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The Majority Wins: But What?

06 Aug 2016

Well, the rage now is politics, electoral politics.  My colleague Mark Smith has been busy the past few days addressing Wayne Grudem’s qualified support of Donald Trump for president.  I am not going there for now.  I wanted to say something about the bigger picture of how and why we got to where we are today.  I think Alexis de Tocqueville had something to say about it, but so did our Founding Fathers in the particular way they wrote the Constitution.  “In the beginning” of the republic, democracy, both in America and in Europe, was a somewhat subversive idea, except among a few radicals.  The new Constitution hardly provided for a full-fledged democratic process.  First not everyone could vote.  Second, the Senate was not elected by the people of a state, but senators were appointed by state legislatures.  Hmm.  Third, the electoral college made it possible for a presidential contender to win the presidency even if he lost the numerical majority.  That of course has come back to bother people again from time to time.  Here is an interesting watershed historical fact:  It was the Progressive movement that advocated most strenuously for more offices to be elected—at the same time, ironically, that they were also advocating for a “rule of experts” in bureaucracies that consisted of unelected employees who couldn’t be fired (usually one had to die or commit a heinous crime) and who were supposedly always unbiased and public spirited.

So after the Progressive Era we had much more democratic institutions.  But we also faced a question: Would de Tocqueville prove to be correct about his pessimism regarding what would happen when democracy dominated?  Would the “people” act responsibly and virtuously or gradually move toward an increasingly self-interested attitude, and in the process, elect candidates based on what they thought they could get from them?  Majority rule could now result in a tyranny whereby the 50+n% could outvote the 50-n% and in voting, take from them?  Would they elect candidates who would do the same thing indirectly for them?  Would they eventually not even care about either the personal virtue of a candidate or his competence in addressing public concerns?  Would the electoral process become a “beauty contest”? (that began long before the Trump phenomenon).

At the same time, we also have to ask ourselves how we have fared in terms of our mores and values, apart from politics?  Since the Enlightenment, the intelligentsia and the cultural elites have pounded the masses with their own vision of what the world ought to look like.  Liberal theology has piled on over the last two centuries, undermining not only long-held doctrinal beliefs but also the moral theology associated with them.  As a result European (especially) and American cultures have been pushed into a black hole of ethics and morality.  Yes, this is a broad brush, for certain, and only a generalization.  But many scholars have noticed the same phenomenon.

When one combines opportunity to exercise egoism with a desire to be egoist, bad things happen.  Hence, we have what so many believe is the highest institutional form of government—democracy. But it is becoming dysfunctional because people themselves are and have always been the problem.  A democracy works as long as virtue is a generally held value.  As it is gradually denigrated, democracy cannot support the work required of it.  It is used to undermine any good that might result and to advance causes and people who really only desire transfer of resources with nothing in return, or prestige, or power.  Not only that, but history has shown us that demagoguery is always a possibility, given the right conditions. We may well have achieved a sustainable set of conditions that could make what we are seeing now the norm for the future—if the republic survives very long.

I apologize for being what might be labeled pessimistic.  In reality I hope I am realistic, with the possibility and the hope that I might be wrong in the long run.  Regardless, since I am a Christian, I do not personally despair, not for very long at any rate.  God’s plan will not be thwarted.  He reigns.