Happy 237th birthday, America! Two cheers for democracy!
Why only two? Aren’t we supposed to cheer wildly for democracy as unambiguously good? Don’t we have a moral obligation to hold up democracy as the best—indeed, the only legitimate—form of government? Isn’t it the only form of government that expresses the fundamental moral and theological truth that all human beings are equal, have equal dignity, are equally children of God, have equal rights, and all of the other equal things anyone can think of?
Well, certainly if I were running for political office, I would have to cheer for democracy with unbridled exuberance. I would have to say something like, “Three cheers for democracy?!—no, make that a hundred!”
And if the other candidate suggested that two cheers might be more modestly appropriate, then I’d win hands down. “Two cheers, you say? This man is a totalitarian, a bigot, an enemy of the common man. I think we see who is for the people, and who is against.”
Then I’d be cheered wildly, and get elected in a landslide.
But I’m not running for office, so it’s a lot easier to speak the truth.
If we recognize the humor in that last comment (even if only as sarcasm, the lowest end of the humor spectrum), then we realize, in part, why we might consider giving only two cheers for democracy.
We realize that, all too often, trying to get elected means bending one’s message to the popular ear, trying to make oneself salable, making use of the exact same techniques as ad agencies use to sell Coke and deodorant, manipulating the masses through slick ads, mud-slinging ads, mawkishly patriotic ads, disingenuous ads.
Getting elected means telling people what they want to hear, rather than telling them the truth about the actual political situation. So that those who flatter and fawn, who look the best, speak the best, are able to rouse the most passion, are the ones who get elected—rather than those who might actually be able to do the best job.
What if the actual best person to be our president were a short, shy, dumpy, bald guy with a biggish nose and crooked teeth, who spoke with a squeaky stutter? Would he get elected?
In sum, the bane of democracy is demagoguery. A demagogue is “a person who tries to stir up the people by appeals their emotions or prejudices in order to win them over quickly and so gain power.” The word demagogue comes from the Greek words “demos” (people) and agein (to lead), and had the sense, earned in the tumultuous democracies of ancient Greece, of leaders of the mob.
Those are the problems with elections. And elections are at the very heart of a democracy. There is nothing more democratic than election by popular vote. And we are all aware—if we are honest, and if we recall our own complaints during the last election—that our popular elections seem deeply plagued by everything I’ve just noted.
So, that is why democracy doesn’t get three cheers. Demagoguery is a problem, and democracies are particularly prone to manipulation by demagogues.
But that’s not the only reason democracy should get two cheers. I do it as a matter of patriotism.
There is nothing more patriotic—and again, this is the fourth of July—than raising a modestly rousing two cheers for democracy because that’s about all that the Founding Fathers gave it. (Actually, they gave it closer to one and a half.)
Don’t believe me? Then read the Constitution. It’s July 4th. Don’t be embarrassed.
What you find is that—well, this is really rather awkward to point out—the United States of America was not founded as a democracy. It was designed to be a mixed regime, i.e., a mixture of the different kinds of possible rule.
We tend to think (because we are so very democratic) that there are only two kinds of governmental forms. The first kind is democracy, the only unambiguously good form. The second kind is every other kind of government, all of which can be classified as tyrannies of one sort or another.
But that is simply untrue. You can be ruled by one person (a king or queen or single leader whatever he’s called), a small number of people (an aristocracy, or a body of wise men), or by the majority (democracy).
We tend to forget the first two possibilities for good governance. But admit it. There can be good kings, good single leaders, who guide their respective nations wisely, especially in times of crisis. Think Winston Churchill. There can be a wise but small body of people who lead a nation well, especially in times of crisis. Think of the very small number of men at the Constitutional Convention itself.
The Founders tried to combine all three kinds into one new kind of government, their hope being that they could get the best kind of government by combining the advantages of each kind of government—rule by the one, rule by the few, and rule by the many—while avoiding the defects of each. And so, we’ve got a king (president), and aristocratic body (Senate), and a democratic body elected directly by the people (House of Representatives).
The Founders wanted us to have the benefits of having a good king, so we have a president, but wanted to avoid the defects of having a tyrant (so, unlike a hereditary monarch, he can be booted out, after four years, or even before, by impeachment, whereas kings can generally only be removed by removing their heads). But the president was not to be elected popularly, i.e., by democratic vote. He was to be elected by a small body of electors (a.k.a., the Electoral College) chosen from each of the states. The president was to be elected—dare I say it?—more like the pope is elected, not directly by the masses of Catholics, but through the College of Cardinals.
The Founders wanted the benefits of aristocratic rule, and so we have a Senate, a small, elite body of legislators, “two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.” Note: they are not popularly-elected either. Senators were supposed to be the best men, chosen out of the state legislative bodies. Dare I say it again?—sort of like the Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals.
Only the representatives of the House of Representatives were “chosen every second year by the people of the several states,” i.e., popularly elected.
If I could say it one sentence, the Founders did not found a democracy because they were deeply afraid that the people, manipulated by demagogues, would vote for their own and the nation’s self-destruction. They would vote according to their passions (passions that had been manipulated), they would vote according to extreme short-sightedness, they would vote out of ignorance, they would vote out of fear, they would vote according to self-interest rather than the true common good.
And so they gave two cheers, or again, more like one-and-a-half, for democracy.
Historically, we have moved to three cheers (and more). The 17th Amendment made Senatorial elections strictly democratic. Our presidential election process has been fully democratized, even though we still “filter” votes through the most useless of vestigial parts of the body politic, the Electoral College. We are now fully democratic, which is why our elections are so fully demagogic.
Well, if it’s that bad, why not give democracy only one cheer—or even less?
Because kings (or presidents) can become tyrants, perverting their power by using it for their own benefit, rather than for the sake of the true common good. Richard Nixon was hustled out of office for abusing the powers of the president, bugging the Democratic National Committee headquarters so that he could be assured reelection. We shall see what will happen to President Obama, now that we’ve found out he’s using far more technologically advanced powers to bug nearly every US citizen. But if something is done, it will be the people that rise up and do it, or the Senators and Representatives pitchforked into action by those who elected them. Democracy could save the presidency and privacy both.
And aristocrats (or Senators) are really often really only thinly-disguised oligarchs who rule for the sake of the rich, rather than the common good. Too many of our Senators are in happy cahoots with mega-corporations. It is still possible to vote out those whose votes have been bought, and what makes it possible is that the people who voted them in can vote them back out again.
While there is a lot of manipulation of the people, there is also a lot of integrity, good sense, and courage. So much more than there seems to be in Washington these days.
And so I say, “Two cheers for democracy!”