Nobody said democracy was tidy, rational or pure. Then again, human beings are not tidy, rational or pure. To expect an election to achieve civics book perfection would be a delusional hope.
And yet faith in democracy allows the system to function. Without a meaningful level of respect for the institutions of democracy — elections, representative government, the rule of law — democracy dissolves into a feuding, fractured battleground of sectarian strife. The Founding Fathers sounded the warning about the danger of what they called “faction.” Think Syria or Iraq.
We have become all too familiar with the ways that events erode the people’s belief in the legitimacy of the democratic process. The pervasiveness of money in politics robs people of the sense that their votes matter.
Constitutional quirks — the Electoral College or the construction of the U.S. Senate, for example — work against the principle of majority rule. And the way that parties manipulate the process to their advantage shakes confidence in the system.
Further, people in a polarized age are quick to attribute excessive power to their opponents — the nefarious effect of conservative talk radio or the power of the liberal media.
Faith in the process is sometimes undermined by events. Historically, it is likely that John F. Kennedy won election in 1960 on the basis of vote stealing in Texas and Chicago. This year Republican voter suppression efforts have worried Democrats; Republican claims of voter fraud undermine the faith of conservatives in the process.
The dominance in election campaigns of television advertising may also undermine faith in the process. If voters make up their minds on the basis of the slogans and atmospherics of advertising, what does that say about the likely outcome? Swings in public sentiment based on seemingly trivial occurrences undermine our faith in the discernment of the electorate.
Against all those reasons for doubt, how do we maintain our faith in democracy and our commitment to continue to participate?
Humility is the foundation. The dignity and worth of the individual is a fundamental value in our culture, society and political system, but unless the individual also understands the importance of humility, we will be in trouble.
By humility we mean that the individual who holds ardent personal beliefs also recognizes the truth of human fallibility, including his own. He understands that he is part of a whole. He may believe the other side to be misguided, corrupted or selfish, but he must allow that there will always be another side — many sides, in fact. To believe that only the victory of one’s own side is a legitimate result is to undermine democracy.
In some cases that means swallowing hard. Liberals who argued that Bush’s victory in 2000 was not legitimate did not serve the cause of democracy. It was possible to take a critical view of Florida’s vote counting and the role of the Supreme Court, not to mention the Electoral College system, without rejecting the outcome. The outcome was the result of rules interpreted a certain way. Even Al Gore understood that.
Similarly, conservatives who sought to undermine President Obama’s legitimacy by questioning the facts of his birth or exciting racist animosity hurt democracy. As in childhood sports, it is important in a democracy for citizens to learn to be good winners and good losers. To exalt one’s own importance above others is anti-democratic.
That doesn’t mean we must accept the rules as they are. Democracy requires constant vigilance by those interested in making elections fair and in ensuring that participation is encouraged. People of power always try to use the levers of power to their advantage, and countering that power is a constant endeavor.
But humility demands that we accept that both sides are playing according to the same imperfect rules. Both sides are trying their utmost to win within the framework of the rules and even to bend them to their advantage. But if government is to have a chance of functioning fairly in the years between elections, both sides must respect the outcome.
Democracy is a charter shared by all. We all have a stake in making it work.
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