Bring Philosophy to Life #2
We continue this weekly series with the idea of democracy. On Thursday, October 13, the House of Representatives Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol voted to subpoena former President Donald J. Trump to determine the degree to which he personally was involved in directing the violent attack that resulted in death, injury, and a serious attempt to undermine the results of 2020 Presidential election. Strong evidence has been presented during those hearings showing that the president himself, along with several members of congress, have refused to accept the will of the people as expressed in that election. This event leads me to ask two philosophical questions: (1) What is democracy? (2) Why is democracy superior to other forms of government?
The relevance of the first question is clearly stated by Jamelle Bouie in an opinion piece published in The New York Times on Sunday, October 9, 2022. He claims that key features of the U. S. Constitution were designed by the framers “to mediate, and even stymie, the popular will.” Bouie’s question is whether it is possible “to build a truly democratic political system within the present limits of our constitutional order.” The core of his case lies in his claim that the constitution, as it exists, “subverts majority rule, fuels authoritarian movements and renders popular sovereignty inert.” We cannot define democracy simply by looking at an example. We need standards by which we can determine what does and does not count as democracy.
This is a philosophical question because it requires rational analysis and justification of a fundamental concept: democracy. This question transcends the history and practices of any single group or nation. It forces us to consider what the democracy in ancient Athens has in common with the forms that were developed in 18th century France and America and with the current versions of democracy in Asia, Australia, Europe, and in the Americas. Here is my answer: First, and most important, democracy is based on “the will of the people”—all of the people. We can see the importance and the meaning of that idea by comparing the U. S. Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution with the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens that was adopted on September 25, 1789. The National Assembly of France declared that “the source of all sovereignty lies essentially in the nation. No association or individual may exercise authority that does not explicitly proceed from it” (Third Article). Compare that claim with what The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen United States of America said on July 4, 1776: “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” At first glance, these two versions of democracy appear to differ on the question of sovereignty and how it can be justified. It seems that the French place the source in “the nation,” whereas the Americans locate it in the consent of the people.
Perhaps we can clarify this matter by looking at what we mean by “the law.” In its Sixth Article, the Rights of Man says: “The law manifests the general will.” But what is “the general will”? Unfortunately, philosophers have largely failed to explain what “the general will” means as it is manifested in actual human law. In the decade before the American Revolution, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to distinguish between “the general will” and “the will of all,” but his analysis shows how philosophy sometimes obscures rather than illuminates. This distinction even tempts some individuals to claim that they, and they alone, determine the general will, even if it is contrary to the will of all as expressed through voting. That concern lies at the heart of what has emerged so far in the inquiry related to January 6, 2021.
However, if “the will of the people” is the same as “the general will,” then sovereignty must rest with “the people,” the demos. In this case it is reasonable to conclude that the French and the American idea of sovereignty developed in the 18th century is the same. Both versions attribute sovereignty to the people. This is made even more relevant to the current struggle for democracy throughout the world if we continue to read the Sixth Article of The Rights of Man. “All citizens have the right to participate in its formation directly or by their representative. It should be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes.”
I suggest that we keep the matter simple by equating the general will and the will of the people, which allows us to preserve the idea of democracy as the will of all people. If we do that, voting becomes the ultimate court of appeal. Preserving universal suffrage among all citizens provides a way for the people to delegate executive, legislative, and judicial responsibilities and yet retain sovereignty. A form of association that (a) meets the basic demand that the people are sovereign and (b) provides the means for all citizens to participate through voting meets the most important condition of being a democracy. Any deviation from that principle precludes the possibility of having a democracy. Of course, this does not mean that the people vote on and implement all of the daily activities of government. Rather, they delegate those decisions and actions, usually through various executive, legislative, and judicial offices and responsibilities. In the U. S., for example, the famous “separation of powers” articulated in Section 10 of the Federalist Papers, does not transferer sovereignty from the people; it merely outlines how the law is implemented. Ideally, these separate functions limit each other through “checks and balances.”
This leads to the second question: Why is democracy superior to other forms of government? The simple answer is that democracy alone is consistent with morality and with freedom, two more fundamental concepts that require rational analysis. To justify any form of government we must be able to appeal to moral claims that bind us together, and democracy alone can do that because it appeals to universal values for its ultimate justification rather than to the arbitrary claims of isolated individuals and groups. What individual or group could possibly provide and justify moral commands that apply universally? Only moral values that apply to all will suffice for this purpose. For that reason, no specific religion could impose its doctrines and commandments on everyone. Nor could any nation demand that its values must be adopted by all nations. Nor could any gender insist that its values must dominate. Nor could any race claim hegemony over all other races. Nor could any species pretend to have dominion over all other species. It is easy to find examples of individuals, nations, races, religions, genders, and species that have insisted that they, and they alone are sovereign. They have not succeeded either from a theoretical or a practical point of view. Nor will they ever do so. Only a value system that is truly universal could ever meet that fundamental demand. Democracy, which entails the demand for freely chosen values that apply universally, is the only viable political system from a moral perspective.
Whether we are considering personal moral choices or those that pertain to a whole community or nation, those decisions must be freely made. They cannot be imposed from the outside, no matter how powerful or holy that external authority may be. Holiness is of specific concern in the current discussions concerning of the foundations of morality. This issue has been at the center of the struggle between sacred and secular values as they relate to forming and shaping individual and governmental decisions. Is democracy or theocracy the better form of government? During the past week two stories, one from Iran and one from the United States, provide powerful examples of anti-democratic attempts to impose moral authority from the outside. Both of those stories pertain to the relationship between religion and politics, the same issue that is directly addressed in Article 1 of the U. S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Deadly clashes in Iran are taking place because of the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the so-called “morality police” because her headscarf was not covering her whole head. She died of a concussion while she was in police custody. On October 21, 2022, Dr. Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, was interviewed by Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh on the program Democracy Now (www.democracynow.org). Dr. Ebadi put the matter in the very terms we are examining in this podcast: “Allow me to add that what the people want is a democratic and a secular government. That is what they want, because for 43 years they have suffered a theocracy, and they know what theocracy is like. They no longer want to tolerate a theocracy. They want a democracy, and they want secularism.”
Islam is not alone as a religion that often embraces theocracy. In spite of the First Amendment, more than one set of Christians insists that the U. S. was founded as a Christian nation and that Christian values alone should guide political decisions. The PBS program Frontline presented a program on October 18, 2022 called “Michael Flynn’s Holy War.” A retired General, Flynn served as the 24th U.S. National Security Advisor during the first month of the Trump administration. He was forced to resign after only a few weeks after lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia during the Robert Muller probe. This documentary, which was developed by Frontline in conjunction with the Associated Press, shows what am American theocracy would look like, even though they do not use that specific term. Here are some of Flynn’s own words as presented in that program: “We are a faith-based society, and it’s in our DNA, in the DNA of the United States of America.” When asked by the Congressional committee investigating the events of January 6, he refused to answer—he “took the Fifth”—when asked questions such as “Do you believe the violence on January Sixth was justified morally?” and “Do you believe in the peaceful transfer of power in the United States of America?” In that Frontline documentary, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis of the Middle Collegiate Church in New York state summarizes Flynn’s position this way: “Mike Flynn is in a movement that is designed to impose a small minority of Christian ethics on the rest of the nation. . . . It is a battle for the soul of America, using the church as a tool—using a part of the church as a tool.” Flynn calls the war he is fighting a “spiritual war,” and he insists that it is also the political war for control of America.
The central problem with theocracy from a moral perspective is that its basic values are imposed by an authority outside of individuals and groups rather than freely chosen. This does not mean religion should be prohibited, as it clearly says in the first amendment of the U. S. Constitution. The difference between theocracy and democracy is that in democracy each individual and each group of individuals has the right to choose or not to choose to embrace a particular religion or no religion. In spite of the clarity of that position, we often hear the claim that without religion morality cannot be justified. That is not true. Secular morality is not only possible but is required if we are to have a democracy, a form of government that applies to all, not to any single person or group. If a monarch, a patriarch, a matriarch, a single tyrant, one or more rich people, or the military, rules on the basis of such distinguishing qualities, moral force dissolves and is replaced—usually by power, fame, and wealth.