Friday, 11 April 2008

Democracy: not all it's cracked up to be (part two)

Part one.

In this series of posts, I'm trying to explain why it's a huge error to make an idol out of democracy. It may normally be better than the alternatives; but if we make it an absolute principle, that'll be a huge blunder.

What is democracy? In theory, it's krasis by the demos - i.e., rule by the people - self-governance. In practice, what people normally mean by it is that rulers are chosen by periodic free elections. In practice, it doesn't mean that the people get to vote on every law that comes into parliament, or even on any of them. There's not been a single actual referendum in my lifetime. In fact, "democracy" as normally understood is perfectly compatible with every law that gets passed being one that you hate. It means we chose the rulers, and then they chose whatever they please, subject to maybe they want us to chose them again in five years time.

I think it's interesting to think about how "democracy" actually works, because a lot of the time it's flatly contradictory to the arguments used to advance it. In theory, in a democracy we speak through our elected representatives. In practice, our representatives are under the party whip. In theory, democracy ensures that the people's will is heard. In practice, the political class consider being deliberately "populist" in one's policies to be a mortal sin. In theory, democracy will lead to the ideas battling it out in the public sphere and the best ones winning out. In practice, democracy gave us the world of Blairism and hyper-spin. The theory of democracy implies either that the majority are always right or on the other hand that the majority will should be followed even if wrong. Does anybody actually believe either of those propositions? I suppose the answer is "No, but it's better than fascism".

I think I'm OK with that answer, though I'm pretty sure that if I asked you to name some actual fascist governments, they'd probably turn out to be ones that were democratically elected. Whether that's true or not, I think the point is being made: When our politicians (I'm thinking of president Bush here) preach that the exporting of democracy to the world will usher in a new golden age of freedom and progress, they're promoting an idol that cannot save us. And Christians out to call it out for what it is. Salvation from the mess the world's in will not come through replacing the arbitrary will of a single sinner with the arbitrary wills of crowds of sinners. That's not the real gospel, is it?

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