Two Cheers for Democracy

Politics needs philosophy



Last week a young activist for whom I have sympathy wrote that he was hesitant to discuss democracy. Why so? Because he looks at democracy “differently.” Democracy, he thinks, is only a tool to secure good leadership. But tools don’t always work. That’s why, he notes, once a party wins power, it sets out to “manage” the democratic process to stay in power. After all, each party thinks its leadership is best!

I give democracy more credit than does my young friend. Still, it has problems. Winston Churchill cited the wag who said that democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the rest. The philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe points out that it is possible that “the majority votes in the minority in a majority of cases,” and she offers a simple graph to prove it.

More telling still is St. Augustine’s caveat: “If the people have a sense of moderation and responsibility… it is right [for] such a people to choose their own magistrates [but if] the same people become so corrupt as to sell their votes, and entrust the government to scoundrels and criminals, then the right of appointing their public officials is… forfeit.”

This Christmas we would do well to revisit Pope Pius XII’s Christmas Message of 1944. Much of Europe was in ruins, and the devastation of war reached far beyond the continent where the war began. Many thought that only democracy offered true political renewal. Pius XII was ready to encourage the democratic spirit. In doing so, however, he underscored the bond between dignity and authority. Our dignity reflects that God creates us in his own image; the dignity of the State reflects the  moral community that God wills; the dignity of political authority is its sharing in God’s authority. What follows? The Holy Father is blunt: “No form of State can fail to take account of this intimate and indissoluble connection, let alone democracy.” But doesn’t the secular liberal state insist on doing just this?

Why, then, do I give democracy more credit than the young activist? Indeed, I’m willing to give it two cheers. I do so because of a bold Thomistic axiom: everything is perfected in act (omne ens perficitur in actu). Please note: God is already perfect, and St. Thomas sees God as pure act (actus purus). So what does it mean to say that everything is perfected, that is, made complete, in act? It means that in the broadest sense everything is most fully what it is insofar as it realizes its potential. For example, an atom realizes its potential, in part, through interacting with other atoms. An amoeba, for another example, realizes its potential in the absorption of nutrients.

And what about us? We are by nature free and rational and social. Some form of democracy, and I’d specify representative democracy, offers us the context in which we can act to most fully realize our nature. In doing so, we achieve civic friendship. In this activating of our social nature, democracy is not just a tool. It manifests what it is to be a human person in community. Democracy isn’t a mere technique. The democratic spirit isn’t an item in our skill set. Rather, the exercising of democracy is a dimension of what it is for us to become who we most fully are.

Yes, my case for democracy involves a turn to metaphysics. And, yes, most people are content to go about their political lives without metaphysics. I wish them good luck, but they’ll need much more than luck. Politics needs philosophy!

Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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