Democracy Notwithstanding

It is a presidential election year, and the winds of politics have taken over the troposphere. There are the fortunate ones who seem to be immune to this distempering disease, but the rest of us are inflicted with the symptoms of the malady, to include a continuous internal disquiet and the objectification of all political opponents. Even families are torn apart, as the members thereof squabble over the prefabricated laundry lists of political opinions disseminated by the political parties and operatives. It is a sight to behold, and sort of a sad one at that.

This spectacle causes some—the more sensitive among us, I imagine—to disparage the entire democratic process. It is pointed out that the premier example of democracy that we find in the Bible is when the crowd calls for Barabbas, and if that is indeed to be the biblical exemplar, democracy doesn’t have much to recommend it.

But that calls for a good suggestion for a replacement, and there is a dearth of those. There are good Christian people extant who are calling for a monarchy. But how we would arrive at that in the United States is difficult to see without a candidate for the monarchial post gathering an army and imposing himself militarily. And even if someone was able to accomplish that, there would be no guarantee that the outcome would be desirable. The monarch could turn out to be a very bad man, but it would be impossible to remove him without violence. We will have gotten rid of nasty political campaigns and ignorant voting at the price of the peaceful transition of power.  

One can point to the constitutional monarchies of Europe, but those are democracies. If those monarchs have a veto power, they rarely, if ever, use it, and it would be considered an affront if they did. And even if a constitutional monarchy was somehow the answer to the more unfortunate characteristics of democracy, the United States isn’t Europe, and the European monarchies arose and developed under very specific historical circumstances, and began, in less politically correct times, at the point of a sword. It would be impossible for the United States to re-enact European history, and it would be an unwise attempt even if it was possible. Europe went through a lot of bloodshed to get where it is today, and the United States has managed to involve itself with a fair measure of that without any foreign philosophical aid.

So what do we do with a political process that is so divisive that it incites in otherwise decent people such a white-hot hatred of others that they are prepared to disown members of their own families?  Moreover, what do we do with a system that is, in theory, overseen by an electorate that brings a level of civic illiteracy to its decisions?

Whatever we do, we don’t abandon democracy.

The true virtue of democracy is missed by its advocates when they justify their position with reference to the goodness of human beings, and their essential qualifications for governing themselves. On that basis, democracy is bound to disappoint, the calls for Barabbas never being too far in the past. No, the best argument for democracy rests precisely in the evil lurking in humanity. C.S. Lewis put it best:

“A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. . . I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. The real reason for democracy is: Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” [1]

Winston Churchill said, “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 all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” [2] I am compelled to take up the side of Messrs. Lewis and Churchill on this point. Democracy has many faults, and, from time to time, results in absurdity. But the evil that is in humanity forbids us to dare depart from it.

Louis Rose