This is not an article for those who are unabashedly in love with democracy,
who look forward to election year with patriotic zeal directed first of all to the nation and second of all to one of the political parties. I write instead for the genuinely dispossessed: for those who feel deep in their bones that the entire political process is a sham; who think that our country, whatever its previous merits, is accelerating in a decades-long slide; who grant that Americans enjoy great blessings, but do so in the midst of self-inflicted moral and spiritual deprivations; who believe that voting for either party is merely a decision about the handbasket in which to ride to hell. In short, I write for those who are nearly in despair about democracy and who are consequently planning to skip the whole sordid affair rather than soil their consciences.
To those thus afflicted I say, “Cheer up and vote.” Politics is always a sad compromise. If you’re waiting for the perfect political regime and the perfect political candidate before you vote, you’re expecting divine things from the merely human. This is a fallen world. There never has been a perfect political regime; there never will be. America is no exception. But since no one is ever born into a perfect regime, then we shall be judged only by how well we acted amid whatever imperfections fall to our historical lot. We shall therefore be judged, in part, on our voting record. So come, friends, let us reason together, and see things from the proper perspective.
‘Things of Greater Awe’
One of the most distorting errors as regards our perspective on anything is to view it from the wrong angle. We may gain the proper perspective on things political, not by going to Washington, but by taking a journey with the greatest poet, a man who, crushed by politics, turned inward and upward, and created the magnificent Divine Comedy. Dante’s ultimate perspective is revealed, not in the Inferno or the Purgatorio, but in the Paradiso, as he looks back during his climb amid the glories of heaven, and seeing below him the real smallness of earth, smiles:
So with my vision I went traversing … till this globe I saw,
Whereat I smiled, it seemed so poor a thing.
Highly I rate that judgement that doth low
Esteem the world; him do I deem upright
Whose thoughts are fixed on things of greater awe.
Dante does not look at humble earth with a cynical grin but a smile of pity at the ultimately fruitless efforts of mere mortals to redeem a fallen world, especially through the feverish machinations of politics. This was not an abstract smile won through detached philosophical speculation. Born in Florence, Italy, Dante was a prominent White Guelf in the famous political struggle with the Ghibellines. Exiled in 1302, he became a wanderer, settling finally in Ravenna where, divested of all political power and cleansed of all political ambition, he completed his Divine Comedy.
That is the proper perspective on earthly things, especially on political things. It is the view of a pilgrim, of a resident alien in the City of Man whose ultimate allegiance has been transferred to the City of God. The great moment of transformation came at Calvary, where all mere earthly patriotism was crucified, died, and resurrected, and citizenship was transferred to a kingdom not of this world.
How does all this help us to follow the admonition to “cheer up and vote”? As Dante so well knew, the only place to find cheer is up, for the divine comedy is the only remedy for the human tragedy. If we seek a cure for what ails humanity in politics, we forget that the cause of the tragedy is original sin, “the only part of Christian theology,” quipped G. K. Chesterton,” that can really be proved.” The disappointments of political life are continual proof that we cannot look to politics for salvation.
But what about the voting part? Before entering paradise, Dante was led through hell and purgatory, where human beings were judged on how they acted in this
life — not how they acted in some very general, abstract sense in some imaginary world, but how they acted in the only way a human being can
act: in some very particular place, in some very particular time, in some very particular circumstances.
We won’t be judged, then, on how we would have acted if things had been perfect, nor even on how we would have acted if things had been better. We will be judged on how we acted in the midst of the actual imperfection into which we were born and under which we lived. More accurately, recalling that sins are also committed by omission, we will be judged on how we did not act, as well as on how we did. If we wait to vote until we have a candidate of the intellectual and moral caliber of Abraham Lincoln, then we will be responsible for the repeated election of a rogue’s gallery of presidents during our repeated sins of omission.
We have said enough about the ultimate perspective. We must now descend from the heights provided by Dante to a more earthly analysis of the particular political regime in which we happen to find ourselves. So, while not forgetting the humbling vantage of heaven, let us take a clear-eyed look at the nature of democracy itself as guided by the natural wisdom of the ancients.
What Democracy Isn’t
If you don’t expect much from democracy, you’ll never be disappointed. Contrary to reigning belief, democracy isn’t the best form of government. It doesn’t even merit the dishonor of being the worst form of government. It is, as Aristotle said so long ago, the best of the worst forms of government. If that assertion makes you angry, then you’re too bound to mere earthly things, and hence bound to be continually disappointed by our democracy, expecting from it far more than it can deliver.
To clear the air (and, I hope, the mind), let’s begin with a brief thought experiment. Imagine what would happen if, quite suddenly, the Catholic Church were structured democratically, with popes being elected every four years, bishops every six years, and priests every two years. The results would be predictable; indeed, since a great push to democratize the Church has already so heavily damaged it, this is more an exercise in prophecy than imagination. Democratization of the Church would mean that, very soon, eternal truths would yield to the passions and prejudices of the day. Theological doctrines would be warped and discarded under the continual pressure of opinion polls; imperturbable creeds would give way to ephemeral slogans; candidates for the various offices would promise to lead us from the harsh moral demands of the past to a land of comfort and convenience; the promptings of the Holy Spirit would be displaced by the profane manipulations of the media. Amid great turmoil, abortion would be pushed through, and not long after candidates for the various offices would be debating whether male priests should marry — each other. Quite soon, we would get people like George Bush and Barack Obama running for pope. John Paul II was wildly popular, but he was a pope who could never have been elected popularly.
Now if democracy were the best form of government, isn’t it a bit odd that it wasn’t the form ordained for governing the Church and, further, that democratizing the Church would ruin it so quickly and thoroughly? It is no accident that the governance of the Church more accurately conforms to another form of government — kingship. Even more mysteriously, it’s no accident that Christ has us pray to His Father, our Father, “Thy kingdom come,” not “Our democracy come.” We must then face the possibility that the imperfections that frustrate us and might keep us from voting are not deviations from democracy but imperfections rooted in the very nature of democracy itself.
The usual response to this untimely and unpopular assertion is something along the lines of, “So you’d rather be ruled by some king! Look at all the lovely tyrants throughout history!” or, “So you want the country to be run by an incestuous circle of alleged aristocrats, a bunch of rich and prideful oligarchs grinding the poor and posing as if they were better than everyone else!”
The short reply is, “No. Given the choice between democracy, even our present democracy, and being ruled by a cruel tyrant or a cadre of oligarchs, I’d most certainly choose democracy — and so would Aristotle.”
We tend to think that there are only two forms of government, democracy and everything else. According to Aristotle, there are six forms of government, three good and three bad. To list them in order from best to worst, the three good regimes are kingship, aristocracy, and polity; and the three bad regimes are democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny. What divides the good from the bad is simply this: The good regimes, whether they are ruled by one person (kingship), a few (aristocracy), or the majority (polity), are ruled in accordance with the true good of human nature and for the benefit of everybody (the ruled as well as the rulers). The bad regimes — whether they are ruled by the majority (democracy), by the few (oligarchy), or by one (tyranny) — are not directed to the true good but to the private gratification of the passions of the rulers. According to Aristotle, since it is unlikely that the majority in any regime would be rich, democracy would be synonymous with rule of the poor. And since it’s unlikely that a few could gain power by any other means than money, oligarchy is synonymous with rule of the rich.
Given the wickedness of human beings, Aristotle soberly points out, we can expect that we’re far more likely to have corruptions — bad forms rather than good. That is, we are far more likely to find that every alleged kingship is actually a tyranny (the very worst form of government), and that every alleged aristocracy is really an oligarchy (the second worst form). Thus, if given the choice among democracy, tyranny, and oligarchy, one would be a fool not to choose democracy.
What of polity then, the mystery regime that does not even have a corresponding English word? (Polity is a straightforward transliteration of the Greek word politeia.) According to Aristotle, a polity is rule by the majority in a regime tempered by military virtue, where hardship, sacrifice, and camaraderie forged in service to a common goal have purified the selfishness and softness of the citizens. When we Americans look back at the so-called greatest generation — the generation defined by the sacrifices made during World War II — or look further back, to the character of those who fought to make this country free from Britain, then we’re admiring America when it most had the character of a polity. A glimpse of this character was seen again during (and for some time after) the 9/11 attack. But we all realize in looking back in admiration that we are looking up from the perspective of having slipped down. Back down, that is, to democracy.
Those are the six kinds of political regimes and the humble position of democracy among them. Of course, there’s something of the utmost importance missing from Aristotle’s account, the very thing that illuminated Dante’s analysis, and still, thankfully, illuminates their democracy — Christianity. Our government has never been supported by its mere structure. Its ultimate foundation was built upon the shared, pre-political Christian moral truths, truths ordained by the King of kings. They were not democratically derived, nor could they ever be the subject of a vote.
The founders allowed the majority to rule, but democracy was meant to work within boundaries laid down by a King ruling from a kingdom not of this world. Imagine informing the founders that we’re now considering having to add an amendment to the Constitution that marriage must be defined as occurring only between one male and one female! Such things, the founders understood, were pre-political truths and should never become a matter of debate, let alone a vote. How could this have happened? How could we have become so thoroughly democratic as to allow marriage to be defined democratically? Only by taking democracy to its extreme.
Perhaps we might gain a more precise picture of the current state of our political system by turning from Dante and Aristotle to Plato. Democracy was invented by the ancient Greeks, and Plato witnessed it firsthand in Athens, the very Athens that democratically consigned his beloved mentor Socrates to death. Speaking through the character of Socrates in his famous dialogue the Republic, Plato marks equality as the defining principle of democracy — a principle that determines not just the structure of the government but even forms the very souls of the citizens. In an extreme democracy, the passion for equality is all-consuming, spreading to every aspect of life, so that not only are all citizens treated equally under the law, but all opinions, all passions, all views of what is good are treated as equally meritorious.
Since all ways of life and all views of goodness demand equal recognition, the more noble distinctions between good and evil, better and worse, are banished as old-fashioned and tyrannical. As Socrates remarks in the Republic, “If someone says that there are some pleasures belonging to fine and good desires and some belonging to bad desires, and that the fine and good ones should be practiced and honored, and the bad ones checked and chained, the democratic man shakes his head at all this and says that all are alike and must be honored on an equal basis.”
The desire to level all distinctions soon manifests itself in a “greediness” for freedom from all restrictions, so that freedom comes to mean “the license… to do whatever one wants.” Democratic men, Socrates observes, “end up… paying no attention to the laws, written or unwritten, in order that they may avoid having any master at all.” In democracy at its extreme, ironically, each citizen becomes a kind of tyrant, claiming the right to do whatever he wishes, and the politicians become the tyrants’ flatterers, saying whatever will please voters in order to get elected.
But for Plato, extreme democracy ushers in tyranny not only in the individual but in the political regime itself. Since freedom in extreme democracy is defined negatively as the absence of impediments to desire, the political order itself becomes more and more defined by the attempt to satiate everyone’s disordered desires (or at least the disordered desires of the majority). The desire to maximize freedom so understood drives the regime relentlessly toward disorder and discord, that is, toward anarchy. Amid the growing political chaos, the people, out of frustration and desperation, choose an absolute ruler to settle their conflicts and bring some order — any order — out of chaos. Tyranny thus arises from democracy, “the greatest and most savage slavery out of the extreme of freedom.”
It isn’t difficult to see aspects of our own political system in Plato’s description of democracy taken to its extreme. We too are more and more animated by a passion for equality that undermines any and every distinction between good or bad, better or worse. In our education, we refuse to distinguish between great books and the twaddle of merely popular books; in our music, we refuse to distinguish between the ethereal harmonies of Mozart and the guttural ululations of heavy metal and rap; in our formally civil public discourse we are more and more defined by the politically correct dictum that all pleasures, all ways of life, “are alike and must be honored on an equal basis”; and in regard to our pursuit of happiness, we refuse to distinguish between those who seek happiness in the most elevated virtues and those who seek it in the most elaborate vices. We have fairly well given up any distinctions in regard to sexuality, and we honor, even worship, androgynous pop stars and sexually omnivorous movie stars. And finally, we have lost the battle to pass a constitutional amendment that all notions of marriage are not equal. (Come back in 20 years, when beleaguered conservatives, having suffered one defeat after another, will try to gain support for an amendment limiting marriage to two or more human beings.)
We could sum it all up by recognizing that, for us, rights are more and more defined — in our courts, in politics, and in our own hearts — as “the license…to do whatever one wants.” We are indeed approaching ever closer to extreme democracy, where all opinions, all passions, all views of what is good are treated as equally meritorious.
The slide into tyranny? Notice how, more and more, power is passing from the legislative branch and into the judicial. That is, power is being transferred from its original location in Congress, where it’s reflected through representation and the will of the people, to a much smaller group of non-elected judges. And since the lower court judges cannot agree, ultimate power is flowing right up to the Supreme Court. Nine absolute rulers — or better, five since only a majority is required for a decision. Congress can pass laws until its members are blue in the face; the Supreme Court decides whether the laws will live or die. The president can string a list of promises across the White House lawn, but with each election, the importance of the presidency is shrinking to a very small point: He’s the one who appoints Supreme Court judges.
If you have any hope that the Supreme Court will save us in the slide into extreme democracy, you haven’t been following its decisions. Its ruling principle, elevated to public view in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, is this: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life.” No ancient tyrant ever promised so much disregard for every distinction, especially the most primitive distinctions between good and evil: This most extreme paean to liberty was penned in support of the right to slaughter one’s own child in abortion.
Up from Tyranny
But is the above a completely accurate picture of our democracy? Perhaps it’s more like the vision given to Ebenezer Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Future, but as with Dickens’s Christmas Carol, it’s a vision meant to arouse us to take action before it’s too late. So we must turn from the not-too-distant future to a consideration of the all-too-immediate present.
Historically, we’re in the midst of a moral and political slide downward. We used to live in a country where there was a solid pre-political, common moral and religious foundation that provided the sub-political structure for our democracy and guided its growth. Given this shared foundation, disagreements between political parties were more like disagreements between ultimate friends. In regard to the last century or so, the Republican Party was the party of the rich and upwardly mobile, the oligarchs among us, the defenders of big business and private enterprise; the Democratic Party was the party of the poor, of the immigrants, of laborers and labor unions, of welfare and social programs. Each party strove to correct the other’s excesses, but neither party attacked the pre-political moral foundation in the name of democracy.
Something happened about the middle of the last century. The political process was infiltrated, more and more, by those who wished to jettison the Christian moral foundation and usher in extreme democracy where political rights would be defined by “the license… to do whatever one wants.” Using the near-tyrannical power of the courts, and manipulating the hopelessly complex and hence effectively hidden machinations of the legislative process, a well-organized core of extreme democrats methodically chipped away at the shared moral foundations. The result? The moral givens that were originally considered beyond debate have become a matter of fierce debate, and liberty within restraints is being displaced by license without restraint: the right to kill the unborn, the half-born, and the elderly; the right to clone; the right to engage in sexual bacchanalia; the right for a man to marry a man and a woman to marry a woman. The foundation crumbles ever faster.
As a result, Catholics now feel politically dispossessed. In the first half of the 20th century, Catholics tended toward the Democratic Party. Not only were many Catholics immigrants who had suffered cruelties as laborers for big business, but more generally, Catholics felt the sting of Christ’s words about concern for the less fortunate and His warnings about how difficult it was for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Voting then was easy.
After the mid–20th century, things changed. First-generation Catholic immigrants worked hard and sent their kids to college. Some of them, with degree in hand, became business owners and began to have more sympathy with the oligarchic bent of the Republican Party. Others, having soaked in the radical egalitarianism of their professors, joined the partisans of extreme democracy working to remake both the country and the Church. Meanwhile, elder Catholics generally remained loyal Democrats even while they became more uncomfortable with the increasingly powerful cadre of extreme Democrats trying to reconstruct, or deconstruct, the traditional Democratic platform. Those who became too uncomfortable reluctantly jumped ship during the Reagan era and became equally reluctant Republicans, unsatisfied with the often tepid support of pro-life causes and somewhat queasy amid the unambiguous celebration of wealth.
For different reasons, both parties and both candidates thus seem unappealing. All too many with whom I have spoken — including my wife! — are either not voting or throwing away their votes on no-win, third-party candidates. To all the politically dispossessed, aliens in their own land, I offer the following consolations and admonitions.
Congratulations! Dante sends his regards! If you didn’t feel politically dispossessed then you’d be politically possessed, trying to make your kingdom in this world rather than the next. Salvation doesn’t come from either party, or from democracy itself. Salvation comes through grace and through our adherence to the moral, pre-political truths by which all political regimes — democracies, kingships, tyrannies, aristocracies, oligarchies, and polities, and any mixtures thereof — are and shall be judged.
We shall be judged on how well we acted amid the political imperfections into which we are cast, the very imperfections among which we are called to vote. Voting is a sloppy, ineffective way of setting and resetting the political order, supremely subject to manipulation, flattery, and demagoguery. That is why the partisans of extreme democracy generally avoid it, preferring to use the courts, misuse the legislative process, and abuse executive power. But voting is still the way that we’re called to exercise what political power remains in the hands of ordinary folk, and it’s our duty to use this power as best we can.
Not voting means handing power to those in either political party who make us feel so uncomfortable about voting. On a deeper and more desperate level, we must vote for the sake of democracy. Those who are so successfully dragging us toward extreme democracy — where liberty is license, and where there’s no distinction between good and evil — will destroy democracy itself. This country was born in a fight to free itself from a foreign tyranny; it may yet die as the result of a tyranny born within.
Do not expect more than democracy can deliver, but do help deliver democracy from itself. The one thing most needful at this point is to do whatever we can to restore the moral, pre-political foundations of this nation, without which our democracy will surely crumble into tyranny. Let that be the wisdom that guides your vote.
This article originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Crisis Magazine.