Posts tagged with: elections

In the context of commentary on protests like those in Quebec and the Occupy movement more broadly, it’s worth reflecting on the dangers of democratic tyranny.

The “people” can be tyrannical just as an individual sovereign or an oligarchy might. That’s why Aristotle considered democracy a defective form of government, because it too easily enshrines the will of the majority into an insuperable law. As Lord Acton put it, “It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority.” For this same reason Tocqueville worried about the tyrannical power of the will of the majority, once settled:

So, what is a majority taken as a collective whole, if not an individual with opinions and quite often interests, in opposition to another individual whom we call a minority? Now, if you admit that and all-powerful man can abuse his power against his opponents, why not admit the same thing for a majority? Have men, united together, changed their character? Have they become more patient of obstacles by becoming stronger?

Of course not. As Tocqueville goes on to observe, the self-righteous assurance of the majority makes their impatience even more striking. They will brook no dissent because of the assurance that they are correct and that the majority rules, as it ought to.

When the majority (99%) can simply decide to take what they decide they “deserve” from the minority (1%), you have the recipe then for deep injustice. What I don’t see, however, is any unified majority (yet). The student protesters in Quebec might have some sympathy, but whatever the political fallout will be, it is unlikely that the younger generation is going to be politically successful in their bid to protect their economic interests against the entrenched interests of the boomer generations. In part this is because as much as they might protest, or complain, or start Internet petitions, young people don’t vote and they don’t have powerful lobbying groups.

The dynamic is likely to be the same here in the US. As the share of federal spending is increasingly dominated by entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, you’ll end up having recipients of various entitlements fighting it out. And no matter how upset college students and recent graduates are, I don’t see their political interests holding more sway than say, the retired. The AARP will beat the student union six days a week and twice on Sunday.

We can see this dynamic playing out all over the world. As Bill Frezza writes (HT: The Transom) in the context of Greece and the EU crisis, “Democracy becomes a cancer if its powers are not limited. That is because a sustainable democracy requires not just votes, but also governing institutions that protect the rights of minorities against predatory majorities. The disease of voters voting themselves benefits at someone else’s expense has infected much of the world.”

He concludes, “Greece provides a stark example of what happens when a government runs out of other people’s money. If the rest of us don’t take heed while there is still time, we will all end up like you.” And if the Greek leftists have their way, it may not matter what the rest of the world does: “…if you want to send us to the bottom, we will take you to the bottom too.”

Last week Jordan Ballor and I offered short addresses to the crowd that gathered for Acton on Tap in Grand Rapids. This is an essay that closely mirrors my comments from the event. It’s a sermon of sorts, and a personal testimonial too.

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Remarks on the “Limit of Politics” for Acton on Tap:

I love elections. Elections produce drama, conflict, and intrigue. It produces statements like this by the former Louisiana governor and federal convict Edwin Edwards: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”

When I was in high school and college my biggest dream besides being a Congressman with an office full of young SEC cheerleader interns, was to be a campaign super consultant, just like two heroes of mine Ed Rollins and Lee Atwater. I idolized them through books and television. You should read Bareknuckles and Backrooms by Ed Rollins and the bio of Lee Atwater titled Bad Boy to get some of the behind the scenes ugliness, conflict, and humor of American politics.
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Presidential Campaign Poster from 1900.

Jordan Ballor and I are hosting an Acton on Tap on Thursday October 28 at Derby Station in East Grand Rapids. The event starts promptly at 6:30 p.m. If you are in the Grand Rapids area and like humor, politics, and fellowship, please plan on attending. Here is our description from the event page:
On the eve of mid-term elections, Jordan J. Ballor and Ray Nothstine of the Acton Institute discuss the role of politics in contemporary American life, especially in relationship to the Christian view of government, social and political activism by churches and Christian organizations, and trends in the economy and political discourse. Join us for a discussion that will put the political in its place in relation to our broader social life together.

The description of course does not quite give justice to the event. I have stories about the infamous Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, Father Damien of Molokai, my former boss Congressman Gene Taylor, tea parties, former political consultant Lee Atwater, and Methodist Founder John Wesley. Do you see a connection? I don’t either. But it will make a lot more sense if you are in attendance tomorrow night.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Monday, November 3, 2008
By

The election day sermon was an important institution in colonial New England. It was one delivered by Samuel Danforth in 1670 that furnished the venerable Puritan concept of America as an “errand into the wilderness.” (For more, see Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity.)

One need not share the Massachusetts colony’s view of church-state relations (one of the chief tasks of government was the suppression of heresy) to recognize that the election day sermon served a useful purpose. The sermon was not usually, it must be stressed, an attempt to influence the outcome of elections. Instead, it was a reflection on the relationship between government and God, between the polity and Divine Authority. In New England, it was a reminder that the colonial governments were supposed to be expressions of the covenant between God and His people.

There has been much discussion again this election cycle about the relationship between faith and politics; more specifically, about whether Christian principles imply an obligation to vote for one or another candidate. Whatever else can be said about the controversy, it seems to signify that Christianity remains vibrant enough in the United States to have an impact on public life—and therefore that impact remains worthy of debate. Without dismissing the significance of those questions, it might be worth returning to the approach of the election day sermon as well: reflecting on the role of God in public life; urging repentance for the failings of citizens and leaders; calling down His blessing on the nation; and reflecting on the place of the Christian in the contemporary state.

Andover Newton theologian Mark Burrows, thinking along the same lines, offers some thoughtful guidelines for a revival of the election sermon. I would add that any attempt to address the role of religion or the Church or the Christian in the state today must emphasize the limitations of government, for the aggrandizing state is the great danger of our age. In the present context, the more Christians conceive of politics as the main or even primary expression of their faith, the more dangerous our predicament becomes. (Which is not to say that our religious commitments should have no bearing on our political choices.)

For an example of the content that a genuinely helpful, revived election sermon might contain, one could do worse than Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on charity:

This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.

The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern.

Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs.

Over the last two days, Italians have been heading to the polls to select a new parliament and a new government. As I’ve already noted, despite its commitment to moral and ethical issues, the Catholic Church in Italy does not have a favorite political party.

In last week’s Wall Street Journal Europe, Francis X. Rocca, a Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service, wrote a very coherent op-ed on this delicate topic. Rocca says the Church is not impressed with the center-right candidate for prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and seems to be closer on social-economic issues to center-left Catholics, like Francesco Rutelli, the once and perhaps future mayor of Rome, and Opus Dei member and Senator Paola Binetti. He also recalls a past statement of then-Cardinal Ratzinger: “in many respects democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine.”

The Italian religious-political situation is a bit complicated. There are some significant divergences between Italian center–left policies and Catholic social teaching that Rocca could have noted. In the administration of its national welfare policies, the center-left hardly respects the principle of subsidiarity. Center-left environmentalists are vehemently opposed to genetically-modified organisms, while the Church has supported the use of biotechnology to feed the poor. Finally the center-left has historically been opposed to giving Catholic schools tax exemptions.

But the most intriguing aspect of this campaign has nothing to do with any of the main candidates or parties. Despite his formerly communist roots, Giuliano Ferrara is probably the most classically liberal voice in Italy who is running on a single issue: a moratorium on abortion (Read this interesting profile of Ferrara in the New York Times). He has also promoted the popular movie “Juno”. Surprisingly enough, he has not found much support from some major Catholic institutions, as explained by journalist Sandro Magister. The Catholic establishment seems to think Ferrara should not have created a political party devoted solely to abortion, as the Italian pro-life movement has become a mostly cultural and popular one.

Because of Italy’s byzantine political system and customs, important issues are often neglected by the parties and hence left to fringe candidates. This is why many Italians are fed up with mainstream politics, and partly explains the country’s economic woes. It is nonsensical to think that important ethical matters should have no part in a political debate. If there is ever to be a morally serious, classically liberal movement in Italy, this will have to change.

It’s election time in Italy, with voting scheduled for April 13 and 14 to select a new parliament and government. With the center of the Roman Catholic Church located within the Italian republic and historic tensions between the Church and State in Italy, it is worth asking how Italian pastors address public issues in this notoriously political country.

On March 18 the Secretary of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI), Giuseppe Bertori stated that the Church does “not express any involvement or preference for any politician or political party.” Local bishops can and do react differently, however. Vatican journalist Sandro Magister recently highlighted how the Archbishop of Bologna, Cardinal Caffarra, has issued specific guidelines for his priests.

Bologna is a noted left-wing city, where the cultural and political life is dominated by professors of Europe’s oldest university and Italian communists (yes, they still exist!). So the temptation for Bolognese priests is often to find common ground with the dominant part. Perhaps as a result, Cardinal Caffarra has forbid his priests from getting involved in partisan politics, primarily because it would compromise the communion of the Church.

The Cardinal has also prohibited the use of Church property for any political meetings or debate, will not allow parties to campaign on Church grounds, and has forbid the posting of any election posters, most likely making these parts of Bologna the only manifesti-free zone on the peninsula.

None of this means that the pastors cannot “guide” their flock. The last guideline says, in part, “If a parishioner should ask for counseling concerning the upcoming elections, priests must bear in mind that every elector is called to express a choice [….] The priest is called to help the parishioner, guiding him, so that he may distinguish those human rights worthy of being defended.” Finally, Cardinal Caffarra directs his priests to Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s note on the participation of Catholic in political life.

So while the Church in Italy is non-partisan, it clearly has something to say about politics, especially when it comes to issues such the taking of innocent life, marriage and family, Catholic education and biotechnology. It has not, to date, addressed the various economic proposals of the parties, so we can assume that faithful Italian Catholics can differ on these matters in good conscience. The argument over economic reform should therefore take place on the basis of sound economics, which would probably mark an historical occasion in this country.

The Wall Street Journal jumps on my bandwagon:

We’re all for putting more money in the hands of the poor and moderate earners, especially via stronger economic growth that will give them better paying jobs. But the $250 or $500 one-time rebate check they may now receive has to come from somewhere. The feds will pay for it either by taxing or borrowing from someone else, and those people will have that much less to spend or invest themselves. We are thus supposed to believe it is “stimulating” to take money from one pocket and hand it to another.

To put it another way, when the government calculates gross domestic product, it expressly omits transfer payments. It does so because GDP is the total of goods and services produced in the economy, and transfer payments produce no goods and services. The poor will spend those payments on something, but the amount they thus “inject” into the economy will be offset by whatever the government has to tax or borrow to fund the transfers. No wonder stocks sold off yesterday after Mr. Bernanke endorsed this 1970s’ economic show.

A fiscal stimulus that really stimulates would change incentives, and do so permanently so workers and investors can know what to expect and take risks accordingly.

It’s fun to watch as layers are gradually peeled away from the conventional wisdom to reveal that the CW is, well, wrong. Old CW: Evangelicals are marching in lockstep behind Mike Huckabee; Emerging CW: Evangelicals are just as fragmented in their opinions at this point in the nominating process as anyone else.

Mr. Huckabee did well with churchgoers [in Michigan], but the bigger story is so did other Republicans. According to exit polls, of the 39% of Michigan voters in the GOP primary who described themselves as born-again or evangelical, Mr. Huckabee won 29%. A full 57% instead voted for either Mr. Romney (34%) or Mr. McCain (23%). Of those who said a candidate’s “religious beliefs matter a great deal or somewhat,” Mr. Romney won 36%, Mr. McCain 26% and Mr. Huckabee 25%…

…The conventional story line has also ignored the problem of Mr. Huckabee as a candidate. The former governor did well in Iowa in part because he surged late and stayed a few steps ahead of a critical examination of his positions and record. The evidence in South Carolina suggests that as religious voters have learned more about him — and as they’ve started to meditate on the economic and national-security stakes in this race — they’re taking a good, hard look around.

They’ve got plenty of choices. Mr. Thompson has been successfully pounding Mr. Huckabee in debates and ads as a “liberal” on economic and immigration. Mr. Romney, at a rally in Columbia on Wednesday, ran hard on his promise to “strengthen families.”

Even Mr. McCain — who is benefiting from this social-conservative dogfight (leaving him with much of the independent and moderate vote that went for him in 2000) — rolled into South Carolina with a belated pitch for the core Republican base. At an event in Greenville, the Arizonan unveiled an endorsement from conservative Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, and highlighted his pro-life record and his promises to appoint strictly conservative judges.

I suppose you could call me one of those evangelical voters, and I’ve never been sold on Huckabee – primarily because of economics and foreign policy. With all the media hype over Huckabee’s “evangelical-powered” Iowa win, I was beginning to feel a bit lonely. It’s nice to be able to look at the real numbers and find out that I was never really alone. But even beyond that, it’s nice to know that evangelical voters are not necessarily going to give a candidate a pass on taxes, big government and wartime policy simply because he or she is a Christian.

Dr. Jay Richards made an appearance on Studio B with Shepard Smith on the Fox News Channel this afternoon. If you didn’t catch it live, we have the clip right here, courtesy of Fox News:

Iowa and New Hampshire represent less than 1.5% of the U.S. population, but the way many pundits talk, these two small states apparently possess some obscure Constitutional right to choose the short list of presidential candidates for the rest of us.

After the Hillary Clinton’s second place finish in the Iowa caucuses, several journalists—apparently stricken with Obama Fever—were writing her campaign obituary, never mind that she led national polls of likely Democratic voters and has enough campaign cash to buy Cuba.

On the Republican side, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson finished a respectable third in Iowa, but when he faired poorly in the New Hampshire primary last week (a state where he did little campaigning), the media began drafting his obituary.

Thompson apparently didn’t get the memo. A recent Republican debate in South Carolina revealed a Fred Thompson many Republicans have been hoping for but hadn’t yet seen—Fred with fire in the belly. He spoke with clarity and authority on issues of national security, and he forcefully went after some of Mike Huckabee’s left-leaning domestic policies.

The question is, does it matter? Is it too late? Maybe there are so many voters with their fingers in the wind that Iowa and New Hampshire really do get to choose the short list for the rest of us.

The idea should offend those who make up the core of the Republican Party. Conservatives are supposed to bridle at the idea of having their choices dictated to them by beltway insiders or by a national media establishment intent on telling them what to think and do.

Republicans should be particularly suspicious of such winnowing efforts given the short list the media seems intent on assigning Republican voters. Mike Huckabee supported heaping helpings of big government and higher taxes as governor of Arkansas. Mitt Romney endorsed bigger government and higher taxes as governor of Massachusetts, has flip-flopped on abortion not once but twice, and more recently made protectionist, big government noises in an effort to appeal to Michigan voters. Rudy Giuliani (who, ironically, didn’t even contest Iowa or New Hampshire), is pro-abortion. And as Thomas Sowell has commented of John McCain, his “track record in the Senate is full of the betrayals of Republican supporters.”

Each of these four candidates has conservative elements to their agendas, and personal qualities that recommend them. But is it any wonder that the left-leaning national media seems eager to use the earliest contests to winnow a consistent conservative like Fred Thompson from the short list of Republican candidates, a conservative who is arguably the only true Reagan Republican in the bunch?

Thompson isn’t a perfect candidate. And I’m not endorsing him or any other candidate here. Each of them has strengths and weaknesses that Republican voters in each state should carefully assess. What Republican voters shouldn’t do is buy the media line that 1.5% of the American population gets to tell the other 98.5% of us who is and isn’t still in the race.