Posts tagged with: democracy

united-by-differenceI can choose between 350 channels on my television, 170 stations on my satellite radio, 10,000 books at my local bookstore, and millions of websites on the Internet. But on my ballot I have only two real choices. I can vote for a Democrat or I can vote for a Republican.

In an age when even ice cream comes in 31 flavors, having only two choices in electoral politics seems anachronistic. But the limitation has an ironically beneficial effect. For as divisive as politics can be, nothing else has such power to unite our pluralistic nation.

From magazines to coffee to houses of worship, our consumer-oriented culture provides us with an unlimited number of choices. Chances are that you don’t watch the same TV shows, listen to the same music, or attend the same concerts as your neighbors. While the range of choices can be individually beneficial, it can be socially atomizing. In the 1950s if you lived in Green Bay you rooted for the Packers — just like everyone else in Wisconsin. Now with satellite broadcast, your favorite “football” team is just as likely to be Manchester United.

The expansion of choices has affected almost all major areas of life, except for one. In electoral politics you are forced to choose between the two dominant political parties. (Technically, other parties are listed on a ballot but the choice is still effectively limited to the two parties. See addendum.) Whether you are a proto-Marxist a theocratic Domnionist or a socially liberal libertarian, your choice of parties is limited to the Democrats or the Republicans. The choice may be nothing more than a vote for the lesser of two evils—Beelzebub rather than Lucifer—but making it requires you to band together with others of varying degrees of unanimity.
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envyActon’s Director of Research, Sam Gregg, ponders “Envy In A Time Of Inequality” in today’s American Spectator. Envy, he opines, is the worst human emotion. From the time that Cain killed Abel to today’s “near-obsession with inequality,” Gregg says envy is driving public policy…and that’s not good.

The situation isn’t helped by the sheer looseness of contemporary discussions of economic inequality. Inequality and poverty, for instance, aren’t the same things. That, however, doesn’t stop people from conflating them. Likewise, important distinctions between inequalities in income, wealth, education, and access to technology are regularly blurred. As recalled in a paper recently published by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis, wealth inequalities can have greater impact upon people’s comparative abilities to build up capital for the future than income inequality. Yet we spend most of our time anguishing about the latter.

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Not the Chinese government, which should come as no shock.  But what about the United States?  As this Weekly Standard blog post points out, two prominent Hong Kong democracy advocates recently visited Washington in an attempt to secure American support for political reform there, but to little avail.

The people of Hong Kong have long enjoyed economic freedom, often ranking at the top of the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.  Since moving from British to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong has maintained much of its economic freedom, but is now under pressure to choose from among “Beijing-approved” candidates.  Hmm.  Makes one wonder about the status of religious freedom there as well.

Who better to ask than Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kuin, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, outspoken advocate for religious freedom in mainland China, and one of the speakers at an upcoming Acton conference  “Faith, State, and the Economy: Perspectives From East and West”?

The conference will take place on April 29 in Rome and is the first in a series called “One and Indivisible? The Relationship between Religious and Economic Freedom.” For more information visit the conference series webpage.

Royal Coat of Arms of the NetherlandsDrawing on some themes I explore about the role of the church in providing material assistance in Get Your Hands Dirty, today at Political Theology Today I look at the first parliamentary speech of the new Dutch King Willem-Alexander.

In “The Dutch King’s Speech,” I argue that the largely ceremonial and even constitutionally-limited monarchy has something to offer modern democratic polities, in that it provides a forum for public leadership that is not directly dependent on popular electoral support. In the Dutch case, the king broached the largely unpopular subject of fundamentally reforming the social democratic welfare state.

This is in rather sharp contrast to the social witness of the mainline of Dutch church leaders, at least over the last few decades. But the churches, too, have a role in acting as makeweights against democratic majoritarian tyranny.
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The Emperor Theodosius does public penance for his own scandal before the bishop St. Ambrose.

Ray Pennings recently wrote a thoughtful reflection at The Cardus Daily on the recent surge in (exposed) political scandals, Canadian and American. He bemoans that “the current version of democracy isn’t looking all that attractive right now,” writing,

It is discouraging to read stories regarding blatant ethical questions involving the President of the United States, Prime Minister of Canada, the Canadian Leader of the Opposition and the Mayor of Canada’s largest city on the same day. Although the natures of these purported scandals are quite different from each other, the bottom line reduces to the same — can we count on our leaders to carry out their office with the basics of integrity and transparency? Whatever the facts are regarding the specific cases, at a minimum it must be said that those involved in each of these cases have been less than forthcoming in explaining themselves. If the events themselves don’t merit the scandal label, the lack of explanation almost certainly does.

To summarize, even apart from the scandals themselves, the proclivity of politicians not to be forthright about the details is itself a scandal. (more…)

In the Wall Street Journal, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg turns to French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville to show how democratic systems can be used to strike a Faustian bargain. “Citizens use their votes to prop up the political class, in return for which the state uses its power to try and provide the citizens with perpetual economic security,” Gregg explains. This, of course, speaks to the current catastrophe that is the European welfare state. French workers, for example, “clearly expect the government to protect them from the economic consequences of their curious work habits,” he adds.

Some 180 years ago, Tocqueville predicted in his magnum opus “Democracy in America” that something similar would be one of democracy’s long-term challenges. Though Tocqueville never used the expression “welfare state,” he worried about the potentially corrosive effects of democratically elected governments that tried to use their powers to guarantee economic security for as many people as possible.

Democracy, Tocqueville argued, was capable of breeding its own form of despotism, albeit of the “soft” variety. He spoke of “an immense protective power” that took all responsibility for everyone’s happiness—just so long as this power remained “sole agent and judge of it.” This power, Tocqueville projected, would “resemble parental authority” but would try to keep people “in perpetual childhood” by relieving people “from all the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living.”

But here’s the catch. Many people today forget that Tocqueville wasn’t writing for an American audience. His book was for French readers and therefore, by extension, much of Europe’s 19th-century political elite. What would some of those elites today—such as a career-politician and confirmed statist like Arnaud Montebourg—make of his compatriot’s warnings?

Read “What Tocqueville Knew” in the Wall Street Journal.

And pick up a copy of Gregg’s new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future.

If we assume that the institutions of civil society, like churches, recreation centers, fantasy football leagues, and book clubs are essential for a flourishing society, it becomes very important to determine how such institutions are developed, maintained, and promoted.

For thinkers as varied as Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Kuyper, and Pope Paul VI, the realm of civil society provides an indispensable area of connection and protection between the individual person and the political order. In Quadragesimo anno, Paul VI writes of the need for “the reform of institutions,” necessary in part because of “the evil of what we have termed ‘individualism’ that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State.”

It is at this point that Paul VI invokes the principle of subsidiarity, which is dependent upon and recognizes the rich variegation of human social life, which consists in human identity not only in terms of the individual citizen and the political order, but also in the human person as friend, co-worshiper, family member, co-worker, neighbor, and so on. One of the things most pressing for Paul VI was the idea that these institutions of civil society needed to be strengthened, not only for their own good but also for that of the political order itself and even more broadly for the common good: “for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.”

How do we reinvigorate civil society once it has declined? How do we help build up what has atrophied? These are questions that are vital for moving beyond a false dichotomy of market and state or individual and state, not only conceptually but practically. As Matthew Kaemingk writes, “Their importance is often ignored by politicians, but sociologists tell us that a flourishing array of non-profits and free organizations consistently leads to measurable declines divorce, poverty, violence, obesity, depression, chronic illness, illiteracy, dependency, homelessness, and political apathy.” But if associations of civil society help lead to these outcomes, what helps lead to associations of civil society?

Melissa Steffan reports at Christianity Today this week on some research that bears on aspects of the necessary answers to these questions. Steffan writes, “Parents considering whether or not to send their children to private school can now weigh more than just tuition and curriculum. According to a new study from professors at Calvin College, the affiliation of a high school student’s school significantly impacts his or her sense of civic duty.”

She is referring to a new article from Jonathan Hill and Kevin den Dulk, “Religion, Volunteering, and Educational Setting: The Effect of Youth Schooling Type on Civic Engagement,” which appears in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
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A schoolhouse in New England from the 1830s.

According to a recent Pew Center report, “Record levels of bachelor’s degree attainment in 2012 are apparent for most basic demographic groups.” 33% of 25- to 29- year-olds are completing both high school and college. According to the report, this number is up from five years ago and at record levels for the United States in general. But what does it mean? Statistics like these are constantly being produced, but they are no good to us if we do not know how to interpret them. After attending the joint Acton/Liberty Fund conference this past weekend on Acton and Tocqueville, I have Tocqueville on the brain and wonder if, perhaps, he might have some insights that are still relevant today. (more…)

Peter Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College, has written a piece at Ethika Politika urging those upset by last week’s election results to be calm and take a deep breath. First, Lawler says we have to understand that there are small political parties and great ones.

Great parties are parties of high principle.  Their dominance on the political stage has the advantage of bringing great men into political life.  They have the disadvantage of rousing up animosity that readily leads to war.  So great parties make great men happy and most men miserable…

Democracies, however, hardly ever have great parties.  Most of the time our parties are coalitions of diverse interests and short on clear and divisive principle.  Politicians make petty appeals to ordinary selfishness, and people vote their interests.  The bad news is that great men are repulsed by the small stakes and contemptible motives of political life, and so they stay away from it.  The good news is that the outcomes of elections aren’t so important, and people aren’t roused up to take to the streets or grab their weapons.  The winning candidate and party is the one that most effectively builds a majority coalition of diverse interests, and the losing candidate and party end up acknowledging that, most of all, it got outhustled.

The problem, as Lawler sees it through Tocquevillian glasses, isn’t one party winning over another or one candidate leading by shining example. No, the problem is that America is now obsessed with individualism. We don’t care much any more what is best for all, but merely what is best for me. I want what I want, damn the consequences.

I think Tocqueville would conclude his observations by noticing what’s changed the most since the America he wrote about is the breakdown of the religious-based American consensus on the limits of self-obsessive individualism.  His America was all about chastity, marital fidelity, what’s best for children, and common moral duties.  This consensus has broken down, and the resulting devolution of marriage into a contractual entitlement devoid of real duties or even duration is the real cause of the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage.  The question posed by gays is roughly this:  Given how little marriage really means under the law these days, you have no right to exclude us from its benefits, which have become mainly symbolic.

Read “Tocquevillian Reflections on the Meaning of the Election” at Ethika Politika here.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, September 21, 2012
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Book Note: “As If God Existed”
Maurizio Viroli. As if God Existed: Religion and Liberty in the History of Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Religion and liberty are often thought to be mutual enemies: if religion has a natural ally, it is authoritarianism–not republicanism or democracy. But in this book, Maurizio Viroli, a leading historian of republican political thought, challenges this conventional wisdom. He argues that political emancipation and the defense of political liberty have always required the self-sacrifice of people with religious sentiments and a religious devotion to liberty.

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