Franke: Democracy as a Chimera

October 28, 2020

by Mark Franke

Does my vote matter?

Yes and no. How’s that for equivocation?

One can certainly argue that almost no election has ever been decided by a single vote.  Therefore, my vote won’t change anything so why bother? The risk of COVID exposure can be used as the excuse for staying home this year and absentee ballots are too much effort to request and return.

What, though, if I have been talking to my friends and we all arrived at the same conclusion and then let other circles of friends know that?  How far could my influence spread? To enough recalcitrant voters that we may affect a close race?

Can democracy survive if a critical mass of voters are too discouraged to exercise their right? Does that make voting a duty rather than a right?

First, a philosophical consideration. In spite of what most may think, our nation’s founding first principle is not democracy. America is founded on liberty flowing from natural rights as defined in the Constitution and protected by the rule of law. Democracy is a means to this end, one that Winston Churchill proclaimed as better than all others that have been tried.

The Greek philosopher Plato, residing in the world’s first governing democracy, preferred a benevolent dictator or philosopher-king. Even in theory, this required a slew of prohibitions to ensure the despot’s benevolence. I’m not aware of Plato’s system ever being successfully implemented anywhere and one can easily understand why it must ultimately devolve into pure despotism. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely according to Lord Acton. Sorry, Plato, but Churchill’s observation is spot on.

So our founders wisely gave us a republican form of government with the advantages of democracy playing out in regular elections. The exercise of democracy is the means to the end of protecting liberty in our commonwealth.

So back to the original question — does my vote matter? Maybe less than one wants to believe. Think back on the outcomes of past elections. When the mayor’s office in your city changed political hands, did your garbage still get picked up? Did the police and fire departments continue to respond to calls? Did your local tax rate change appreciably, other than to keep heading inexorably northward?

Even at the national level, a change in the White House generally doesn’t have seismic effects on our national policy. Has Donald Trump drained the swamp or did Lyndon Johnson eliminate poverty? Foreign policy has been constrained within a narrow band of the idealist-realist debate, although its inept administration in several administrations bears note. The embarrassing behavior of our senators and congressmen stays the same unless it can find a new depth of immaturity.

One can argue that it is in the appointment of federal judges that a president best can affect government direction into the futurePerhaps, but it is a sad commentary that we on both sides of the ideological continuum look to appointed judges to decide what laws govern us rather than to those in the other two branches elected for that very purpose.

So is our devotion to democracy a chimera, a self-delusion not unlike the shadows playing across the walls in Plato’s cave?

I didn’t mean for this column to head down into the abyss of nihilism. I am not a cynic at heart but it does get more difficult all the time and not just because of the inanity that defines national news coverage.  People of all ideologies have become less contemplative and more determined to make a 30 second point. Maybe that is the influence of those same national news organizations worshipping at the altar of the sound bite.

It is at times like this that a lover of liberty needs to reflect on the republic our founders left us and their charge to us to “keep it,” as Ben Franklin told a citizen standing outside the convention hall. Reflection, contemplation, deliberation — call it what you may but this is not the same as making a point at the office water cooler or the backyard barbeque. 

Yes, I will vote next week as I always have but with Edmund Burke’s admonition about good men doing nothing pricking my conscience. I won’t expect much to change and will fervently hope that it doesn’t if I vote for the losing side. I’ve been there before, often enough.

After all, there is always a libertarian’s best friend in Washington — gridlock.

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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