[This piece was published as a newspaper op/ed in late January, 2023]
Let me start by saying why I agree with Churchill’s famous statement about democracy being the “worst” form of government—except for all the others.
Although as we’ve recently discovered, there can be problems with democracy, the alternative is surely still more dangerous.
Democracy is founded on the notion that every person has equal value (e.g. “in God’s eyes”) and therefore all citizens are entitled to an equal say in choosing a society’s collective path into the future. Democracy equalizes power: “One person, one vote.”
In the America I grew up in, the nation seemed confident that we had largely solved the problem of power. People could talk semi-realistically about how one could trust the American people to get it right. Maybe not immediately, but in time. Our movies, and our politicians, almost invariably portrayed the American people as having reliable good sense, and to be reliably decent.
And it seemed at that time that the people really did have a strong voice in their government, and that the government the people elected really did a reasonable job of working to get good things accomplished.
That made it really easy to believe in American democracy— i.e. to believe that the American people could be counted on to reward reasonably good political leaders.
But we’ve discovered that democracy has bigger vulnerabilities than Americans then imagined.
Where our Founders – in that Age of Reason – envisioned a citizenry with good sense, we have seen how a large segment of the electorate can be led to “believe the unbelievable,” to operate with a picture so detached from reality that they are disabled from making properly informed political choices.
Where Americans of the post-War era had reason to be confident that “the will of the people” would be reliably informed by a reasonable amount of basic decency, we have lately seen a substantial part of the American people led into supporting a political force that is other than decent, that insists on making everything into a conflict, that is not at all inclined to cooperate with others to serve the nation.
Despite “the will of the people” proving to be more corruptible than many of us would have expected, I remain passionately committed to American democracy, because:
The alternative to the equality of power implied by democracy is some people having power over others. And history shows that such power will usually be abused.
We love stories about people who – out of caring for the rights of others – refuse to take more than their share. “Do unto others…”
More often, however, people succumb to the temptation to take more than is due them. But the problem is far more grave than the degree of selfishness in the average person.
When we look at history at the macro level — at relations between ruling groups and the mass of people, between dominant classes and those below – it is obvious that power-relations fall even shorter of justice than the limitations of human nature. That is because:
The people who win a struggle for power tend be people who
- give even less weight than most to the value of justice,
- are less fundamentally decent than most,
- are readier than most to use powers in ugly ways.
All adding up to the opposite justice.
(Which is why the picture history presents depicts so much exploitation, cruelty, and lust to dominate.)
What I call “The Spirit of the Gangster” gets a disproportionate say in shaping the human world. In the modern world, that Spirit takes the form of Fascism.
And indeed, the central political battle in the United States today is well-described as “a Battle Between Democracy and Fascism.”
The vulnerability of American democracy is manifested in how many Americans lend their support to a political force that – with ever-increasing overtness — is assaulting Democracy, employing tools that, over the past century, have been wielded by fascistic regimes around the world.
The choice facing us Americans is either to fortify our democracy, or to stand by while our constitutional order is dismantled to enable an authoritarian, fascistic regime to take over in its stead.
The nightmares of history that happen when such political forces gain power should make it abundantly clear that strengthening our Democracy is what we must choose.
It’s a long-term project: to heal what has gone broken in that component of “the will of the people” — where intelligent people buy into obvious falsehoods, where good Christians support a political force that acts in direct contradiction to the moral teachings of Christianity, and where patriots elect leaders who blatantly assault on the Constitution our Founders required all who wield power to defend and protect.
But meanwhile, we should focus on making some improvements in how American democracy works.
Each change that makes America more democratic – i.e. that increases the equality of voice among all our citizens in deciding how power will be used by the American government – will strengthen the ability of American democracy to survive against the ongoing fascistic threat.
(A threat so serious, that many of our most insightful observers have lately believed that the survival of American democracy is in serious jeopardy.)
In future pieces, I will describe some of those proposed improvements.