tolerant than the rich." Does that make any sense? I can't find it.
    – ccprog
    Commented Feb 7 at 18:09
  • Perhaps wealth also correlates to influencing the measures of « democratic » being used… Commented Feb 8 at 1:49
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    What exactly is meant by democracy on that graph? Occurrences of democratic votes within the country? Effectiveness of democratically selected choices? From my understanding the opponent of democracy in the OP says that uneducated people make bad choices within a democracy. And on the other hand more educated people make better choices under a democracy. What does that have to do with how much democracy there is? It has to do with how effective democratic choices were. Commented Feb 8 at 11:31
  • This is also very hard to separate from undemocratic choices such as 2 party political systems deciding which 2 leaders can be democratically chosen between. There's democracy, but only superficially. It's hard to judge how effective democracy is under various conditions when there is no true democracy in practice. Commented Feb 8 at 11:32
  • The causation might as well be in the other direction: democracy causes higher education. Usually dictatorships in countries which rely on raw material extraction or agriculture, don't require an educated population, and any wealth spent of educating them weakens those in power. While democracies rely on different modes of wealth generation, which absolutely requires an educated workforce. See The Rules for Rulers
    – vsz
    Commented Feb 9 at 5:11

Your friend isn't wrong, he's just making the claim without solid evidence.

We can start by analyzing how being highly-educated populations is no guarantee of making good decisions. Some examples are:

You might actually already be familiar with similar arguments because your friend might've raised them as examples that democracy is flawed, ergo, the so-called benevolent dictator is the more appealing alternative.

However, there's one major assumption that your friend will probably struggle to justify.

If highly-educated populations are unable to make good decisions, what makes him think the dictator will be able to?

Like, you can require the dictator to be highly-educated, but from all the examples above, that's no guarantee that the dictator will make good decisions.

Your friend will likely cite people like Lee Kuan Yew to prove his point. Indeed, Singapore did very well under Lee. What about Robert Mugabe? Mugabe had three degrees and Zimbabwe still did miserably under his stewardship. Your friend might argue that Xi Jinping is successful; you could answer by pointing out that Mobutu Sese Seko was not, in spite of being one of the best-educated in the country.

For your friend's argument to be convincing, he needs to show that statistically, dictatorships are more likely to be successful than democracies, preferably also controlling for harm caused when the mode of government is unsuccessful - and that will be highly nontrivial to prove. Sufficiently rigorous results could easily be publishable in the research literature. Here's an example of a prior paper, your friend will likely be interested. Let me know if he comes up with something, because I'll also be interested.

PS: Fair warning, you likely can't show either that statistically, democracies are more likely to be successful than dictatorships. Be careful not to make superficial claims that appeal to your own politics, but you can't justify.

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    History suggests that the dictator might well make good decisions for himself (extremely rarely herself) and his friends/family…
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 8 at 8:48
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    Yes. Not only that, but while a benevolent dictator is possible, if not all that likely, as stated, the risk is very real that the next dictator will revert to norm. This was always the problem with monarchies: sure, quite a few kings did their best. But what about the heir? If he was the pull-wings-off-live-flies and torture kittens type, well... he was going to be King by grace of God, regardless. In dictatorships, the successor may just the most ruthless of the underlings. Commented Feb 8 at 16:36


Is democracy possible in a country with a relatively low-educated population?

Short Answer:

In his opinion, gullible people won't make good choices in elections, thereby paving the way for a failure of the state.

Tell your friend to relax. He's not completely wrong just mostly wrong. He's right about bad choices. The U.S. for example has had 46 Presidents in our history. Of those 4 or 5 are credited as the greatest, none having been in office for the last 80 years. The vast majority have been ineffective to poor, many even terrible. So your buddy is right there. What he's wrong about are.

  1. The term democracy.
  2. That if we only permitted elites to vote they would do any better. All evidence is by narrowing the voting pool the results would be worse.
  3. That republics don't have protections against bad leaders. They were literally invented to handle bad leaders making bad decisions.
  4. That educated voters themselves predate Republics rather than being a product of republics.
  5. I would finally note that in the United States of our 5 greatest presidents, arguable none would have been elected if only elites or contemporarily exceptionally educated people could vote.


Democracies don't work regardless of the education of the population. Democracies blinked out of existence thousands of years ago because they inevitably result in the tyranny of the majority persecuting minorities. The Democracy of Athens murdered Socrates. Socrates was a minority because he was the smartest most educated person in Athens. Which is why his student Plato invented Republics! This is why Republics exceed at and were designed to protect the rights of minorities against majority opinions that would roll over them in a traditional democracy. Which is why there are no democracy governments in the modern world because almost everybody is a minority in some way.

I think what you are intending to ask is whether a constitutional republic are possible in a relatively low-educated population. And the answer is absolutely. The United States for example was founded by a group of famers and merchants lead by George Washington who historians believe likely didn't complete the fourth grade. The President of the first continental congress which authored our Declaration of Independence was a smuggler.

The fact that the United States is an educated country today which pioneered universal public education, pioneered public high schools, universal high school education, and has more universities +4,500 institutions than any other country. Likely higher percentage of people with some college education than any other country except the tiny ones. These are testaments too, not a requirement for, the constitutional republic form of government.

Mean while let's check with how leaders elected by political elites, with more power and authority to pursue their vision are fairing? Take China for example. Terrible housing shortage while 1 in 5 houses are vacant. One would think that's not possible but it is when power is entrusted "political elites" to make all the decisions.

The urban residential property vacancy rate is around 20% in China

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    I would argue that it doesn't matter if they are the greatest or not, what is more important are the ones that are considered to have done harm while in office.
    – Joe W
    Commented Feb 7 at 19:01
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    I can infer what you mean by "democracy" here, but it might be helpful to spell it out, as that word can have a number of related, but different, meanings. In particular, a common meaning of democracy refers to any state with free and fair elections, which is not, I think, what you mean by the word here. It's relevant because you contrast democracies with republics - yet there are a number of states that would be described as democratic (by the definition I've just stated) but which are not republics, e.g. the UK. Commented Feb 7 at 21:25
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    This answer also spreads the myth of American exceptionalism, claiming that the USA pioneered things that it didn't. The US did not pioneer universal public education.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 8 at 8:40
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    @EduardoWada, yes the founding fathers disliked democracies. They were very clear on this. They were setting up a republic. On the other hand the founding fathers only let the people vote on 1/6th of the government. The House of Representatives. President's were appointed by electors. Senators were appointed by their state legislatures. Supreme court members were appointed by the Presidency and veted by the senate. It's true that we are more democratic than the founding fathers originally envisioned, but we are still a constitutional republic. Setup to protect Individual rights.
    – JMS
    Commented Feb 9 at 1:33
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    Peripheral: ISTM that the Chinese residential property vacancy rate is very largely caused by a property scam whereby usually immensely low grade apartments are sold as investments with the very major aim of stealing the investors funds. The Chinese government has been immensely unreactive to this clearly criminal activity. Commented Feb 10 at 10:29

There are many important questions that require knowledge to be addressed properly. Otherwise it becomes just a matter of which propaganda is louder.

  • Questions about advanced technologies (should we vote to ban genetically modified food?).
  • Questions related to history (should vote to ban Swastika?).
  • Questions addressing the threats like global warming require knowledge to understand, how much is the threat real (should we vote to ban these windmills in the sea?).
  • Certain understanding about religions other then one's own is often helpful (should we vote to ban Islam on the basis of 9/11?)
  • Basic knowledge of geography is required just to understand what is going on and how far away (where is this Fukushima?).

In society where people do not know much about things they must make decisions about, the society may be manipulated by various groundless claims. It is especially important in countries that have some elements of direct democracy (referendums).

Hence, in general, yes, the democracy works better in well educated society and it is important that the knowledge of citizens is not restricted to what they absolutely need for their job.


TLDR: If the question is, "Can a country have a low percentage of people with tertiary degrees and yet score highly on The Economist Democracy Index?", the answer is yes. However, if the question is more deeply in the vein of, "Does more education make people 'more democratic'?", the answer can only be it depends.

In terms of how the question is posed directly, I'd say Mauritius is a good answer. According to a 2022 government census, 8.8% of the population has a tertiary degree, up from 3.8% in 2011. However, Mauritius first instituted voting with universal adult suffrage in 1959, and democracy has survived there through its attainment of independence from Britain in 1968 up into the present day. Although the political situation there has had its ups and downs like any country, The Economist rated it as a "full democracy" in 2023 with a score of 8.14, higher than the U.S. or France.

That said, if the ultimate goal here is to address the question, "Does education make people more in favor of democracy/better democratic citizens?", or conversely, "Does less education make people 'worse at democracy'?", I think this kind of approach is a tad blunt. What education constitutes in practice is somewhat unique in every country, and to some extent even in every institution. How education influences the political views and activities of people in a given time and place depends in practice on many factors: Who gets an education and how? What do highly-educated people tend to do? Is there a distinct "political class," and if so, is a high, or low, degree of education an asset to those who want to enter its ranks? How much influence does the government have over the educational sphere, and how do they exercise the influence they have?

In China today, Communist Party members tend to have college degrees, and in general the CCP values strong academic performance and high educational attainment. It seems unlikely to me, given this, that more educated Chinese citizens are generally more in favor of liberal democracy in this day and age; on the contrary, the better-educated are probably more likely to endorse the political status quo. Of course, schoolteachers and university professors would have a hard time keeping their job there if they were openly politically dissident; they're likely to endorse the status quo too. Of course, in the past, the situation was somewhat different; the Cultural Revolution had a famously anti-intellectual character and involved a lot of upheaval at universities, so at that time it was probably harder to make it into the CCP through higher education. The government was perhaps "earthier" and less technocratic in character.

During the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, the government greatly expanded public education in an effort to "modernize" the country. However, ironically, university students were some of the most enthusiastic supporters of Khomeini during the Revolution; so, those students favored theocratic authoritarianism over secular authoritarianism. After all, there are many forms of both authoritarianism and democracy, and many grey areas between and within them, and even systems of political organization that are entirely different from either...and I think you could probably find student revolutions in history in favor of any system across that whole space.

Furthermore, whether The Economist is really a good judge of what constitutes a well-functioning democracy is clearly up for debate; I don't think it's really such a simple situation that you can rate a country's "democratic health" on a 0–10 scale and come up with answers that everyone will agree makes sense. In my own country, the U.S., most people agree that "freedom and liberty" are positive ideals and associate them with some definition of democracy; that broad idea plays a prominent role in the country's foundational documents and is part of its "national myth". However, some Americans associate the word "freedom" primarily with freedom to do business, others with freedom in their private affairs, and others with freedom to act in the public political sphere; for any given individual it represents some (often uneven) mix of these. Education does seem to have an influence on how people view the idea of "freedom and liberty," but it really depends on what kind: for instance, economists and MBAs often emphasize the business aspect. For those who think corporate power tends to be harmful to democracy, mainstream economics or business education might seem harmful to it in kind for this reason, but not necessarily education in other fields. There is an ongoing debate about whether economics education makes people more "self-centered," for instance. However, whether being "self-centered" is also "undemocratic" is obviously up for (fierce) debate in itself. Etc. etc.

  • ...so the answer is: Yes, it's possible? This excellent post could do with a little summary.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 8 at 10:40
  • Well, okay. Thanks. Commented Feb 8 at 11:02

Case study: Brexit. It's well documented that those who voted for Brexit were less well educated than those who voted against. One simplistic conclusion is that it was stupid to vote leave. Another conclusion however is that the well educated thought they would benefit from staying in the EU, whereas the less well educated thought they would benefit from leaving (because their income would be better protected from competition with cheap imported labour); and that voting to leave for these people was therefore a perfectly rational decision.

The answer to your question, I think, is therefore yes. Those who are less well educated might have different goals and aspirations and the outcome of their vote might therefore be different, but that's what democracy is all about.

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    This answer has the implicit assumption that people vote in their own (perceived) self-interest. They might, but not always (some high-income citizens support higher income taxes on high-income citizens).
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 8 at 10:42
  • As a relatively high earner myself, I believe a more egalitarian society is most definitely in my own self interest. Commented Feb 10 at 13:35

In my opinion, a low level of education makes it harder for democracy to be achieved, because even if the leaders are chosen by clean elections, there is no guarantee they will do what the people want. While this is true even for highly educated countries, low educated ones will have less tools to keep the leaders in check. Democracy literally means "Power in the hands of the people". Open elections are just a tool to achieve democracy, not democracy itself. I.e. If the people of a certain nation has the desire of being governed by a monarch, in this case monarchy is democratic. If an elected president does what his wants after elections, this presidency is not democratic. A low educated people will have less power to organize themselves and fight the State in case of discordance.

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    Hi and welcome to politics SE. For information about how this site works you can check out the help center or Politics Meta. Commented Feb 9 at 16:27
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    This answer gets in the right direction. With a more highly-educated population, more people will have the tools to sue the government if the government is acting illegally.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 9 at 18:17

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend of mine, and he opined that democracy works only if the population is sufficiently intelligent and educated. In his opinion, gullible people won't make good choices in elections, thereby paving the way for a failure of the state. He used this idea to argue that dictatorship is the best system for the country we were discussing.

It's actually become quite common for liberals to express this idea, because they are unable to incorporate three main facts:

  1. "intelligence" and "education" are correlated with being granted a better socioeconomic status, in a context of a long sustained attack on workers' incomes and income security since the 1970s. The "intelligent and educated" are at least one step further back (and often much further) from the sharpest end of these attacks than those who, because they are so-called stupid and uneducated, apparently deserve to be ground to dust by the economic violence of market capitalism.

  2. Under the resurgence of right-wing liberalism since the 1970s, the rich have extensively acquired and consolidated the "means of communication", and use this consistently to pump corrupting political propaganda into the public sphere, whilst claiming that they have the right to do this under the aegis of the "free press" which is anything but democratic in nature.

  3. The political options available on ballots in democratic processes are now consistently subject to a rigging influence by various underhand means (including the selective release or preferential suppression of embarrassing information by the rich-owned press), so that only those with relatively extreme personalities or unconventional backgrounds can overcome these undemocratic influences, and the electorate who want change are then forced to accept these characters who on any analysis may not be ideal politicians.

Rather than recognising themselves as a bought-off elite in a liberal society under which all democratic mechanisms are under sustained attack, "intelligent and educated" liberals diagnose the problem as being with what little democratic influence still exists, such as the boiling anger which is propelling those like Trump into the highest offices in a way that defies all attempt of liberals to use their media control to bring him down.

The reason those like Churchill warn that democracy is better than all alternatives, is because whatever damage Trump may do in office, he will for a while relieve the grassroots head of steam that has put him there, in two main ways. One, the simple fact of his election will demonstrate that the system remains somewhat democratic and is capable of being controlled, and therefore makes people less convinced of the need to completely destroy the existing system. Two, for a while Trump will disrupt expectations and political forces in a way that blurs the directional focus of popular anger, so that even if he solves absolutely nothing, it slows down the process of destruction that would be advancing rampantly in a completely undemocratic society, and gives the liberal elites more time to think about the concessions they are willing to make if they don't want to see the collapse advance further.

Biden's attempt to re-onshore some American jobs, his endless rhetorical boosting of trade unions, and his denigration of further free trade deals, is an example of behaviours under this political pressure that liberals would not even countenance otherwise. Without the threat of Trump (and of the world war brewing), the liberal media would be tirelessly telling us how Biden is beggaring his neighbours, supporting Spanish practices, and causing "inefficiencies" in global trade.

In other societies that do no provide this democratic relief, the steam boiler gradually strains then suddenly explodes, sweeping all away with it as many dictatorships have found out, belatedly and to the permanent cost of their elites.

  • 1
    It's actually become quite common for liberals to express this idea — source? That makes no sense whatsoever, because a dictatorship is the complete opposite of liberal. Do you have any evidence that people describing themselves as liberal support dictatorships? And do you have any evidence that those liberals are not aware of the points you are listing?
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 8 at 8:42
  • Your paragraph about Trump ignores the systemic threat he can pose to independent courts. See Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Russia, for countries that appear democratic on paper, but where separation of powers has been largely eroded. What are Spanish practices?
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 8 at 8:45
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    @gerrit, source - my regular experience, as reinforced by the OPs own account of his friend's words. Liberals aren't opposed to dictatorship - they love dictatorship of the rich over the poor, that's why they love markets and fawn over billionaires. As for "independent courts" that is another case of liberals thinking that unelected judges should dictate to the electorate. "Spanish practices" are how the liberal media used to describe the results of trade union activity, when it was stopping the bosses imposing extreme and unconventional conditions on workers.
    – Steve
    Commented Feb 8 at 9:28
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    Maybe it would help to specify what/who exactly you mean by liberals. An economic elite was applauding the Pinochet coup, an elite that favours an economic laissez-faire policy, but not the civil liberties inherent to liberal democracy as in classical liberalism. I readily believe there exists an elite who prefers Pinochet to Lula, similar to how conservatives initially helped raise Hitler into power, but I wouldn't use the word "liberals" to describe such people.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 8 at 9:54
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    @gerrit, what you call "conservatives" are in fact radical right-wing liberals. Pinochet was a right-wing liberal - and so was Thatcher who backed him, and she called herself a liberal. This idea that liberals are a benign, pro-worker, or pro-democratic political force is nonsense. You ask any liberal about democracy, and they'll immediately start talking about how it must be constrained by unelected judges, mustn't interfere with markets or private property, mustn't interfere with the press and propaganda organs owned by the rich, and so on. (1/2)
    – Steve
    Commented Feb 8 at 10:53

This crucially depends on what you mean by "democracy". Like democracy technically means "rule of the people" and so refers to a kind of government of the people, for the people, by the people.

So ideally it would incorporate concepts like everyone being electable and able to elect, transparent decision making, active participation and involvement, access to information, discussion, debate, compromises, etc.

And apart from maybe some time (informed decisions, discussions, research, education, etc. might take at least some time) the requirement for that is actually quite low. Whether you have a group meeting of hunters and gatherers where they talk through roles and tactics of hunting or finding places to gather or whether you have more technologically advanced societies, the concept of getting together and deciding what to do next in a gathering of equals is not really something that requires much pre-requisists. On the contrary over time people will usually get better at this because they get a broader insight about what are the topics that are most relevant to society, what are the reasons for why individuals veto decisions and are they warranted and what can we do to solve these problems. This is knowledge that you will inevitably acquire just by doing the process. You will see what works, ask questions about how things work, see what doesn't work, you might already be able to interject that something doesn't work because you've learned that the hard way, even if you haven't yet figured out stuff that actually works, aso. Even people without a formal education are usually not without knowledge or intelligence and even if it's just the knowledge about themselves, which they have 1st hand access to while the decision makers would need to eyeball that by surveys, statistics and whatnot.

So this idea of a benevolent dictatorship or of an education to self-government is always kinda iffy because if you follow the lead and fit into a role assigned to you by someone else, then you're not practicing or preparing for democracy, in fact you do the opposite. You practice your role in an authoritarian and hierarchical system where it's simply not your job to be concerned with politics and so your lack of education is "fixed", simply by pretending it's not a problem (which it still is)...

So what happens in the worst case is that your "benevolent" dictator turns into a (not-so-benevolent) dictator and then you are shit out of luck because you might no longer have the means to overthrow him or even if you can, you have no idea how the state apparatus actually works, so either you need to learn that by doing (which you could/should have done way earlier and which doesn't make it easier) or you just end up emulating the system you overthrew and thus perpetuating it and ending up with another dictator (benevolent or malevolent).

Though after saying that there are very few technical requirements to that. One might add that there are still some requirements to that:

Like first of all people need to want that. Sounds stupid and recently scammers have given the term "mindset" a really bad reputation, but you kinda need a population willing to take up the challenge. To not accept a "savior narrative" where they are told to keep calm and carry on while people supposedly more smart than themselves will just handle it for them. They need to want to know what is on, what are the relevant questions, why, what is being done, why is it being done, what are the benefits and drawbacks, want to get involved and want people to explain their steps. Democracy lives from active participation of the population. More than an existing base of knowledge you need the curiosity and the understanding that you are now a decision maker, neither a king who is served, nor a servant who is commanded, you need to do shit yourself in cooperation with other people.

And that is a problem not just for novel democracies, for technologically developing countries and so on, but for all democracies. If you think peak democracy is being able to elect your leaders, if you want strong leadership, if you think the most capable should make the decisions and the rest follow their lead. Then those are not democratic ideas and ideals these are authoritarian ideas and if a majority wants those then there's only so much a democracy can do about it, so democracies need democrats.

The second major problem is a willingness to deal with other people. To be able to deal with pluralism, accept equality and freedom of other people and develop means of constructive conflict resolution. The thing is the bigger a community gets the more pluralism becomes inevitable. If all people did the same at the same time you will find it impossible to acquire the necessary resources for that. Also one event could kill the entire population because no one would be prepared as all are too identical. At the same time, the more your lives differ from each other the harder it is to communicate ideas, ideals, requirements, necessities, goals, hopes, dreams and aspirations. So disagreement and conflict is to some extend inevitable, but you need to find ways to deal with it constructively.

Because if you don't, then you'll either break apart as a society (whether that's good or bad depends on the circumstances) and/or you'll develop structures that are very undemocratic, oppression of minorities and throwing groups or individuals under the bus (for whom the system will not express itself as democracy). And the more militant the conflict becomes the harder the decision making is going to be, because before you could even tackle the issue you'd need to clear the problem of not getting onto each other's throats, because caring for one's own safety usually takes priority over all other issues.

And lastly (again) you need time. Getting to know each other and one's problems making decisions that don't unintentionally throw people under the bus, that don't overpower others and disenfranchise them, that accept seemingly stupid questions and are willing to also improve one's ability to explain instead of just raising the demand for the learners and all these things. That takes time. It's very well possible to have that time be cut short if people are already on the same page and if education, understanding and trust is high, while it might take considerably longer if people don't know what it's about, don't get what is at stake and distrust everyone in the room. So you might compare it to paying in advance vs taking on a credit. If you put in the trouble at the start and work on your democracy you likely might even gain time from that, because you might have a lot less trouble in the long run, then if you make a split second decision which cuts that time tremendously but where you end up paying a lot more because the problems that you ignored pile up via interest rates.

So this idea of implementing democracy "top down", is usually rather complicated, because having a small government of few people requires a hug workload in terms of education from these people, that you wouldn't have if you spread that over more people. It also creates an instant class and caste difference between the people because of that, so even if "de jure" a democracy it can quite easily transform into an oligarchy as there is no alternative. Also a tight time schedule for decisions can mean that you don't really have time for planning and making careful and considerate decisions, but the necessity to start acting NOW. So this again favors anti-democratic structures where you have a small leadership fast decision making and people on the bottom acting according to their role rather than bothering themselves with requirements of a job that they don't have.

However as we've seen in history, these ideas often times fail. So ironically "dictator" was historically a temporary position. Like when the Roman republic was in trouble the senate and consuls and the other institutions that were meant to keep each other in check could give up a large amount of their power to a single leader that would be given enormous privileges and a 6 month time frame to basically utilize the entire power of the empire to solve a particular problem. It didn't take long before Caesar used that power not just to solve a problem but to make himself dictator for life and without special purpose and for leaders of empires to use variations of his name for their title, "tsar" (Russian emperor), "kaiser" (German emperor), "Qayser" (Turkish emperor).

So this supposed time saved by an authoritarian is bought with a heavy price and quite often creates more problems than it actually solves. That being said if the situation is bad enough, if there is already an acceptance for throwing people under the bus, if people are able to be played against each other (divide and conquer) and if "simple solutions to complex problems" in combination with a "savior narrative" are pervasive then this can easily kill a democracy. And in that case a lack of education can be an aggrevating factor, because it can encourage trust in misinformation, sucking up "us" vs "them" narratives, a willingness to accept authority and savior figures, a distorted view of history where exactly those figures often ended up being the ones who write down what happened while the history between the lines is something that would take much longer to learn. Edit: Or people might simply be more receptive to the idea of "urgency", when they actually would have the time for democracy. Also for completion it could also happen that they are not educated but simply stubborn and thus still block decision making for better or worse.

So while not necessarily a requirement for people to be highly educated in order to have a democracy, it might nonetheless help especially if you shoot for a less direct and more representative democracy where you don't necessarily learn on the job but need to do that in your spare time. So ironically that can often make it harder rather than easier.


I think there is a simple fallacy in this line of reasoning:

A country with a lower-educated population is worse off than a country with a higher-educated population.

Therefore, a democracy with a lower-educated population is worse than a democracy with a higher-educated population.

Therefore, democracy is worse for a country with lower-educated population.

Therefore, dictatorship is better for a country with lower-educated population.

While it's hard to deny the premise, it should be clear that the conclusion doesn't follow.

You can make the point that every form of government is going to work less well in a lower-educated country, but that is not an argument for or against democracy.

In a democracy: Imagine there are two high-educated politicians, one of them benevolent and one of them malevolent, and the rest of the population is low-educated. The two politicians will present their ideas, and the low-educated people will vote. Perhaps the malevolent politician will manage to take advantage of their low education to trick them into voting for things that are against their own interests.

In a dictatorship: Imagine there are two high-educated politicians, one of them benevolent and one of them malevolent, and the rest of the population is low-educated. The malevolent politician is a dictator. This is not better than a democracy!

Real life is worse than this example. There is no such thing as a benevolent dictator.


Every status of education lets people say what they want in life to feel better cared for. Current democracy us a legacy system which is highly flawed because it let's politicians decide what the people want in something known as policymaking. Later systems will actually work on the peoples wishes carefully measured.

A politician deciding what policy suits the people is like a musician trying to run a restaurant. There is missing an entire class within the democracy system called consensus measurement.

So democracy as a very flawed and legacy system which depends mostly on the media system rather than popular culture and reasoning. The less educated the people are the easier it is for the media to manipulate them.

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