Franke: What Is Democracy Anyway?

September 23, 2020

by Mark Franke

Having spent Constitution Day on Sept. 17 talking about it to anyone who would listen, I realized that it (the Constitution) bears more reflection on my part. But first, a digression.

I was in the dean of students office at a local seminary when a Nigerian student came in and asked if he could have a copy of the U.S. Constitution. The dean’s assistant pointed to a display in the office. He then asked if he could take extras and was told to help himself. I guess the school wasn’t worried about running out due to citizenry demand.

Between the masks we were all wearing and my age-invoked hearing deficiency, I couldn’t quite follow everything this young man said but I did pick up that he wanted to compare our constitution to his. He was proud that Nigeria has birthright citizenship copied from America and its federal structure mirrors ours.  Here is another example of America’s being that “city on a hill” which others admire and try to emulate.

I wish I could have spent the rest of the afternoon learning about his notion of democracy and the importance of founding documents such as a constitution. And asking what aspects of American democracy he would like to inject into Nigeria’s. And, for that matter, what he believed we Americans could learn from his country.

Alas, he had to leave for a class which takes me back to my reflective state.

Is America a true democracy? She is not a pure democracy in the textbook sense in that the people don’t decide everything themselves. That may still work in small New England towns — at least I hope it does — but even with the internet there is no way to have 330 million or so of our fellow citizens voting on everything. That might even surpass Congress’ propensity for legislative gridlock.

Rather, our Founding Fathers created a republic or what might be termed a representative democracy. We get to vote on who gets to vote on issues. Back in the day when Congress was only in session part-time, as is still the case with Indiana’s General Assembly and all our city councils, this worked well enough as representatives spent most of the year living among and conversing with their constituents. This seems to me so much better a system than one inhabited by full-time professional politicians who spend most of their time cocooned in the Beltway with well-expensed lobbyists and elitist media types.

This system, no matter how imperfect and dysfunctional it can be at times, will only work if we the voters act as democrats (small “d”). That means understanding the rules of the game and playing by them once the whistle blows. Here is where our democracy may be going off the rails.  

Voting in a democratic society means that someone wins and someone loses. Nearly all losers graciously concede and most go into loyal opposition, no doubt plotting revenge at future elections while parlaying their minority status into legislative bargaining power in the present. Even Richard Nixon, considered by many to be the most amoral of our presidents, conceded to John Kennedy in 1960 in spite of substantial evidence of voter fraud in Mayor Daily’s Chicago and the state of Texas, perhaps enough to swing the election. This compares Nixon favorably to Al Gore, but there may be something much worse in the offing.

Hilary Clinton (remember her?) has publicly counseled Joe Biden not to concede the election “under any circumstances.” Presumably “any circumstance” includes a resounding loss by Biden on Nov. 3. It certainly includes the scenario in which armies of lawyers challenge ballot counting in key districts that Mrs. Clinton assumes by divine right should report more Biden votes than local election officials see fit to certify. Does it also include sending mobs back into the streets for “mostly peaceful” protests that involve looting, burning and killing? As much as I dislike Mrs. Clinton’s character and ideology, I can’t bring myself to believe she really wants that to happen.So why heat up the rhetoric?

Democracy won’t, can’t, work unless both winners and losers accept the will of the voters as determined by a simple, first past the post count. Losers denouncing the results and declaring the winner illegitimate aren’t simply acting as spoiled two-year olds throwing temper tantrums. They are subverting the democratic process and to what end? Short term power at whatever cost? Would they sacrifice our democracy on the altar of power? When they refuse to accept the will of the voters, their insincere commitment to democracy and our Constitution is exposed for what it is. Too many nations over the course of human history have suffered the death of their democratic institutions at the hands of mobocracy, starting with classical Athens where democratic government was incubated.

My nightmare is that we haven’t learned from history and therefore will repeat it to our hurt as the philosopher Santayana warned. My hope is that this, like all nightmares, is only a bad dream which disappears at break of day. I can’t wake up soon enough.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar and of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.



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