‘Our democracy’ and the common good

Authored by Frank DeVito

There is much political chatter about “saving our democracy” these days; the president appears to be making this a central talking point in his reelection campaign. But what is “our democracy”? What does it mean to “save” it? And what is democracy for, anyway?

Before diving into the more interesting questions of what democracy is for (the promotion of the common good), it is worth briefly pointing out the insanity behind some of the supposed attempts to “save our democracy” in recent times. To start, what is democracy? Simply put, the people rule. Tocqueville once observed in “Democracy in America” that “the people reign over the American political world as God rules over the universe.” While that might be a bit hyperbolic, the strength of the claim is clear: democracy means the people make decisions about laws, or at least choose the representatives who make those decisions. Whether by direct vote or by representation, that is all democracy means: the people are sovereign; the people rule.

No matter what one thinks of Donald Trump, there is no legitimate way to defend attempts by state governments to remove a popular candidate from the ballot in the name of “saving our democracy.” If democracy means rule by the people, then the people decide — at the ballot box — who leads our government. Simply put, one cannot take a candidate off the ballot in the name of saving democracy. This is an attempt by the ruling class to prevent democracy, not to save it.

The people should be on alert to such absurdities. When political candidates or media pundits pontificate about saving our democracy by making sure that certain “dangerous” candidates (who happen to be their political opponents) are prevented from taking office by nearly any means necessary, this is a dire threat to democracy. When taking one side of a hot-button social issue is somehow an attempt by “right-wing activists to promote anti-democratic measures,” it seems democracy is being undermined rather than protected. Any time we are told that removing a candidate from the ballot or removing an issue from public discourse protects democracy, we should beware of the double-speak and proceed with extreme skepticism.

As we talk about this democracy we are saving, another point is worth exploring: do we actually live in a democracy? Kind of. This is discourse at the level of a decent high school civics course, but in the current political and media environment a few words may be helpful. As stated above, democracy is rule by the people. America is in no way a direct democracy; rarely do the voters cast a “yea” or “nay” vote about whether a particular proposal becomes law. America is a representative republic, which is democratic in a way. Yes, we do cast ballots for many of our representatives (though don’t forget that the president is not popularly or directly elected by the people!)

Additionally, even our representative republic often does not decide based on the democratic will of a simple majority. Most bills need support from 60% of the U.S. senators to become law. Amendments to the Constitution require supermajorities. There is great wisdom in this system, for at least two reasons. First, the Founding Fathers were quite aware that a simple majority can easily tyrannize the minority; that is why the Bill of Rights set limits that congressional majorities cannot change. Not everything ought to be subject to democratic rule. There are rights (undemocratic rights) that are not subject to the will of democratic majorities. Second, rule by simple majority often leads to the hasty passage of laws without proper reflection or a deep consensus by the people. Forcing a law to meet a threshold higher than a simple majority forces prudent, slow, wise law-making that builds consensus and prevents revolutionary changes from every regime that comes into power.

Los Angeles, United States- November 12 2016: Protesters holding a sign reading #NOTMYPREZ outside of the City Hall, in response to the result of the Presidential Election and their disagreement with the result of Donald Trump’s win.

If America is not purely a democracy (it is not), it is a republic with democratic elements. Assuming we can properly call America a democracy of some sort, what is “our democracy” for? If we all agree that our system of government is indeed worth saving, what are the ends that we seek? Is the ultimate good for which we aim simply the freedom for majorities to decide the laws that bind the people? What if democracy yields bad, unjust laws? Is that good, as long as democracy gets to function, and the people get to make the choice? Certainly not. As Americans struggle to keep our democratic republic intact and functioning, we must remember that democracy is not an end in itself. It is a means to enact laws for the common good.

What is the common good and why does it matter? The common good, from the thought of classical thinkers like Aristotle and through centuries of Western political thought, has long been the purpose of political life. Different thinkers and politicians will, of course, disagree about whether a particular law or policy promotes the common good. But we can start by agreeing that, whether a government is a democracy, a republic, or a monarchy, it exists to promote the common good.

As I said, definitions and visions of the common good vary. Aristotle speaks of the common good through the lens of justice and the promotion of the “good life” for the people, as classically understood. The Thomistic vision of the common good realizes that God Himself is the ultimate good, so the common good (while hard to discern and requiring much prudence to apply successfully in political life) is that which allows society “through virtuous living to attain to the possession of God.” More modern thinkers like John Rawls refer to the common good as “a set of conditions that serve certain common interests.” Modern definitions tend to be more individual and utilitarian, focused more on the common good as an aggregate of individual goods or on that which serves the good of most individuals, while the classical understanding sees the common good as more of a unified whole than an aggregate of individual goods or persons.

These differences in the definition of the common good are important and not to be dismissed lightly. But putting that conversation aside, however one defines the term, it is crucial for a society that seeks to preserve a healthy government to return to a serious consideration of the common good.

The promotion of the common good is, by definition, what prevents tyranny. Thomas Aquinas distinguishes the tyrant as one who rules, not for the common good, but for his own sake. The classical understanding of government was that a state could be ruled by one, by the few, or by the many. Each system had the potential to produce a just society, but only if the rulers sought the common good and not their own personal gain. Thus, the rule of one could be a good monarchy or a tyranny; the rule of a few could be a thriving aristocracy or a corrupt oligarchy; the rule of the many could be a successful democracy/republic or devolve into a state of anarchy, which generally leads to the rise of a tyrant to restore order.

Shifting the focus from “our democracy” to “the common good” is of existential importance for the future of American life.

Perhaps this return to focus on the common good is exactly the remedy American political life needs. Focusing on “saving our democracy” misses the point completely. Put aside the fact that one does not save democracy by limiting democratic choices any more than one saves lives by committing mass murder. The point is that democracy is a means, not an end. Wherever one stands on the political spectrum, the focus should not be on saving democracy but on ensuring that the government promotes the common good. Otherwise, what is the point? What good are free elections if the people elect bad actors who pass unjust laws? Why obsess over the process and insist that the majority impose its will on the country at every turn, if that will has been corrupted by self-interest?

Shifting the focus from “our democracy” to “the common good” is of existential importance for the future of American life. If statesmen rise up who are motivated by virtue, by questions of justice and how it can be achieved through prudential policy decisions, they can transform American government and society. I pray for more statesmen interested in preventing tyranny through the promotion of the common good, and less dishonest talk about “saving our democracy” while slowly chipping away at its very foundations.

Frank Devito is an attorney at Napa Legal Institute, a religious freedom organization focused on nonprofit law, public policy, and legal talent development. His work has previously been published in several publications, including The American Conservative, The Federalist, and First Things Online. He lives in eastern Pennsylvania with his wife and children. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily his employer.

Authored by:Frank DeVito


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