Short Take: Democracy or Bust

The Texas Tornado, Mark Bennett, poses a question that probably won’t be popular with many youngish lawyers, not because he doesn’t have a point, but because they’ve never given it much thought and instead cling to the dogma that’s been drilled into their noggins.

We have to prove democracy still works.

—President Joe Biden, in an Address to a Joint Session of Congress, April 28, 2021.

When did democracy ever work?

Wait, what? No this isn’t the “actually” nonsense about our being a Republic, but a question about actual democracy. Like socialism (this is me being ironic and making a joke; leave me alone), has it ever really been tried?

While the amount of democracy in America has increased since 1776, from “white male property owners” having the vote to “men of all races, theoretically” (15th Amendment, 1870) to “women as well” (19th Amendment, 1920) to “even poor people” (24th Amendment, 1964) to “even people under 21 (but over 18)” (26th Amendment, 1971), the system was not designed by the founders to be democratic. And modern fans of democracy would (correctly) tell you that the President and Senate are not democratically chosen. Senators were only directly elected starting in 1913 (17th Amendment1), the President has never been directly elected, and God forbid that the Supreme Court should ever be directly elected.

When people say “democracy” in 2021, they do not mean the republic the Founders created, with its obvious flaws, any more than they mean the democracy of Athens in 420 BC.

In the thrust to oust Trump, there was a sudden rush toward democracy, voting “rights” that never existed before the pandemic but which we couldn’t possibly survive without, enfranchisement of people with convictions, even people in prison, facilitating every possible voter who was disinclined to vote Republican to get out (or stay in) and vote their butts off.

Having already questioned the democratic efficacy of pushing low information, low effort citizens to vote, Bennett takes it to the next level.

People should be able to determine their own form of government; in a pure democracy up to half the people may be unable to do so. When a majority group votes in lockstep for its own interests and against the interests of a minority group, the minority’s right to vote doesn’t do it much good.

In small communities (Dunbar’s Number or fewer people, say) pure democracy might work because the people are all neighbors, with complex interrelations and shared interests. And maybe democracy has worked in such contexts. But in a culturally diverse society of strangers, pure democracy is a formula for the tyranny of the majority (“four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch,” as has been said). The larger the population, the greater the number of people liable to wind up disgruntled, disaffected, effectively disenfranchised by democracy. (Hey, how’s France doing?)

Some wag may well point out that there is likely to always be more poor than rich, more struggling than successful, voters in a diverse society such as America. Aspiration being what it is, why wouldn’t someone struggling vote for the person who promises to take from the rich and give it to them? It would be entirely rational to vote one’s enlightened self interest. And to the extent that some of the more successful cohorts of our society have been shamed into feeling guilty about their perceived “privilege,” they might be likely to vote with them and against their self interest.

Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. Good and hard, as Mencken said.

12 thoughts on “Short Take: Democracy or Bust

      1. Guitardave

        What? You haven’t learned to keep the safety on when the crazy musician comments?

  1. Conner Leo

    As I say on social media(which often earns me DMs telling me to GTFO of America) that I have yet to live through a competent president in office. Each and every one reached that office via the election.

    Elections aren’t a magic wand to fix one’s ills.

    1. SHG Post author

      Fixing ills is hard and takes critical thinking and effort, two things that people prefer not to do.

  2. Elpey P.

    When a politician says “We have to prove ______ works” it’s likely that we won’t find widespread agreement on what “we,” “have,” “prove” “______,” and “works” mean.

    In this case it’s like hearing a scientist say “We have to prove general relativity works.” Maybe they’re doing it wrong.

    1. SHG Post author

      President Biden has an amazing ability to say words that say nothing but have that superficial gloss that creates the appearance of something good while saying nothing at all.

      1. Paleo

        High school government, back during the Nixon administration. They taught us the six (I think it was six) types of statements that politicians make. I only remember one of them – “glittering generalities”.

        Biden loves his glittering generalities, and the media can’t stop swooning over them.

        1. SHG Post author

          It’s the second half of your final sentence that really hurts. There is no scrutiny of Biden. If he farts, the NYT will write about the invigorating bucolic aroma.

  3. phv3773

    I think a broader view weakens the argument to some extent. The powers of government are dispersed and there is a friction effect that slows the rate of change. A lot of government is done by the states. As an example, the Democrats hold the power in Washington, but many red states are passing laws despised by the Democrats.

    1. SHG Post author

      Some people follow the concept. Others can’t without tying it to some concrete example.

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