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Democracy and Action

“Historians have always noted,” wrote Paul Johnson, “that organized religion had proved the best form of social control in Western societies.”1 This relation is both true and problematic; but the truth was likely not that which the author intended to convey, and the problem likely escaped his notice.  The organization of religion has very little to do with religion itself, insofar as organization is considered in the flow-chart sense; but for the average person, organization itself has something of a religious feel, because organization implies routes and routes imply rituals.  Indeed, there is something beautiful about ritual, and even about routes, and sometimes even about organization.  But the beauty is not automatic, for an organization is dependent on that which it organizes, a route upon where it begins, how it ends, and how it gets there, and a ritual on what it signifies.  The organization of pews, the route to the altar rail, and the ritual of receiving Holy Communion are beautiful, for the end they serve; and indeed, likely do more good for social control than anything else, or would if more widely practiced.  But the relationship between the organization of such religious practice and the control it introduces in society is tertiary at most.  The truth is that real religion has introduced restraint in society, but like the Eucharist, it is a restraint that resides within.  When the emphasis is put on the organization, however, the restraint does not exist within society, but is imposed upon it from without; when organization organizes something trivial, when routes go from one undesired to another by an undesired means, and when the ritual signifies the mundane, then there is no beauty and there is no religion; but there is compulsory societal control.

It is rather ironic, in a time where the shadow of a monstrous socialist healthcare bill dangles over the neck of the United States of America, like a guillotine poised to execute a man lecherous but not given wholly to evil, that democracy has perhaps fatally failed in that task for which it was slated: to instate prudent government.  To those who support the bill, and the socialist president behind it, it may seem that democracy’s greatest success is its self-destruction.  To those who sit in a frustrated minority, it likely seems democracy’s proof of final inadequacy, a repudiation of idealistic notions about man’s goodness and desire for goodness.

Of course, while it is inarguable that democracy has failed to instate a prudent, just, wise government, to call such a failure of democracy is tantamount to blaming a great car in a horrific accident despite it being driven by a terrible driver.  Democracy gives no more guarantee of a good government than monarchy, or socialism, or communism, or any form of government; it is a tool, and like all tools, operates only in the hands of men.

Alexis De Tocqueville

Alexis De Tocqueville

Imagine that there is a giant slab of stone that one-hundred-thousand men need to get over a mountain.  Now these hundred-thousand can set up for themselves a hierarchy, appointing one man to rule over a hundred men who rule over another hundred each, so on and so forth, up to the point where maybe eighty- or ninety-thousand are pushing the stone, the whips and reins of those appointed above them giving them good incentive; and so long as discipline is maintained from the one man onward, it will be effective.  Yet if that one man turns sour, or another in the hierarchy turns sour, the effectiveness can slacken or be lost entirely.  Contrariwise, the hundred thousand could elect to all simply push the stone at once, and be very effective indeed.  Yet there is little to stop this man or that man from giving up pushing and perhaps sitting on the stone, or pushing his own stone.  Both systems can be effective, both have their merits, and both have their flaws: for both rely on the goodness not of men as a whole, but of the man as an individual.  The hierarchical system relies on a few men to be good but suffers greatly when they are not; the democratic system relies on every man to be good and suffers little when one is not.

In the United States of America, it has become painfully obvious that all too many men have stopped pushing and added their weight to the stone; that the guiding reason which ought to direct democracy to the establishment of sound government has been voiced too long and too often in whispers and hopes, and too little in shouts and demands.  On October 16th, 1856, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Peoria, Illinois, in which he stated: “Fellow countrymen—Americans south, as well as north, shall we make no effort to arrest this?  Already the liberal party throughout the world, express the apprehension ‘that the one retrograde institution in America, is undermining the principles of progress, and fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw.’  This is not the taunt of enemies, but the warning of friends.  Is it quite safe to disregard it—to despise it?  Is there no danger to liberty itself, in discarding the earliest practice, and first precept of our ancient faith?”2 Sadly, the only such international comment about America comes today from the world’s smallest state, and the retrograde institution denigrates the nobility of men not on race, but on an extreme case of age.

And so, while it is possible that America does, or once upon a time did, have the noblest political system ever seen in the world, this nobility has persistently failed realization; not for a failing of the system, but of the constituency.  The longer men sit by and do nothing, the more bureaucratic government claims to determine man’s rights in even the smallest of matters, the more men allow themselves to be subdued by a “brand of orderly, gentle, and peaceful slavery,”3 the more this soulless, empty organization “slowly stifles their spirits and enervates their souls.”4

1 Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. (United States of America: Harper Collins, 1999) 976.
2 Lehrman, Lewis. Lincoln at Peoria. (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008) 320.
3 De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Vol II. Page number not had.
4 Ibid.

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