“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind…” (as Hamlet wondered)…of serious men and women to go to the polls to cast their precious ballot as recommended by those who preach the honor of participating in a democracy? Or to languish at home lamenting the state of affairs that those who practice the black “art of the possible” have cumulatively wrought?
In our Golden State of California the Shakespearean dilemma continues to plague us: about 50% of registered voters go to the polls and 50% don’t. The voter registry doesn’t include the multitude of disenfranchised voters called illegal aliens and convicted felons, but neither did the Greek inventors of the first democracy grant slave labor or women a citizen’s right to participate in their elections.
Apparently, the democratic form of government in the Athens city-state did not motivate the virtuous. Plato speaking through Socrates in a dialogue in The Republic opines to his contemporary philosophers that the excess of liberty in a democracy usually produces leaders who become tyrannical. In his comparison of five constitutional governments, Socrates placed democracy in fourth place with tyranny being last. Nevertheless, the general concept of democracy as we are taught in America continues to be appealing in theory, as Plato had predicted it would. His experience showed him that a democracy deludes the citizens eligible to vote into thinking they are equals, possess virtually unlimited freedom, and have an important role in the government’s decision-making process.
Americans are proud of their equality at the polls: “One man (and since 1920, one woman): one vote.” This is a pretty insignificant power of one, though, in a human population that is exceeding 300 million. Today, with the limited number of elected positions in government that have real importance and the growing number of voters, the impact of each vote has diminished almost to the vanishing point. Especially when the majority of the voters are only informed by brief, carefully crafted sound-bites on television.
These studied expressions of opinion distort the issues that candidates are promoting and make their solutions appear simple and easy to implement. What usually has the most convincing impression on the voters’ perception of a candidate, however, is some “negative” anecdote that the opposing party digs up to embarrass the candidate. This anecdote can be taken out of context and used repetitively and deceptively until it becomes accepted as fact.
No voter really knows what a candidate will do under circumstances yet to be encountered. In the election bombast most candidates will repeat “buzz words” that their advisors and the polls suggest the voting public wants to hear like: “I’m interested in you and your family’s welfare.” (Translation: Once my future is secure, and my debts to the contributors who financed my worthy campaign are paid, I will finally consider what “is possible” to do for a loyal voter or a contributor.)
As we prepare ourselves to vote again, we ought to consider where we are going with our American democratic way of life. On average, things are much better materially compared with 400 B.C., when Plato was evaluating the Greek democratic way of life. Nevertheless, after observing the recent primary selection process, I think there has been little improvement in the selection of candidates since the time of Plato. Politicians, more sophisticated than ever, still run afoul of the law and the moral code accepted by the general public. (You may not agree with me that citizens in America have formed a consensus about proper morals for ourselves and our leaders.)
Plato predicted the demise of “good” government when self-discipline is missing in its leaders and citizens, and when “governors…themselves care only for making money, and are as indifferent as the pauper to the cultivation of virtue.” It is difficult for us to see virtue in the character of those politicians who are selling their support for a piece of current legislation in order to gain reciprocal support for some pet pork barrel project of theirs soon coming out of committee. Or those politicians who are quietly amending legislation at the last instant to authorize some subtle privilege for a few of their favored constituents via an “earmark.”
But this is not a diatribe against the foul practices of our elected representatives in this “great” democracy of ours. Their jobs require expertise and education which are rarely provided by their prior experience and college courses. What I am hoping to find are some ideas to make us feel that we are truly participants in the governing process.
Voting has become less than inspirational. In the state of California where the citizens are restless, but not yet violent, we have seen more Propositions on the ballot than in any other state. This is primarily because of an ineffective legislature who refuses to take timely action about tough issues. These cowardly elected officials avoid sensitive and controversial issues because of their fear of being turned out of office for alienating their constituents.
Initially, staging a direct vote on a specific issue via a proposition gave the voters a sense of real power. However, when there was a challenge to a voter-approved proposition, the judicial arm of the government had to assess the law’s constitutionality. Then the lawyers became more involved, because the wording of the propositions became vital. The “will” or intent of the majority of voters did not really matter.
All kinds of legal delaying tactics have been employed by some unhappy fringe group to prevent an approved proposition from being implemented. Consequently, the enthusiasm for direct voting on issues has diminished. Again, the information about the propositions available to the voter is usually sketchy. The pros and cons are deliberately exaggerated by the originators and the opposition because a great number of voters don’t pay much attention to an issue if there is no hoopla on TV or in the newspapers.
We learned everything about democracy in elementary school. You have to do what a majority decides after only a little consideration of an issue, even if the decision makes little sense and violates our poorly understood rights. But as adults we aren’t voting on what we want to do so much as for an individual who might be likely to decide to do something in our “best” interests.
This chosen representative, if elected to an executive position will create commissions, appoint members to these commisions, and hopefully oversee the implementation of approved legislation once thoroughly studied by experts. He/she will respond to the criticism of the opposition and the media, and usually try to justify what is approved. But can any one person (however well intentioned or trustworthy) capably manage the very complicated issues that we citizens expect him or her to handle?
Let’s look at an issue that exhibits the complexity of our modern democracy and the way things are handled by our governments. Today in California gasoline is taxed to provide funds for building and repairing roads. In the price of each gallon we pay an excise tax to the federal government, and an excise tax and a sales tax to the state government.
Do we vote for these taxes? No. Do we know where this money goes? No. Do we know how this money is allocated back to our neighborhood to repair our streets? No. When we want to repair the alligatoring surface of the street in front of our house, is there someone who will respond promptly because we have already paid for this governmental service? No. If we have traffic congestion so severe that we need wider expressways, is there a number to call, any elected official who can take quick action to see that this gets done? No. Is it any wonder then that law-abiding, tax-paying citizens who are so ignored after paying the price of admission in hidden taxes have very little excitement about this democratic game? NO!
In this distressful picture you can readily observe that to most of us our democracy is not a very efficient way of governing. The formal government agencies are merely the visible, political tip of an iceberg. They are the visual part of a complex political infrastructure/bureaucracy that organizes our life in America. Our frustration begs the question: why are our leaders so eager to export American democracy?
Few people here really understand why our divisive political activity has been so successful in producing the wealth and material progress we have in the U.S. It is not the result of the bumbling circuses in Washington and in our state capitols. What is underpinning our whole social/political/economic organization is the virtuousness of the citizens and their faith that good people will prevail and serve their fellow man. As naive as this simple statement may appear, the social/economic foundation which the government officially oversees is essentially built using Plato’s suggestion that the “best” government (or organization) would seek to employ the most qualified and virtuous citizens as leaders of its administration.
Let’s go back to the road building example for the rest of the democratic lesson. The vast infrastructure supporting this transportation activity is not formally elected. It is comprised of a multitude of small and large businesses which provide services: insurance, gasoline, repairs, and parts for vehicles; signs, signals, and illumination for the streets; concrete, asphalt, paint, and dividers for the roads; and motels, restaurants, and rest facilities for the travelers. All these services depend upon the genuine respect of each service provider for the user or buyer.
There is an integrity demanded by the consumer from the individuals who work for the companies providing these services and products. Each consumer elects which company he thinks will best satisfy his needs. If enough consumers choose the same service provider and endorse their honest and genuine concern for clients, the chosen company most likely will prosper. There is no guarantee that all virtuous business people will succeed, but those who disregard their clientele’s needs and desires are destined to eventual failure.
I’m certain that we all drive enough throughout this country to appreciate how well the ground transportation industry facilitates our modern mobility. This mobility we accept as our right, since it proves that we are truly free to go anywhere we choose. Because there are so many other drivers, we must follow the safety rules of society. If we don’t, there is a system of checks and balances called police who strive to maintain our compliance. Since the vast majority of us are virtuous about driving safely (for our own welfare as well as that of others), we respect the “rules of the road.” We have our frustrations, our accidents, and even “road rage sometimes,” but on average we drive defensively and courteously, anticipating the danger involved by not doing so.
In all the transactions involved in the transportation industry, there is some room for abuse of relationships, power, and the expenditure of governmental funds. Decisions are made by many administrative people with good or suspect intentions. The most efficient use of people, funds, and resources may not be realized, but sooner or later a virtuous citizen will call our attention to the corrupt administration. Or a new manager will bring a higher moral code to his position, and expect his subordinates to follow his leadership.
Daily we are giving our patronage to those we feel are truly interested in rendering us a satisfactory service in exchange for a decent wage or salary. Of course, those who perform exceptionally well would like to be given a tip for their extra effort. When earned, we are usually glad to oblige, if not with money, with patronage.
In our democracy we citizens are not primarily voting with ballots, but with our money and patronage. This is the real elective process going on, where individuals are making important decisions. This process is being challenged today like it was 100 years ago by the creation of fewer, but bigger companies seeking to monopolize their industries and markets and tyrannize their employees.
Plato’s warning about how excessive freedom in a democracy leads to tyranny is still valid. We must act virtuously to assure that the system of checks and balances functions. The courage to do so is what makes our democracy work. It is how we participate in promoting the continuity of a successful society that just happens to be a constitutional democracy. When our individual citizens become corrupted, we will see the “governors” caring more for making money and less for cultivating virtue.
Yes, we must continue to vote as judiciously as possible, not just in the periodic elections for the candidates in the political show, but also in those daily business transactions. There we render our conscientious approval with our dollars and patronage of those activities that truly serve our communities.