237th birthday, America! Two cheers for democracy!
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 bestindeed,
the only legitimateform 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?
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!”
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.”
I’d be cheered wildly, and get elected in a landslide.
I’m not running for office, so it’s a lot easier to speak the truth.
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.
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,
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 electedrather than those who might actually be able to do
the best job.
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?
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.
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 awareif we are
honest, and if we recall our own complaints during the last electionthat our
popular elections seem deeply plagued by everything I’ve just noted.
that is why democracy doesn’t get three cheers. Demagoguery is a problem, and
democracies are particularly prone to manipulation by demagogues.
that’s not the only reason democracy should get two cheers. I do it as a matter
is nothing more patrioticand again, this is the fourth of Julythan 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.)
believe me? Then read the Constitution. It’s July 4th. Don’t be embarrassed.
you find is thatwell, this is really rather awkward to point outthe 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.
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.
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).
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
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 governmentrule by the one, rule by the few, and
rule by the manywhile 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).
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 electeddare I say it?more like the pope is
elected, not directly by the masses of Catholics, but through the College of
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.
the representatives of the House of Representatives were “chosen every second
year by the people of the several states,” i.e., popularly elected.
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
they gave two cheers, or again, more like one-and-a-half, for democracy.
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.
if it’s that bad, why not give democracy only one cheeror even less?
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.
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.
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
I say, “Two cheers for democracy!”