Senator Lee and ‘Democracy’

Well, at least he was honest about it. A leading Republican Senator, Mike Lee, has admitted that ‘democracy isn’t the objective’ of the American political system. Apparently this has ‘sparked widespread outrage’ in the USA. (See 

But why? Isn’t it self-evidently true? Not only as an indictment of the overwhelming flaws in American politics, which is how it has been taken by Democrats, but as a statement of what any political system ought to be? ‘Democracy’ – the expression of the will of the majority – is not a good in itself, but merely a means to certain ends. The ends that Mike Lee has in view are ‘liberty, peace, prosperity’, and the ‘flourishing of the human condition’. Who can quarrel with that? Of course we need to know how the Senator would conceive of all these desiderata; but that in principle they all outscore ‘democracy’ alone is a reasonable position to take. And he is obviously right to argue that ‘rank democracy’ – however ‘rank’ is defined – can, on occasion, ‘thwart’ these ends. Multiple examples from history, together with recent developments in both the USA and Britain, bear that out.

Those with more faith in democracy – Lee’s ‘rank’ democrats, perhaps – counter this by maintaining that the expressed will of the majority of people is the best way of achieving these ‘higher’ ends. The alternative is rule by kings, priesthoods, aristocrats, dictators, career politicians or self-selecting ‘establishments’ of various kinds, against the people’s will, and consequently – it is inferred – against their interests  too. It is this last inference that is in doubt. Whether people will vote in their own self-interest, let alone in that of the society they are part of, is moot. The problem lies, of course, in the degree of their political education, and in the part that ‘propaganda’ plays in manipulating them. It is possible – just – to envisage a situation in which most people are educated to the extent that they can make truly rational decisions when it comes to the polls, and in which the political propaganda urging them to vote one way or another at those polls is at least reasonably honest and fair. That’s something we might hope for. But it is obviously not here – in Britain (with its tabloid press) or America (with Fox and Friends), or both with their peculiar electoral systems – yet.

In the meantime it is not unreasonable – certainly not ‘outrageous’ – to be aware of the way that ‘democracy’ can currently be manipulated; and for good, as we might conceive it, as well as for ill. Our problem just now (from a ‘Left’ point of view) is that it’s the Right – notably Dominic Cummings – who have grasped this most fully, and are consequently using it in pursuit of what they  conceive of as the ‘good’. (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here; obviously many Rightists will have more selfish and nefarious motives.) The point is, however, that it’s not the denial of ‘democracy’ that is either questionable or necessarily reprehensible, but the use that is made of it. Mike Lee should be spared our ‘outrage’, for pointing out the obvious. 

Apparently the good Senator has just caught the coronavirus off his President: So we should perhaps lay off him anyhow.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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