The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Peace in Babylon (2): The trouble with democracy

Democracy don’t rule the world
You’d better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that’s better left unsaid

\~ Bob Dylan, "Union Sundown"

All political systems share a common function: they provide a social framework for legitimating violence. The end of this is the determination of by whom and under what circumstances violence can be acceptably employed. This is a useful insight when analyzing political systems, because in almost all cases this core function is masked by ideology.

People who live in relative comfort and stability have a tendency to imagine that their society has embodied the culmination of history. How could there be a better political system than democracy? In the United States this opinion is compounded with nationalist pride because we are the birthplace of the modern republic.

I am not going to try to suggest a superior political system to democracy. But I think it is important for American Christians to know the practical weaknesses of democracy so that we can wisely navigate the politics of our society. If we tune out some of the ideology surrounding our system, it will help us to better act as salt and light in the world. I'll illustrate this issue with attention to economic class in the United States.

One weakness of democracy is evidenced by the fact that "populism" has a negative connotation. Why is it considered bad to cater to the will of the masses, when that is supposedly the basis of political power? The answer, partly cynical and partly realistic, is that popular will is fickle and not necessarily in line with the best interests of the community at large. The other side of this sword is of course that majorities are necessary for electoral success. So politicians must appeal to a majority of the electorate without appearing to be "pandering."

Of course politicians do not get the opportunity to pander until they have become successful candidates. This requires a lot of money, and exposes the perennial struggle for democracy: corruption. Politicians need money to get elected, and rich people and corporations want to receive some favor for their contributions. So while the people pick the winner, in most cases the elites pick the candidates.

So far as I can tell there is no ultimate solution for corruption. It will be a continual struggle for all democracies to reform themselves and fight corruption as it increases. But even in the absence of out-and-out corruption, the system does tolerate a disproportionate influence by the rich in terms of their contributions.

The notable absence from my discussion so far has been the poor and marginalized. The rich can set the agenda, and politicians appeal to the masses, and in the midst of this the poor can be completely overlooked. As a result we get rhetoric in a presidential election which is almost wholly fixated on "the middle class." This must be of particular concern to us as Christians because we know from scripture that God favors the poor.

So what does all of this mean for we Christians living as sojourners? Democracy has some systemic flaws which prevent it from addressing some issues which are most important to us. It is by no means a perfect system. Therefore we need to direct our political efforts with the knowledge of those flaws.

Note that by "political effort" I do not necessarily mean "vote." I believe in many cases it will be necessary for Christians to address needs in our society directly, without utilizing the formal political system. After all, we may be trying forever to convince a politicians chosen by the rich and focused on "the middle class" to attend to the needs of the poor among us, but we are free to take up the effort on our own right now.

There are other ways besides the class system to illustrate the drawbacks of democracy. We as Christians need to keep in mind that our politics is not nearly as perfect as the national ideology would have us believe. With this in mind, we can discern where to engage the political process and where to be more creative in pursuing our mission in the world.

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