Democracy is at first sight a very frightening idea.
In what other context would you ask people with passionate tribal allegiances, but who clearly have little idea of the real issues to make a choice with such enormous implications?
And yet with democracy we do exactly that. While nobody knows who first coined the phrase from each according to his ability to each according to his needs most educated people do know that it was made popular by Karl Marx as a justification for his Communism revolution.
Yet in a recent poll, about a third of American voters thought it was came from the American Constitution. About a third of American voters couldn’t name even one of the three branches of the United States Government. Less than a quarter knew who their State senators were, and had no idea that each State had two of them.
And yet – they have the vote. Steeped un an unworried ignorance not only about foreign affairs, basic economics, or the simplest facts of the mechanics of their own government, they had the power to chose the President. But it’s not just them; half way through a TV interview one of the presidential candidates had to admit he had no idea what this thing called ‘Aleppo’ that everyone was talking about was. He was surprised to be told it was a town in Syria; know one knows if he knew what Syria was.
Democracy was born in Greece and Plato who was in on the founding of the idea, thought that power should be entrusted to educated guardians. They would be locked away in a compound where they would be taught to be very afraid of the power of gold, and not allowed to read books with dialogue in case they ‘forgot themselves.”
If that sounds a little daft to our more seasoned ears, it was in the context of a world ruled entirely by despots who sent out armies to rape and pillage at will. So it as at least something of a faltering step forwards.
The philosopher J.S. Mill worried about polling ignorance at the ballot box. He thought it might make sense to give people with university degrees more votes. At first sight that idea appealed to me. I have four degrees. It would suit me nicely. But then I remember how little I understand about economics and how clever people are not always kind or wise people.
I think one of the more frightening arguments I came across was by Bryan Caplan in the “Myth of the Rational Voter”. He wrote that ignorance may even be gratifying to voters. “Some beliefs are more appealing, so if your vote isn’t likely to achieve anything why not indulge yourself in what you want to believe, whether or not it’s true?” In the polling booth, warm fuzzy impractical altruism can be had without any cost.
The other side of the argument comes from Matt Ridley, a clever, informed atheist whose clarity of thought and independence of mind I like. He tells the story of a statistician called Francis Galton who described how a crowd were invited to guess the weight of an ox. It weighed 1,197 lbs. 800 people filled out cards. Only one person guessed right, but the interesting thing was that if you averaged out all the different wrong guesses and divided them by the number of cards, they result was…. 1,197 lbs.
The moral appears to be ‘trust the collective wisdom of the crowd.’
I can’t easily chose between these two views, and like most people agree with Churchill that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
But then I think that people look to politics for something that can’t be delivered. It can offer social stability, but very little real fairness, and it can’t change people for the better. For transformed people (which makes for a transformed culture) you have to turn to God.
The history of Christianity is often told as a kind of history of public politics. But that just proves the mistake of seeing everything through the lens of power.
It’s real history is one of selfish lives become unselfish, frightened people courageous in love, vengeful people become forgiving, hopelessness transformed into belief in a future that outlives the futility of death.
Although secular propaganda has relentlessly tried to wipe the influence of Christianity off the public map, it only succeeds if it hides the astonishing impact on transforming societies across the world that people who became Christians had.
It’s a category mistake to look to politics and politicians to achieve this kind of difference. It takes an encounter with God and the realization that saints are more powerful agent for transformation than presidents. Their influence certainly lasts a good deal longer. The Bible is ultimately more effective and more productive for human change, than the ballot box.