Seeing Things: The Vessel of Elections

To paraphrase Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster slightly, it is November and another election is at our throats.

At the best of times, going to the polls in modern democratic countries is a bittersweet affair—bitter because choosing our leaders has increasingly narrowed to mostly second-order disputes about economic prosperity, sweet because the old greatness of popular self-governance still allows a glimmer of the eternal things to peep through.

But we are far from the best of times. L’affaire Lewinsky has permeated the process this year, but hasn’t led to a reaffirmation of decency against turpitude, to the reassertion of republican virtues over democratic vices. Instead of a catharsis, this month is more likely to result in continuing tragedy.

In a country that prides itself on the rule of law as much as America does, this state of affairs bodes ill. My friends in Latin countries get prickly over what they see as our near-fetish about the Constitution. Then again, as one of them told me recently, Latin countries replace and alter their constitutions so often that they regard them as something like periodicals.

In many countries, they would be grateful for our somewhat dull electoral process, given the usual alternatives. Elections in other parts of the world are often enough no joke, though jokes are made about them. One of the common jokes in Latin America these days goes like this: Two boys are talking and one exclaims with excitement, “Did you hear that X is going to be elected?” His friend asks, “I thought you and your whole family were afraid of X because he’s so radical?” The boy replies, “We are. But my father says if X takes power we’re going to live in Miami!”

For Americans, though, Miami is no refuge. Where are we supposed to escape from what de Tocqueville called soft democratic tyranny?

Even the politicians find the election process burdensome. One of the jokes circulating in Washington is that Joseph Lieberman, the independent and upright senator from my home state who galvanized the Democrats’ criticism of Clinton, converted to Orthodox Judaism so that he would have an excuse to avoid the conventions that nominate candidates—in Connecticut usually held on Friday evenings and Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.

When you go to the polls, it is dismaying, to say the least, that the republic for which many brave men and women have fought and died, for which the Founders labored mightily in thought, for which generations have sacrificed, comes down to this: politicos of various kinds pumping hands at polling places and campaign workers in straw (actually plastic now) hats passing out dumbed-down campaign flyers. Meanwhile, a million children die in the womb every year and tens of thousands are aborted late, just inches away from life.

Yet amidst this sorry spectacle, we ought to maintain a deep sense of gratitude for our blessings. As the great Catholic poet Charles Peguy reminded his fellow Frenchman at the beginning of this century:

Men have died for liberty as men have died for faith. Today, these elections seem to you a grotesque formality, universally mendacious, faked on all sides. And you have the right to say so. But men have lived, men without number, heroes, martyrs, and I might say saints—and when I say saints perhaps I know what I say—men without number have lived heroic, saintly lives, men have suffered, men have died, a whole people has lived that the greatest of imbeciles today might have the right to accomplish this faked formality.

I myself would not call our elections a “faked formality.” It reminds me too much of the Cold War Communist criticism of our system as mere “formal democracy.” True, most Republicans today sound a lot like Democrats who only want to go a little slower toward the state of democratic servility. And the choice between them often comes down to the lesser of two evils. But the system, with its potential for true human greatness, remains, waiting for a renewed democratic people, all the same.

To step into a polling booth in America today seems a banal and almost useless exercise. But there are many bold spirits behind us who died in places like Yorktown, Gettysburg, Passchendaele, Normandy, Okinawa, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq to make it possible for us to take it all for granted.

When you cast your vote this month, do yourself a favor: Think of them.

Robert Royal

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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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