Friday, March 11, 2005

The Promise and the Perils of Democracy, Part 2

Anyone privileged to live in the United States, the world's longest-functioning democratic nation, knows how special it is to live in a democracy. Political and economic freedom are spectacular things, as virtually anyone who has lived under dictatorial regimes, like the ones in Iran or North Korea would attest, if they could.

Democracy holds the promise of extraordinary opportunity for individuals and societies. But as democracy continues its march across the globe, it's only appropriate that some of its perils also be considered.

In my first post, I listed the first peril I see for democracy in any country where it is newly-emergent: democracy's inherent sluggishness. For anyone accustomed to the crisp efficiency of despotic regimes, the painful slowness of democratic decision-making can arouse frustration and a yearning for the clarity offered by dictatorship. Nations unwilling to accept the glacial pace of most decision-making in democracy risk slipping back into despotism, as it appears is happening in Russia today.

But here is a second peril of democracy: It isn't a panacea for human ills and in fact, is likelier to reflect all the negative attributes that swirl in the human soul than most modes of government.

Often in history, one form of government or one change in governments, has been held up as the golden key, unlocking new epochs in human happiness. But each has run into a common snag: The intractability of pervasive selfishness, of greed, and of human dysfunctionality. Another word for all these things is sin.

Ancient Israel is a great example of a nation looking for a golden key when it came to how they would be governed. According to the Bible, Israel had been miraculously liberated from slavery by God and ultimately, ushered into a land that God provided for them. They might have been content. To govern them, God had established a system whereby decisions were made and disputes settled. Underpinned by prayer and faith, this system saw smaller decisions rendered at a lower level and increasingly larger decisions passed forward to more overarching authorities. This was a the era of the judges. It was a theocratic form of governance. That is, God was ruling ancient Israel directly through judges and elders.

(By the way, theocracies can only work when everyone believes in the same God and in the same way. It's doubtful that there is a nation on earth today where it either can or should be tried. Theocratic systems can lead to especially vicious forms of despotism, as we have seen in Iran and Saudi Arabia. In their ways, both Nazism and Communism have been theocracies, holding up certain ideas as idols and being presided over by people who used their power in the most horrific ways.)

As ancient Israel grew more rooted and more prosperous, the people looked around and developed a bad case of King-Envy. They noticed that other world powers with which they were familiar had kings. They wanted one too. This hankering to be like all the other nations came to a critical mass at a meeting between Israel's elders and the nation's judge at that time, Samuel:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the LORD, and the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’ (1 Samuel 8:4-9)
God acceded to the wishes of ancient Israel and gave the nation kings. Far from being a panacea, for the most part, this was a disaster. Why? Because kings are human beings and human beings are imperfect. It's true of every one of us that "have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

Even democracies can fall into despotism. In fact, the framers of America's Constitution had a decided fear of the despotism into which democracy can be plunged; they feared what has been called mobocracy.

Mindful of this possibility, that generation of Americans took any number of preventive measures. They strove, for example, to keep the military small. They established military chaplaincies with the idea of blunting the more vicious of human impulses. Because they believed that an educated electorate was essential for the functioning of democracy, they made provision for education in the so-called Northwest Territory through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. (The latter probably being the only notably successful piece of legislation forged under the Articles of Confederation.)

Democracies, with their dissemination of political and economic opportunity, probably afford the greatest possibility for true, sustained political and economic freedom for people. The United States is Exhibit #1 in favor of that proposition.

But, democracies haven't been a panacea for the ills of any given society precisely because electoral majorities are usually forged by appealing to large groups' perceived self-interest. In democracies, there are in's and out's. If you consider the compositions of the the coalitions that make up America's two major political parties, you will find huge numbers of their voters to be people who support their preferred party out of self-interest.

Nations whose citizens consistently fall into this pattern will eventually destroy their democracies.

One of the fortunate aspects of American life throughout much of this nation's history has been what Alexis de Tocqueville called "habits of the heart," those ways of approaching life forged originally in Christian faith, that have undergirded traditional American values like community, concern for neighbor, voluntarism, and concerted action for the common good. All of these habits can be directly or indirectly linked to America's Christian past, with its belief in the value of every individual, the valued ministry of every Christian believer, and the call to love and serve one's neighbor.

The founders of the United States, whether they were functional atheists like Thomas Jefferson, true believers like John Adams, or deists like Benjamin Franklin, saw and talked about the essential role that Christian faith had to play in order for America's fledgling democracy to work.

It wasn't that they saw religious faith as an "opiate of the people," the way Marx later would. Rather they, unlike Marx, who had a Hegelian faith in the infinite perfectibility of human nature when humans were left to their own devices, the American founders had a healthy appreciation of the sinful nature of human beings, whether they lived under kings or democratic institutions. This is why they were careful to establish a Constitution filled with checks and balances insuring that no branch of government and no institution in our society could simply run roughshod over everybody else.

The Founders felt that only people who saw themselves as fortunately graced by God with life and as the undeserving recipients of the new and everlasting life God grants to all with faith in Jesus Christ would have the give that democracy demands if it is to work. They saw the personal confidence that faith in Christ gives, as well as the ability to look beyond oneself to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4-11)

Democracy can only avoid becoming the tyranny of the mob if its people have a commitment to the good of their neighbor, including those neighbors who aren't part of the majority.

[Here's Part 1 of this series.]

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