Saturday, October 25, 2008

Democracy or Republic First?

Among conservatives democracy is the watchword of the day, Bush fastened on the idea of promoting democracy worldwide and McCain has even proposed a League of Democracies. This is ironic at a time when their Democratic party opponents are busy building a cult of personality and employing voter fraud to undermine the very idea of Democracy.

But what is so special about Democracy anyway? America is a democracy, but more to the point America is a Democratic Republic and one half of that word has been forgotten in a rush to embrace the idea that selling populist elections abroad can end tyranny and ugly belief systems that require mass subjugation.

Popular elections however are not a one step way to terminate tyranny, they were always understood as being a check on tyrants, rather than an absolute barrier. During the 20th century Communists and Nazis both participated in democratic elections while openly stating their goal of ending democracy. This is no paradox because many political systems, including the American system, does not require those participating in democratic elections to a democratic principles.

Democracy is a system rather than a principle, it is the Republic part of it that holds the values and principles. So promoting democracy in Gaza gave the victory to Hamas, in Egypt to the Muslim brotherhood and so on elsewhere, because if you give the popular vote to people whose value systems call for war against non-Muslims, that is how they will vote.

In the United States the overemphasis on Democracy over Republic has resulted in fanatically broadening the electorate while rejecting any test of literacy or competency as racist, just because such tests were abused in such a way at a given time in history. This matches the self-interest of politicians who would much rather have a field day with uninformed and ignorant voters than with voters who might actually get the facts from research rather than from campaign commercials.

This is of course the perfect kind of electorate to sell Bread and Circuses to, or a cult of personality campaign done in the same style as their favorite reality TV shows. A truly relevant system of elections understands that voting is a responsibility that requires some minimum demonstration of competence. Just as driving a car requires being able to prove that you understand the principles of the automobile, choosing the nation's driver should require some understanding of how the system of government works so that the voter demonstrates the ability to tell completely hollow promises from workable proposals. But in our zeal to proclaim the moral supremacy of democracy, we've forgotten that like every system democracy requires that all its parts be in working order, and the voter is part of that great machine of democracy.

Bring enough people together and they will forge some system of order based on the rule of the powerful. This is an inevitable consequence of human nature. Democracy provides a limited check on such people by forcing them to pass a referendum of the voters in order to take office. But popular vote is devoid of both value testing and genuine civic participation. A truly informed electorate is what distinguishes a democratic republic from a bread and circuses democracy.

Such a system would for example equally disqualify voters voting for or against Obama because of his race. It would disqualify voters unable to name the basic powers of the President or the candidate for whichever office they are voting for. It would disqualify voters whose stated motivations are purely selfish or vain. It would not encourage voting but discourage it, just as the Army Recuiting Office does not take everyone who walks through the door.

A voter card for such a system might read as follows: "Dear Citizen, voting is your right and through the excercise of that right you also accept its responsibilities. These are serious responsibilities and not to be taken lightly. By casting your vote you are taking part in more than an activity of a few minutes but in a government that will rule for years. Its decisions will be your decisions, its triumphs will be your triumphs, its follies will be your follies. By voting for a candidate you accept a share in his policies from this day forward until the next election. As a member of your nation's and community's electorate, your fellow citizens have placed their trust in you and you must now place that trust in a candidate for higher office. Carry out this responsibility with integrity and seriousness of mind. If for any reason you feel that you cannot, please leave at once."

Democracy is simply a means of decentralizing power. But responsibly decentralizing power requires placing it in responsible hands. The alternative is anarchy or more likely tyranny because as numerous examples have shown that decentralizing power into the hands of people who are not ready to hold it, makes it all the easier for a tyrant to pluck it from their waiting hands.

That is why in embracing the mantra of unlimited democracy as good in and of itself, we have placed real democracy in jeopardy and in promoting it abroad, we have confused populism with political change.


Keli Ata said...

Wonderful article and distinction between a Democratic system and the values and principles of a Republic.

I agree completely that voters need to take responsibility for the people they elect into office.

Shavua tov

Keli Ata said...

After Obama's blunder about 57 states and presidential terms lasting 8-10 years ABC News did a man on the street type interview. The majority of the people they questioned were as clueless as he was.

Voters should know at least some of a candidate's platform whether it's foreign policy, domestic policy, taxes or healthcare.

But a lot of people will be pulling the lever with the thought that they can WOO HOO when the guy they wanted to win actually wins.

It has become a reality show.

BTW: the Board of Elections where I live is advising people to go to the polls early as they expect long lines. It would be a good idea to get there before work, if possible.

Lemon said...

Democracy is for civilized, moral people only. It requires a well educated, highly moral, G-d fearing people to enjoy democratic ways.
As a nations values go into the toilet, democracy won't work as the evil seem to rise to the top.

Maggie M. Thornton said...

Excellent point. We bandy-about the word Democracy and it has little useful meaning.

We need a replacement for the U.N. and we should be discriminating about the name we give it, and who we let in it - and we need to do it sooner rather than later.

Great article.

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