The Shock of Democracy

In 2016 the sleeping giant of democracy has awakened. In the rise of minor parties in many Western democracies, in the UK Brexit vote, and now in the USA Presidential election – we have witnessed the power of people rejecting the power of the elite who rule over them. This is democracy in action.

However, this kind of democracy has shocked and rattled the complacency of the elite who have ruled unchallenged for most of this generation. The pollsters and pundits as well as the media and markets, have failed comprehensively to predict or even understand what has happened. The big guns were wheeled in to oppose the popular sentiment but it has not worked. In the polling station, in the privacy of the voting booth, the people have voted in ways they weren’t supposed to.

The chattering classes of the elite have been scrambling to make sense of what they view as the senseless. Having convinced themselves that the opposition views were only held by deplorable, red-necked, stupid, uneducated, racist bigots they find it unimaginable that their opponents could have scored electoral success. The argument about extremist views becomes difficult to sustain when so many people are voting for them. Whether you are for or against leaving the European Community the majority voted to leave. Like him or hate him, over sixty million people voted for Donald Trump.

Some are so appalled with the results that after Brexit there were demonstrations by the losers calling for another vote. And now, as I write, there are demonstrations in the USA declaring that Mr Trump is “not our president”, when clearly he has been elected to become exactly that. This has led them to ill-liberal, anti-democratic, intolerant, hateful demonstrations – in the name of liberal, democratic, tolerant, inclusive love. Their blind hypocrisy is breathtaking in its irony, for one of their legitimate criticisms of Mr Trump was his unwillingness to promise to accept the outcome of the election should he lose. Their response shows that they have not only failed to appreciate any alternative view to their own, but clearly have not understood the nature of democracy.

Appreciating Alternative Views

There are many reasons for not appreciating alternative views; the subjective reason of most people – is that their view is so self-evidently true and the alternative so self-evidently false. However, the more objective reason has to do with living in a sub-culture that only listens to one side of the argument or listens to the alternative only to find fault with it. This is further reinforced when only one side is given public airspace in society. Yet, the real clincher is when anybody expressing an alternative viewpoint is shouted down, ridiculed, and bullied into silence. If you do not genuinely let the other side speak you will only hear one side of a debate. If you only hear one side of a debate it is not surprising that your prediction of the outcome will be wrong.

This has been the abiding problem of our society for some time. Our media has only been giving one side of the debate, either ignoring the alternatives or presenting them in such a bad light as to make it impossible to believe any sensible, normal, rational person would support them. The result is a society such as I live in, where to say you support one of the candidates is tantamount to social suicide. I personally don’t like Donald Trump, nor Hilary Clinton for that matter, but I would have no problem saying I support Hilary Clinton while I would face rude and intolerant attack if I said I supported Donald Trump. This is true, not just about the American Presidential election but also on a range of social issues. The censorship and social shaming of views about homosexual marriage, abortion, feminism, migration, Islam are so strong that even writing this sentence has caused me to pause for thought. No wonder the advocates of homosexual marriage opposed the plebiscite so strongly because the power of the private polling booth was well beyond their control.

Understanding Democracy

Democracy is a good system of government for what it attempts to achieve. It is not the best form of government to bring about rapid change or to impose new cultural mores or to conquer new lands or even to defend a nation at war. It was not intended for these kinds of activities because it is a form of government that aims to restrain government power, not release it unfettered upon the society and the world. It is not a form of government based on moral righteousness but majority rule. The power of a democratic government is no legitimised by its wisdom but by its popular acceptance.

Government needs power to be able to govern. However, in a world of sinful people, nobody can be trusted with power. It’s not that power corrupts, it’s that corrupt people can’t be trusted with power. Power demonstrates our pre-existent corruption. As President Clinton confessed to his Monica Lewinsky affair: “I think I did something for the worst possible reason – just because I could. I think that’s the most, just about the most morally indefensible reason that anybody could have for doing anything. When you do something just because you could …”

The aim of democracy is to limit the power of government by distributing power amongst leaders and requiring them to periodically face the judgement of the electorate. By so doing, it enables the peaceful transition of power. Instead of revolutions we have elections – instead of bullets we have ballots. However, the peaceful transition of power requires at least one of two preconditions: either everybody accepts the verdict of the majority; or the alternative sources of power (e.g. the military or police) accept and reinforce it.

The ‘elite’ always resist placing the power of government into the hands of the people. They have a sense of their right to rule given to them by their race or caste or education or family or religion or however they base their claim to be the elite. It has been a long slow process to extend the franchise to all adult citizens. (Some government, e.g. the body corporate in home units, is still restricted to owners.) The elite in a meritocracy in particular feel that they, of all people, should be in government rather than the deplorable hoi polloi who know no better. Yet it is the essence of democracy that the people – in all their variety and diversity – should have the final say.

Constitutional democracy seeks to establish and control democratic power by the rule of law. It establishes the process, limits and structures of democratic rule – by making government answerable to the constitution and law courts in addition to the will of the majority. This helps minimise democracy’s inevitable ‘tyranny of the majority’ by establishing and protecting the place of minorities and limiting the capacity for a popular government acting immorally. Sadly, with post-modern understanding of words and language the rule of law is becoming the rule of lawyers – the Supreme (or High) Court becoming the unelected government introducing social change that democratic government cannot achieve and the population may not want.

Governments will always fail us. There is no possibility of government always acting rightly and in the interests of all the people for whom it takes responsibility. The world is far too complex for any government to always make right, wise and effective decisions. They can only try – and when they fail, be replaced – preferably in a ‘right, wise and effective’ fashion. The peaceful transition of power is important if we want to avoid the chaos and bloodshed of the Arab Spring, or the oppression of Communist revolutionaries or the horror of civil war, such as in Syria.

Christians and Democracy

Three Christian contributions to this problem are:

Firstly, we know that the one government, which will truly deliver wisdom and righteousness, is the Kingdom of God. It is only the risen King who died for his people to take our sinfulness upon himself and pay the price for us, who can truly rule with justice and mercy. It is only when he returns that the human dream of righteousness reigning will become a reality.

Secondly, in this world, we know that all candidates have flaws and weaknesses. There is never simply a good candidate verse an evil candidate. Corruption lies in every heart – the heart of the electors as well as the candidates. We do not put our trust in princes or ourselves.

Thirdly, we are to subject ourselves to whatever government is over us, because ultimately God has placed them there (Romans 13). Our task is to submit to the government God has appointed irrespective of the way it came to power or the basis upon which it holds power. This includes accepting the Government’s right to imprison us for any divinely ordained civil disobedience.

These contributions to our understanding of government lie behind the Christian preference for democracy as a form of human government. This is because regular scheduled elections by universal suffrage show that: we do not look for ultimate solutions in human government; we presume that all leaders will fail us; there is no elite whose wisdom and integrity will give the right to rule over the rest; and we will accept the new government on the basis of majority decisions.

Democracy not Meritocracy

In a democracy we all have a say – that’s a great privilege and responsibility. It is a shame to have it undermined by the arrogance of a ruling elite who preach democracy but believe in meritocracy. Their confidence in their own merit has lead to the censorship practices of a censorious media, the bullying tactics of fashionable moralists or the shock-horror demonstrations of the defeated.

Democracy transfers power by majority rule. It’s a simple principle that requires us to listen respectfully to the opinions of all the people. It results in a peaceful transition from one government to the next. This peaceful transfer of power is a central precious privilege of the democratic system. Hilary Clinton was right when, in her concession speech, she said: “Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. We don’t just respect that. We cherish it.”