Monday, August 1, 2011
The Demise of Democracy
Many today, decry the corruption of our “American Republic” by democracy, or what they call “the mob.” Alas, if they have patience they may live to see that cursed political philosophy (democracy) eradicated in our land. It is not a certain bet, however, that it will be replaced with the republicanism they imagine and long for. Whether any of them would want our government constituted as a “republic” is an even iffier proposition.
Republicanism looks back, in theory, to the Roman Republic in which a select group of well placed and well healed citizens of Rome were elected by a narrow slice of the citizenry – landholding males primarily – with the votes of the wealthy “weighted” to reflect the relative amount of their wealth. Representatives served for one year in a Senate that was expected to be concerned for the needs of the empire and the people.
Democracy looks back, in theory, to a brief time in Athens, Greece, when the entire citizenry – again limited by gender and birth and property holding – had a vote in the decisions of the city-state. The pool of citizens eligible to vote was very small; did not include women, children, slaves, non-native born, for example. And, originally, they did not vote for people to represent them in any legislature; the entire voting citizenry was the legislature. They voted directly on issues brought before them for a decision. Those who served in the government offices were chosen by lot from those eligible to vote. Their tenure in office was for a limited period of time.
It is well known that some of our founding fathers distrusted democracy, believing that giving the vote to too wide a spectrum of the population would result in political chaos, partisanship, and stalemate. They favored a system where a tiny elite of the propertied, white, Christian males would select from their ranks those who would serve as representatives, and who would, in turn, select those who held offices in the government. The U.S. Electoral College system reflects that philosophy as did the original method of selecting U.S. Senators, whereby they were chosen by state legislatures rather than by direct election as is now done.
The current state of political chaos, partisanship, and stalemate seems to bear out the fears of those founding fathers. Over the centuries the nation has broadened suffrage to include women, non-whites, non-Christians, non-landholders; in fact nearly the entire population over the age of majority. And so, today, the cry to return to the rock-solid republicanism of the Founding Fathers is heard from pulpits, on television, across the internet, and in street corner debates.
The curious thing about these calls for a return to Eden is that many of those who are issuing the call would be disenfranchised themselves if we were to do so. Among those calling for a return to post-colonial republicanism are women, non-Christians, ethnic minorities, and un-propertied working people, all of whom were excluded from the political system at its inception. It is not inconsistent, of course, to call for changes that would strip oneself of political access if one truly believes that their disenfranchisement would result in good for the republic as a whole. But I don’t sense that they believe that. What I sense is that they wish the disenfranchisement of those who vote differently than they do.
Almost all Americans show, by their actions, at the very least, that they value their “voice” in the political arena. The broad access to the vote, to political offices, to advocacy of causes, to free association, that we enjoy in this country is, like it or not, an expression of the Representative (Republican) Democracy that our nation has become. We can change that, if we have the will to do so. I do not sense that most Americans really want it changed except in some way that weakens the power of those whose ideas they oppose.
So what are we to do to reduce the gridlock and political polarization that now seems about to fulfill the fears of the Founding Fathers? It would be marvelous if the action of one person could heal the self-inflicted wounds we’ve accumulated over the centuries; if an Obama, or a Boehner, or a Palin, or any other politician could implement a plan that would cool our fever and cure our disease. But the way to political health is difficult, painful, and complicated. It requires patience, determination, cooperation (compromise), and a willingness to take medicine that no one finds palatable.
We the People still hold the key to some hope. In this Representative Democracy, we still are allowed to vote. If every citizen selected the candidate of their choice, not on the basis of party affiliation, or some burning single issue, but on the basis of that candidate’s ability and willingness to cooperatively work with his fellow office holders toward long-term solutions to difficult problems, we might see, in our lifetime, a gradual improvement in the health of the state. That would require each of us to swallow our partisan pride and our selfish political desires and vote for what is best for all, rather than what is best for ourself at this present moment. It would require all of us to reject candidates who blatantly lie (or tacitly approve lies) about their opponents, who play upon our fears, who promise more than any reasonable person can possibly deliver. It would require us to view opposing ideas as challenges to our present thinking; perhaps ill-conceived, or even foolish, but not as demonic schemes put forward to destroy our way of living.
Benjamin Franklin said of our system of government that it was ours “if you can keep it.” It appears about to slip from our hands and if it does, We, the People will have no one to blame but ourselves. We will have pulled our house down upon ourselves rather than make the compromises necessary to allow our brothers and sisters to live with us, in peace, within its walls.