Democracy is boring. It involves discussing things in representative assemblies – aka ‘talking shops’; it means compromises – aka ‘fudging things’; it involves not always getting what you want – aka ‘selling out’. By the nature of these processes, things tend not to happen swiftly, and sometimes they seem not to happen at all. In times of prosperity all of these things are made bearable by material well-being; in times of austerity it is not so. Aristophanes, in his play, The Knights, makes great play of the way in which Agoracritus, the Sausage-seller, is able to outbid the aristocratic Cleon to win the support of the demos – who are easily swayed by the promise of material rewards. One of the many good effects of the Christianisation of our culture was the notion that even absolute monarchs were responsible to someone; from that grew the idea that people were more than pawns to be sacrificed at will. That isn’t to say that these ideas were always followed through – but it is to say they were there and have had important effects. But now, across the world, it seems that we see a coarsening of our politics.
It isn’t just the most egregious examples, such as Putin and Assad – men like that have always been there; but if hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, there is something disturbing in the fact that neither man any long feels it necessary to pay up. It is what we see in countries where, hithertofore, it has been taken for granted that people were attached to democracy. Troublesome times often lead to the cry for a ‘strong man’, a man on a white horse. Mussolini and Hitler both served that purpose, as did Lenin and Stalin – these were leaders who promised to cut through the useless talking shops to ‘get things done’. But once go down that road, and there is no limiting what ‘can be done’ – demagogues and dictators have in common the ability to by-pass normal process in the cause of some higher good. When we get, as we did in the UK, intelligent men saying we have had ‘enough of experts’, and when we begin to move into a fact-free politics, the warning bells begin to sound.
If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, that applies internally as much as it does externally. If free men and women do not insist upon protecting their freedoms, they cannot (alas) expect politicians to do it for them. The USA was founded in part on the model of the Roman Republic, and that entailed an engaged citizenry who would, if necessary, resort to arms to protect the freedoms guaranteed under law. In the UK and Europe there is little understanding of the Second Amendment; but there are many in the USA who understand it only too well – including those who wish to abolish it.
Will democracy in its current form survive? Arguably its current form is already less than optimal, in so far as vested interests and lobbyists like parasitically off the body politic. The old notion of the common good is vitiated and undermined by the modern fad for ‘identity politics’. The inability of our governments to continue to deliver the prosperity the demos demands leaves open the way for the sausage-sellers to bribe people with their own money. We might say that the centre cannot hold – except I am unsure whether there is, any longer, a centre. Christian ethics helped impose upon errant mankind a set of rules and obligations which raised it above the level to which its fallen nature leads it to sink left unaided. With that gone, and with the chaser tone we now hear, all bets are off.