Democracy in Action

The Pew Research Center reported yesterday that the voters of 29 states have already approved bans on same-sex marriage.

For me, this observation highlights the absurdity of the naïve apotheosis of populism and democratic institutions that constitutes a core element of the contemporary Western zeitgeist. We tend to take for granted that democracy is something intrinsically good, an assumption that gives strength to the growing scorn we see in our society for “elitism” or any other movement that threatens to usurp the will of the people. We Americans seem to invariably forget that, while democratic institutions may sculpt our society in accord with the will of the people, this in no way implies that the people’s vision of a perfect society is something we should wish to see given form. Democracy does indeed give power to the people, but it does not and can never give the people the moral integrity to put that power to proper use.

Indeed, if the age-old adage that “power corrupts” is true, then democracy might even contribute to the moral and intellectual degradation of the populations of democratic nations. Or, as seems more likely, the age-old adage is simply wrong: corruption is a part of the human inheritance, and power, like alcohol, simply brings that latent vice to the forefront.

Before I close, I should note that this is not a peculiarly American problem, though I know many people who would like to claim so. After all, the Swiss are about to vote on a law that would permanently ban the construction of minarets.

Really, when I think of all the crimes that democratic nations commit against their own moral codes, it’s enough to make me wonder if William Henry Vanderbilt was onto something when he said, “the people be damned.”

2 responses to “Democracy in Action”

  1. Katherine

    Number 1, we don’t have a pure democracy in the United States, and so blaming this problem, the denial of human rights to one group by the masses, on democracy isn’t really fair.

    Number 2, prove that there is something better out there than what we have or what we are striving for.

    I am fine with criticizing democracy and the will of the people. But I think you are dead wrong with the assertion that democracy is generally thought of as “good.” I don’t put any sort of moral judgment upon democracy, it just is the “best” we’ve got. It is a system of government and the people involved in our democracy are what make it good or evil, not the system itself.

    I also think that your statement about power corrupting to be a bit off. If you are saying that in the way that a bunch of people got together and because they can vote against another’s human rights, they did so, just because they could, that seems ridiculous to me. I think a bunch of people have gotten together, manipulated by a select few in positions of authority who have used their money and influence to push a very specific agenda. This is a bit different from the American people getting drunk on their voting power.

    I’d bet that a significant amount that voted against gay marriage rights did so not even necessarily thinking they’d win (like many anti abortion voters) but doing so because they were voting their conscience and it’s what their church told them to do.

    k, that’s all i got for now. :)