Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Democratic Deficit

There was a fascinating excerpt from Tudors by Peter Ackroyd, in Delancey Place recently about the "Tynedale Bible," his translation into English and the Church's efforts to suppress it in 1526.  The authorities finally caught up to Tynedale and executed him, burning every extant copy. The Church, and the broader State authorities argued "the Scriptures were too sacred to be left in the hands of the laity and that any interpretation of them should only be under clerical supervision..." The English Bible came as a sensation and a revelation; and it energized the faithful. The tradition of interpretation, argumentation and persuasion inherent in protestantism is also a core democratic principle.  Democracy need not eschew experts or elites; but the pronouncements and recommendations they make should also reflect the fact they have heard and understood the broader concerns.

There are those, today, who bang on about "too much democracy" and "mobocracy." They seem to me just the latest elitist apologists who do not trust people to know their own minds and interests.

To this dismal debate, Andrew Sullivan adds his voice, writing this month in New York Magazine that "Democracies end when they are too democratic".  He regards Trump as "an extinction-level event."  And says it is "long past time we started treating him as such."  Rather than examine the faults and omissions of recent government; rather than examine the road-blocks and anti-democratic institutional hurdles that play upon and amplify the electorate's sense that nothing can be done--the very things that have given rise to outside challenges--Sullivan doubles-down on the people-are-stupid side and lays faith in anti-democratic rules and institutions.  Indeed, he seems to urge Republicans to freeze Trump out of the GOP Convention process, and make use of arbitrary elite structures that are bound to inflame rather than placate those who are already angry.  Far from "too much democracy," the expression of generalized anger, resentment and frustration that are the tenets of the election season so far are the product of not enough democracy, of not enough ways for the electorate to exercise their judgement.

During the writing of my novel, Faithless Elector, I have had to become something of a student of the Electoral College, its rules, processes and history.   I can see someone, well-meaning, like Sullivan, making the case that freezing out the hot passions of the electorate is precisely what the Electoral College was intended to help us manage.

One of the dismaying tropes arising from discussions of the Electoral College is the insistence by some that the United States is a republic, not a democracy; and that Constitutional provisions like the Electoral College protect us from the "tyranny of the majority" or a "mobocracy".  The naked paternalism (and by extension the infantilization of the electorate) of this stance is often followed by statements like "the founding fathers knew best" or "the founding fathers wanted to protect us...".

Protect us from what?  Ourselves?  When someone invokes "tyranny of the majority," what exactly are they saying?  When would we as citizens agree that it is right for a minority of voters (those who lost) to dictate policy?  When, and under what circumstances does the loser in a campaign get to govern?

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