Vox Populi: A Theology of Messy Democracy

The Right to Vote

The elections are over. The election is upon us. Long live the Democratic Process! And a tip of the hat to the founding fathers, who in their prescience must have known that the fundamental metaphor for twenty-first century politics would be an endless and pointless NASCAR race.

Now we sigh deeply, wipe away a wanton tear, and try to adjust to the fact that barely two years after the election of Barack Obama (Hope, Change, Fired Up, Ready to Go) America has lost its energy, its nerve, and possibly its mind, and decided it wants to sit on the stoop and watch the civilized world (which it has just voted to quit) pass by for a spell.

Meantime, we will half-hear as the political assessors talk their heads off about what went wrong and whether Obama is listening, whether he gets it, whether the sting he was stung stung enough to hurt, whether he is paying attention or is just out of touch with the American people, and why someone with such a hoity toity education is tone deaf, can’t communicate, and acts sooo professorial. Just who does he think he is?

The assumption on almost everyone’s part is that a (virtual) vote of no confidence conveys a kind of popular wisdom because it is an expression of the collective will of the people and in this Man Up Democracy, vox populi vox dei, People Rule. A little attention to the full quotation from Alcuin to Charlemagne in the eighth century yields a slightly different flavour, however: “Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.” : “And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.” Leave it to an ingenious country like America to prove Alcuin spot on.

Alcuin, proved right in 2010

I am not a political scientist, not a “political analyst” (read: sports announcer in ill-fitting gray jacket), not even much of an activist, though I do have longish hair and wear turtlenecks. Ideologically, I am a proservative, a progressive who is afraid of the consequences of progressive ideas. I am not even sure I care very much about politics unless it has the capacity to catch my attention, as it did a couple of years ago when Obama struck me as a rare bird in a nasty profession, and may still prove too rare to escape extinction in 2012.

But after last Tuesday I’m fairly certain I will not be paying attention again for a long time to come. Maybe not again in my lifetime. I have talked to many people who feel the same way–even worse, because my cynicism is greater than theirs, and my immunity to bitterness and disappointment slightly more developed. I once stretched my student budget to the limit to attend a Van Cliburn concert, and was virtually giddy the evening of the performance. Even by my pathetic expectations, he was not up to his standard, pleaded the flu before he sat down to play, and cut the program short by thirty minutes. It’s a bad analogy, I know, but I think that is vaguely similar to the performance-reality gap America is dealing with right now. The question really is, whose fault is it?

"Not mine."

I do not think politics matters very much because I do not think it has the power to change things. War and science, and occasionally poignant ideologies, perhaps the odd book, have the power to change things (usually because they lead to war or new technologies), but because people do not change very much, the collective voice of the people is only ever going to be an expression of their state of mind and emotional condition at a certain moment. Modern American elections are fought with only emotion in view–not government, leadership, not the social welfare of the people, and certainly not ideas. The idea of what is “good for me” and what is “best for the country,” for example, are not complementary: Obama worked for the latter and ran afoul of the former. There were no ideas in this election, if you except (as I think you have to) the idea that taking your country back is an idea.

Besides being terribly depressing for smart people, the election was terrifying because it displayed, for the first time, that the American Constitution is not well adapted for the new millennium. The tears and cracks become more obvious with every passing election season and every Supreme Court decision. But the Constitution, which is political sacred writ in the United States, especially among those who have never read it, is an eighteenth century playbook for eighteenth century ideologies about limited government, seldom amended, and largely unable to serve as a proof-text for social reform. Only its plagiarized Lockean preamble (the only bit ever quoted extensively) has lofty rhetoric. The remainder reads like a tax form, like most constitutions throughout history.

But when you think about what it–the Constitution–put into place–the “system” of checks and balances, the bicameral legislature, the separation of powers, the electoral college, the cumbrous protocol for amending the sacred text, and the oligarchical method of interpretation by a panel of men and women who, for all practical purposes are political appointees with private agendas–you have to lose a little sleep. What it also put into place is the scourge of elections to the “lower house” every two years–a practice based on the need to “refer” to the mood of the people frequently in matters directly affecting them, but totally unsuited to an attention-deficient population who are accustomed to doing their Christmas shopping in September. It is true that the closest ancestor of our representative system, the British Parliament, also has provisions for “bringing down a government,” but in the best of times, and as an encouragement for the people to take government seriously and weigh their reserve power carefully, the normal (legal) stretch between elections is five years.

To put this a little more cogently, if this were England, and the “executive” was simply the leader of the party in power, Obama would be out the door. But, as it is, he survives to limp along until 2012 as the mercy of his persecutors. This is democracy, American-style, in action. This what America wants for the rest of the world.

There is a new apocryphon in the press, so popular that it is has a life beyond facts. It is this: Aristotle said democracy “is the worst form of government except for all the rest.” Aristotle, who was not known for his humor, never said any such thing, but it is instructional to look at what he did say in the Politics:

Book III -“But the citizen whom we are seeking to define is a citizen in the strictest sense, against whom no such exception can be taken, and his special characteristic is that he shares in the administration of justice, and in offices. He who has the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration of any state is said by us to be a citizens of that state; and, speaking generally, a state is a body of citizens sufficing for the purposes of life.

For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all. Tyranny, as I was saying, is monarchy exercising the rule of a master over the political society; oligarchy is when men of property have the government in their hands; democracy, the opposite, when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.”

Book VII
“The citizens must not lead the life of mechanics or tradesmen, for such a life is ignoble, and inimical to virtue. Neither must they be farmers, since leisure is necessary both for the development of virtue and the performance of political duties.”

That kind of language will strike every Tea Party operative as elitist because it shifts the blame for the wretchedness of a political outcome such as the recent American election away from a “tone-deaf” ruler to a dumb and blind electorate who vote their gut, not their head, and call it conscience. Equally, it will strike liberals as offensive, not because it emphasizes “smart politics” (which liberals profess to like) but because it sees the citizen-voter as a subset of the whole population and not the whole population. Both liberals and conservatives appeal to the archetype of the Working Man, not the educated “man of leisure” who is simply ridiculous and probably unemployed in our system. (Additionally, the Republican Working Man works in a bank or on Wall Street.) Regardless, both groups depend on the myth of the popular will, as opposed to the idea of informed citizen choice; neither group can afford to stray very far from the modern concept of “constituency” because constituencies vote. In the era of special-interest voting, scientific polling and frontier politics, Aristotle’s ideas about democracy being inherently defective don’t wash well with either political party. Democracy, George Bush famously said, on being told the death toll in Iraq had reached 4427 in 2003, is “messy.” A grateful nation returned him to power in 2004.

Aristotle was both an embarrassment and a challenge for the founders, who weren’t certain whether “mechanics and tradesmen” in addition to men of property and leisure (who had time to read Aristotle) should be factored into the process. Slaves and women were another matter. As every schoolchild used to know, that did not really happen until the nineteenth century for black Americans, and for women not until the twentieth. Enfranchisement on the strict basis of “legal” citizenship (or rights) as opposed to philosophical formation was considered an end in itself. But what was achieved by virtue of stressing the value of participation and inclusion was highly problematical, and the founders weren’t around to fix it. The rights of citizens had been a slogan since the time of our own and the French Revolution. What happens when Leviathan grows so many legs he can no longer walk? Government by whim and need, faction and passion–but worst of all ignorance.

Which brings me to the theology of the whole sordid affair that has emplaced in the chambers of the most powerful legislative assembly in the world a clutch of Know-nothings unlike anything this Needy and often Know-nothing Democracy has ever seen. I am talking, of course, about biblical Israel.

The Old Testament is more relevant to the current crisis than our Constitution because the suspicion of monarchical government originates there and not in Aristotle. The founders had monarchy on their mind, and they had concluded with the philosopher that monarchy unchecked was tyranny, a system that operated only in the interest of the ruler. (They were wrong of course: the English had fought their own civil war and had debated monarchy much more thoroughly than the colonists ever had by the time the Declaration was issued in 1776.) But as men of literary accomplishment, they also knew that monarchy was regarded by the ancient Hebrews, and even the early Christians, as the source of calamity and political distress. Polemicists like Paine referred to George III as a “Herod of uncommon malice” who could rightfully be deposed because “God’s favor has parted from him.”

George III: "Temperance"

It’s amazing, in reading through the historical books of the Bible, from 1 Samuel onward, how king after king is a disappointment, a disgrace, a mistake in God’s eyes. Kings are given to men as a punishment (Saul) and even when very famous (David, 2 Samuel 11.4) are not very nice. British monarchical history seems to follow the biblical pattern (perhaps this is why “Zadok the Priest” is still sung at Coronations?); the American presidency, while young compared to English history, seems doomed to follow suit, though no Shakespeare will arise to sing the praises or recite the flaws of an Eisenhower or a Coolidge.

If there is one thing worse than bad kings, however, it’s people. People, according to ancient Hebrew calculus, are rotten, passional, fickle. They are incapable of paying attention, following the right path, or doing the right thing, or keeping the faith, or enduring hardship, or working together, or solving problems. In metaphor, they “chase after false gods,” and always come back depressed, defeated, and empty-handed. It’s not a track record that would necessarily lead to the vox-populi philosophy.

In the biblical scheme of things, the God of Israel, is “constant.” His constancy is not “personal,” however; it’s embodied in his law and justice, a theme that actually undergirds the judicial philosophy of most modern constitutional democracies. The justice and goodness represented in the Hebrew idea of God through myth remains, primarily, a concept or abstraction in Greek thought. Because certain questions, Euthyphro-style (Which god likes what?) don’t arise in the monotheistic context, the Hebrew vision is crystal clear: People are ingenerately unable to keep to his standards of justice and righteousness. Coaxing, threats, punishment, don’t seem to do the trick (and the Bible is not famous for subtle approaches like irony and appeals to self esteem). So the burden falls roundly on the people–who would change gods if need be–to figure out what kind of system would work. They choose kings.

The writer of I Samuel imagines the following scene: The Judge Samuel has experienced a succession crisis. In old age, he appoints his sons as “judges” (tribal chiefs, fair-minded warlords) to succeed him. They turn out, as sons often turn out, to be bunglers and scoundrels who “took bribes and perverted justice.” In despair, Samuel agrees to the demands of the elders for a monarchy, “a king over Israel.” The people have “voted”–for their own subjugation. They want to be like their more prosperous and successful neighbors. Monarchy is all the rage. Samuel confers with God, and God instructs him to warn the people what they have in store for them when the newfangled system is in place. It is worth quoting:

“Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day. But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.”

And so it began. A history of tyrannical, faithless, lustful, war-hungry, greedy, and immoral men, punctuated (but not in time to have done Israel or the hybrid kingdom of Judaea any good) by a few good rulers. Passion gives you the form of government you want until you don’t want it anymore.

Is there a convergence between Greek and Hebrew political thought, these widely divergent cultures from the first millennium BCE? Of course. Both show the common ancient opinion about the “will of the people.” The people can’t be bothered with the consequences of any political decision, whether it’s shouted or registered on a touch screen. They vote their passion.

The Voice of the People

That is why Aristotle cautions against “need” and ignorance in the choice of political operations. People will choose tyrants who promise them bread, and execute the tyrant when the bread doesn’t appear on the table or costs too much. On the biblical side, they will choose kings who lead them to victory, then rue the day when their sons die in battle. No wonder the two streams of thought have had inordinate influence on the way we think about politics and government in the West.

Democracy was not an option for the Hebrews, and not what we mean by democracy for the Greeks. Given the amount of money the plutocrats inject into political campaigns in the United States in order to keep their hands on the wealth, it is arguable that American democracy isn’t what Americans mean by democracy either–but that’s a different point. In a naive and unexamined way, Americans think that certain phrases like “majority rule,” “the will of the people,” and “representative government” are self-authenticating, even though they smack of power rather than statecraft. Loftier ideas like “good government,” “sound counsel,” and “wise leadership,” even “justice for all” betray their biblical origins: there is not enough time to cultivate ideals like that when the complete political reality of our time, the definitive feature of messy democracy is change on demand. From where we sit, democracy means sending the menu item you thought you’d like, but didn’t, back to the kitchen.

The recent election has proved two things to me. First, we can never count on the American people to do the right thing, whether they choose kings over republics or republics over kings. The political history of the world, as every historian knows and every political “analyst” conveniently forgets at election time, is a history of disappointment, punctuated by remorse, followed by revolutions and wars.

That is the religious and political history of Europe. It is also the history of America in its revolution, its Civil War, and its most recent political spasm, the triumph of the Tea Party para-revolutionaries. When the frighteningly ignorant and undereducated Christian fundamentalist, Sharron Angle of Nevada, announced that Americans were ready for “Second Amendment remedies” to the current “regime” she was using language (probably scripted) in a deliberately provocative way. Alas, however, she may have been right. But I did not hear a single “analyst” with the historical presence of mind to suggest that both John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald (to name only two successful assassins) used these remedies. The phrase “We’ve come to take our government back” may sound more like a football cheer than a threat, but the underlying idea that a particular government is “owned” by a class of people and has been unlawfully seized by the unrighteous is not democratic rhetoric: it is populism gone berserk, Israel shouting for its king. This time, however, the king is not a man: it is their enthroned Echo.

America has fought only two continental wars, one against its colonial masters, the other against itself. Lincoln’s exegesis of Gettysburg–that it was a battleground to test whether the idea of equality and union could survive in a nation without much history (a scant eighty-seven years at the time) to guide it–has not been settled. Lincoln was depicted in the lore of his generation as a Hebrew patriarch: “We are coming father Abraham, 300,000 more.” was one of the most popular songs of the Civil war era.

But he was hated by at least as many thousands. John Wilkes Booth’s shout as he leapt onto the stage of Ford’s theater on the evening of April 14, 1865 summed up the feelings of the Tea Partiers of his day: “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus to tyrants, always”). He served exactly four years, one month, and twelve days as President.

What is it about the Lincolns, the Kennedys and so far, thankfully, nonviolently, the Obamas of this land that awakens the crouching demons of American democracy, the shouters, the haters and the merely suasible, and entitles them to bring their swords?

Some fairly impressive scholars think that the Civil War was merely the first outburst of regionally and socially stratified tensions that are even worse in the twenty-first century than in the nineteenth and twentieth. America, lacking a common enemy–the British, the Nazis, or the Communists–turns predator on itself and sees in the faces of Others traits it has managed to overlook. Until now. Some of us think that people are no smarter and may–if these absurd and destructive elections are any barometer–be getting less smart all the time. They are to enlightened government what obesity is to nutrition. And some of us think that the United States Constitution is simply inadequate (not imperfect, inadequate) to cope with the growing realities of this system of government.

Contrary to what the “winners” of this election say publicly: there is no divine mandate here. There is no country to be “won back,” no regime in place. There is no guarantee that America will survive the savagery of the masses and massively under-informed. The Constitution is not a magical formula, just a rather dull diagram for a political order that seems hopelessly out of step with the times.

As to the victors, the “voice of the people,” may God give them the king they desire, one who looks, feels, speaks, and thinks just like them.

8 thoughts on “Vox Populi: A Theology of Messy Democracy

  1. Simply marvelous. Gives voice to my deepest concerns with much thought, eloquence and insight. Add to this, the amount of money spent on this election while states, cities, local , schools go begging, all makes your post so relevant; in questioning the validity of our political system and it’s usefulness going forward. Thank you.

  2. 2 years gone and there doesn’t seem to be much difference between Dems and Repubs any longer, they just use different language but the results are largely the same: War and Spend, War and Spend, War and Spend.

    • Kyrie eleison… “Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed” (Mao Zedong) It’s just more of the same and they’re becoming, it seems, more the same. So… people kill people who kill people because killing people is wrong. Put down the guns and ban the bomb. But as GB Shaw said, you’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race.

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