Friday, January 27, 2006

Democracy and Virtue

Being in the majority does not make one right. It also does not make one good.

The elections among the Palestinians tell us one important fact about democracy.

It is not an automatic "cure all" for all that ails a society. The quality of a democracy is no better than the quality of the people who are casting their votes. If a majority of the population is filled with hate and a lust for destruction, then they will vote for hate and destruction.

This would come as no surprise among those who study history.

The History of Democracy

President Bush and the rest of his company have been claiming that we need to establish democracy around the world because it will help to ensure peace. However, the bloodiest war that America has ever fought was against people who embraced democracy; the Confederate States.

Before the Civil War, the ante-bellum south voted for slavery for nearly 90 years. They gave up on slavery only when they were forced to do so by an occupying Union army. Even then, they did not vote against a culture of systematic violence towards and degradation of African Americans until, again, forced only fifty years ago.

Hitler was elected even after he wrote (and substantially because of what he wrote in) Mein Kampf.

The current President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – the person who says that Israel should be wiped off of the face of the earth and is seeking nuclear weapons that would make this possible -- was elected, though admittedly candidates must first be approved by a Council of Guardians.

In ancient times, the Athenian Democracy voted to execute Socrates for “worshipping false gods and corrupting the youth,” and threatened to do the same to Aristotle. And when Julius Caesar decided to become emperor of Rome, he pulled it off by supporting the candidacies of politicians who then granted him the powers he wanted and refused to oppose the powers he claimed.

I am ashamed to say it, but we can add another feature of the United States to this sad example. We are a democracy, yet we have an administration that engages in torture and a number of other immoral abuses. Yet, experts say that they will almost certainly retain control of the House and Senate.

The Virtue of Democracy

The principle that history shows us is clear; democracies are no more moral than those who vote. If a culture breeds immorality, than that democracy will be immoral. This is axiomatic, really. If 51% of a population wishes to enslave or torture to death the other 49%, then they will vote to do so. The chance to vote will do nothing to temper their evil dispositions.

In fact, democracy may even feed the tyranny of the majority. The fact that the 51% who will be doing the torturing wins in election might convince them that the tyranny of their majority has special moral weight. We see that in this country where the mere fact that certain religious factions make up a majority of the country is seen as justification enough for whatever tyranny they wish to impose on those who do not share their religion.

“We are the majority. By right we may do whatever we please,” is a sentiment that rests behind a great many of their claims.

This is yet another example of the principle that a democracy cannot be any more moral than those who vote.

On the Other Hand

There have been times in the past where this fact has been carried to the other extreme.

South Africa provides an example of this.

In order to preserve their power, the white government in South Africa claimed that they did not dare give blacks the right to vote. They feared that the blacks, given political power, would use it to exact their revenge on the whites who had ruled over them for centuries. They turned out to be wrong.

We have reason to wonder about the degree to which bigotry played into this error. What the whites were saying was that the blacks did not have the moral character necessary to participate in a democratic government. They had to be governed by whites because they could not govern themselves.

Why believe this? What is the evidence for this, other than the bigotry of those who had power and a willingness to deceive themselves because that deceit supported a conclusion that they liked?


Now that we are aware of this problem with democracy, it is time to ask about what we should expect from the democracy that we are seeking to establish in Iraq. From the beginning, smart people have been worried about what type of government the Iraqi citizens would vote for.

I suspect that the Bush Administration felt that the Iraqi people would view the United States as great liberators, and would elect whoever our President asked them to elect by a huge margin. The results have been disappointing. Fundamentalist Muslim parties have been scoring the greatest victories in Iraq – politicians not much different from their counterparts in Iran.

It is time to start taking seriously the possibility that we replaced an impotent dictator with no weapons of mass destruction with a democracy that may end up having the same attitudes towards America that Hamas has for Israel. It is quite possible that, in Iraq, the winner of its elections will be the party that takes the most uncompromising and violent stand against America.

But, at least they will be a democracy.

Morally, that’s all that really matters, right? After all, whoever wins an election can automatically claim virtue on his side. Isn’t that how it goes?


soihgior44 said...

The irony.
I am glad someone else noticed this. After the WMD’s were proved to be unfounded, I kept thinking the Bush administration must have an hidden agenda for justifying the military action against Iraq; an agenda that was morally correct because they knew something about what Hussein was going to do, something so horrific that spending 200+ billion and sacrificing1000’s of human lives (not to mention the 10’s of thousands of the maimed) was justified in stopping. Was it all done to establish democracy? As it is, I see a major problem with democracy and that it is, as you said, no better than the moral bias of the majority and the moral bias in Iraq is based on the Quran, which I deem to be worse than Hussein. Alas I keep thinking that those in powerful positions would have higher moral standards, but it simply is not the case.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Given the way that democracies work, I have sometimes wondered if a person of good moral character could actually win an election.

Instead, power tends to go, not to the virtuous or the wisest, but to the vain, egoicentric, manipulative, deceiptful, most closed-minded and dogmatic individuals.