On the ‘Virtue’ of Democracy

COMMENTARY: A system becomes vicious when it lays a veneer of virtue over vice. And our public life is getting more vicious by the day.

“We the People...”
“We the People...” (photo: Janece Flippo / Shutterstock.com)

It is part of American self-conception that democracy —  “our democracy” as we must always call it  —  is not just a good way to run a country, but a good in itself. In reality, democracy is more an agent of decay than a vehicle of virtue, and we may have finally decayed past the pretensions of our founding myths.

Our democracy is divisive —  essentially so. The American Founding Fathers knew this, or intuited it. It is why we have institutions, like an electoral college and a senate, that check unfettered democracy. It’s also why some were openly opposed to allowing political parties to form.

In this country, democracy began with a broad set of common assumptions on all political sides —  about morality, religion (to an extent) and values. Divisions were drawn, and elections contested, along other lines — centralism versus subsidiarity, expansion versus consolidation, economics, foreign engagement, and so on. But endless political campaigns mean an endless need to stake out new positions, to draw new lines of difference.

Safeguards notwithstanding, a society ordered on contested political ideology is ever degrading, with every election cycle like a half-life, shortening each time — so much so that now even the parties are themselves as divided as they are dividers. It is the slow-motion shattering of consensus, not its creation.

In democracy there must be elections, and each victory must be at the expense of another. You cannot propose “me,” without insisting “not them.” The means to power is a zero-sum game and, inevitably, it must be played out to the voters in those terms, with the stakes made (or framed as)  ever higher.

In the end, consensus and unity are at odds with the acquisition and retention of power, which is why actual political unity traditionally comes only in times of crises and external, existential threat  —  like war.

Division in democracy, like alcohol in fermentation, is both essential byproduct and toxin. Eventually its concentration becomes so high that it poisons the ecosystem which creates it, until we arrive at a true threat —  a pandemic, for example  —  and have not the will, or even desire, to face it together.

Veneer of Virtue

Baked in to the practice, indeed the premise, of American democracy is the idea that it is inherently virtuous as a system — that the casting of votes to elect a government is not just relatively equitable or expedient, but an objective good in itself.

This original fallacy has seeped into our social conceptions such that “free” and “democratic” are considered, if not synonymous, at least inseparable when describing a justly-ordered society. And it is false.

While there is much to commend the fruits of the American experiment, it spent nearly 100 years being demonstrably “democratic” without being “free.”

That eventual freedom was delivered by war and the disputed exercise of executive authority, not by democratic means. And it was followed by the democratic Blaine Amendments to curtail Catholic participation in public life — and, of course, by Jim Crow.

Yet, today, our “free and democratic” society still insists that the very exercise of our political process to be inherently virtuous .  “I voted” stickers have become one of the last virtue signals common across the divide.

If voting is not just responsible but “good,” and if democracy itself is virtuous in its very premise and exercise, then, by extension, its results are cloaked in goodness and virtue. It’s a premise both absurd and, at times, obscene.

Aaron Sorkin, the great hagiographer of U.S. politics, described it as “really something every two years we get to overthrow a government.” The assumption that the process makes virtuous the result allowed him to give the line, unironically, to a character championing partial-birth abortion.

A system that creates this assumption isn’t virtuous. It is vicious. And our public life is getting more vicious by the day.

‘No God But Caesar’

The atmosphere of our democracy has certainly declined somewhat since Sorkin’s sanctimonious heyday. Earlier this year, some armed demonstrators occupied state capitols. Other, differently motivated, demonstrators have burned buildings and looted stores.

Whatever the result of the election in November, it will surely be contested in the media and the courts, and protested in the streets   —  “mostly peacefully,” I’m sure.

Neither side of the partisan divide will accept victory by the other as legitimate. They are, each to each other, radicals, saboteurs, enemies of the state.

At its heart, our current crisis is one of faith. If the utility of democracy is its accountability, its supposed virtue is in our capacity to govern and hold ourselves to account. The founding promise of democracy is that we are, together and as individuals, up to the task.

The Enlightenment, which provided the philosophical DNA of the American Revolution, coded into the genes of our politics that we are our own authority, the rational creators of our own moral and political order, democratically expressed and sustained.

But, so many half-lifes from that beginning, we no longer have the common values or the will necessary to sustain our own founding myth.

Whatever our paper money may say, America has no god but Caesar, and we have discovered that it is a false idol.

It is for this reason our current moment feels so frantic, so irrational. It isn’t a civil war, it is a religious schism — and no election result can repair it.

We are left, as a country, with only two options,  two competing creeds: We must embrace either the will to dominate the other, or the will to love them. Only the second of these options can build a truly just and free society. But only the first appears on the ballot.

None of this is to say that our democracy is dead, or irredeemably bad. Or to suggest that our political order can or should be reinvented into something new. But acknowledging that it is not inherently good, or virtuous, is essential.

Frankly accepting that our system both creates and feeds upon division and vice can provide a moment of moral epiphany. It can enlighten our choices and mark a beginning to recover some of what we have lost: a common interest not just in ourselves, but in each other.