The Shortcomings of Democracy

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I’ve written before about the relationship between democracy and Christianity. The piece linked here was from about three years ago, wherein I wrote that democracy does not ensure inherently more moral outcomes than other forms of government, but rather is just as subject (if not more so) to the poor judgment of human beings, and thus just as likely to produce immoral and undesirable governing outcomes (see Trump, Donald.)

As I was reading When War is Unjust by Yoder last night, I came across this passage that struck me as making the same point, but in a more concrete and insightful way. Here is Yoder:

In order to gain a popular mandate and seem stronger than their adversaries, politicians may exploit nationalistic and xenophobic, even racist, enthusiasms of common folk, thereby putting themselves under pressure to perform in a way as “patriotic” as their campaign language. Once the battle has begun and lives have been given, it is far more difficult to contemplate suing for peace. The medieval vision of the prince as a responsible and wise decision-maker, able to lead his people because he knew more of the facts, had studied the craft of governing, and had the courage and also the power to make unpopular but right choices, is replaced be elected politicians who become captives of the patriotic sentiments and short-circuited analyses their own campaigning stirred up. The medieval monarch could, if wise, cut the losses and make peace. Democratic leaders may be less free to be wise, especially once they have cranked up the fervor for war. Whether we speak of the relatively genuine democracies, in which popular suffrage is effective, or of the many places in which the facade of an electoral process is used to cover less worthy policies and less valid processes of decision, it often appears that to involve the masses in decisions about war and national honor does not provide for more effective defense of the real interests of most people. The issues at stake are subject to rapidly changing moods and to deceptive rhetoric. Decisions about whether to have a war, about what, and how long are not made more wisely just because there are elections. Democratic forms may well work against restraint.

I don’t post this as an endorsement of a return to medieval monarchy as a government (or, even less, as some sort of theocratic technocracy bringing together Plato and Aquinas.) Rather, I read and share this as a reminder of my point in the earlier piece: democracy is not a cure-all for what ails the world and the nation socially and economically. Those of us who have stood opposed to Trump since early on should know this as well as any, and in fact, his election is what awoke this line of thinking in myself. The same democracy that elected a Barack Obama is just as likely and capable to elect a Donald Trump. It is also just as likely to turn around and elect an Elizabeth Warren next time, and who knows what after that.

I do think this passage is interesting in the sense of what Yoder points out specifically as the things democracy does less well. He notes the accumulation of facts, the art of governance, and the ability to use restraint as three things that the idea monarch could bring to bear that democratic forms of governance fail at more often. The depredations and downfalls of monarchy often impeded the exercising of these good points, but then again, the depredations and downfalls of democracy often override the positive elements of it as well. The use of restraint, and the making of hard decisions, stands out to me most as what the American project in democracy is failing at most often; we seem unable, as a democratic populace, to make hard decisions involving sacrifice or the giving up of privileges, in order to achieve a greater and broader good. Our democratic guidance seems all too often geared towards maximizing our own good in the here and now, at the expense of any longer-term vision. This is evident on the right in the denial of and refusal to deal with the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change; on the left, we see this in the drive for further atomization and individualization of the body politic, driving towards intensely personal understandings of cultural engagement at the expense of some form of national coherence and unity, something that is key to the success of any community of any size and form.

When I think about these shortcomings of pure democracy, it makes me think of how prescient were the Founders in this sense, in their writing in of checks and balances in our governing documents. Madisonian democracy, enmeshed in the Constitution, is representative and limited, for the purpose of ensuring some semblance of a ruling elite; I like to think that this ruling class could be one that is elite in it’s ability to make hard decisions for the greater good, in it’s knowledge of governing forms and policy, and it’s attention to facts and details. But again, the ideal runs up against the realism of human fallibility; history has shown us that any form of a ruling elite inevitably turns into a kleptocratic, oligarchic economic elite.

This all brings me around to the reminder I feel I am constantly banging away at for Christians, namely, that democracy is not a “Christian” form of governance, any more than any temporal form of human governance is. As we get closer and closer to the 2020 elections, we cannot lose sight of the fact that all the problems we face will not be wiped away by the election of more favorable candidates to higher office; even more importantly, we cannot forget that no matter who assumes (or retains) the presidency and Congress next year, our role as Christians is one outside the structures of coercive power. Even our friends need a robust voice of criticism pushing them on towards a higher vision of the Good, beyond the needs of the next electoral cycle. Christians are not democrats; we are Christians, first and last.

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The Danger of Mass Prejudices

The practical limitations of liberal democracy arise in part from these limits to our freedom. Instead of a community of people exercising wise judgments about the general welfare or even acting out of enlightened self-interest, we have large groups of people expressing unexamined prejudices which are all too easily manipulated by those who control the mass media. Democracies can only survive through checks and balances which reduce the danger of disastrous actions expressive of mass prejudices.

John Cobb, Process Theology as Political Theology, pg 101