Democracy is both inspiring and appalling. This year in California we will vote on initiatives involving the death penalty, firearms, taxes and health care. We also will vote on whether marijuana should be legal and whether porn actors should wear condoms.
There is no guarantee that voting will produce wise and virtuous outcomes. Porn addicts and potheads will cast votes alongside priests and police officers.
The national race does not inspire confidence in the electoral process. The primaries have given us two flawed candidates for president. Each accuses the other of mendacity and incompetence. With this level of animosity before the election, dysfunction likely will follow. Some commentators have suggested that there will be an impeachment crisis in the next few years, no matter who gets elected president.
Democracy can produce good outcomes. Smart and sincere voters can elect virtuous officials who are dedicated to the common good. But the fact of diversity means that we will disagree about what we mean by virtue and the common good. And so democracy also gives us gripes, grievances and gridlock.
Philosophers have often criticized democracy. Plato warned that democracy can quickly turn to tyranny, as the people elect tyrants who make populist promises while plotting to take advantage.
John Adams, our second president, shared Plato’s worry. He warned about the dangers of direct democracy. He said: “Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”
The framers of the U.S. Constitution tried to remedy the flaws of democracy by giving us mixed government with a separation of powers. That idea goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. A mixed government is not very efficient. But it aims to prevent tyranny by frustrating the machinations of those who lust for power.
Another remedy focuses on educating citizens. This idea was dear to Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to James Madison in 1787, Jefferson wrote that education of the common people is the best way to secure liberty.
A similar argument is made in a forthcoming book by educational and moral theorists Nel Noddings and Laurie Brooks. The book “Teaching Controversial Issues” maintains that critical thinking and moral education are essential for democracy.
The authors argue that democratic schools should encourage critical thinking rather than blind obedience. We need to give young people the tools to analyze and evaluate controversial topics, while inspiring them to remain committed to the common good. The goal “is to develop thoughtful, well-informed citizens for a participatory democracy.”
The present election provides a wonderful teachable moment. Civics education includes a discussion of the virtues and vices of democracy as well as analysis of the structure and history of the Constitution.
It is easy and fun to celebrate the myths of uncritical patriotism. But the truth is more complicated. No nation is perfect. There are no utopias. The flaws in political systems reflect flaws in human nature. People are not perfect. Nor are the systems we construct.
On Sept. 17, 1787, when Benjamin Franklin made a motion to approve the Constitution, he acknowledged that there was no perfect constitution. Human beings always bring with them “their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.” So no human constitution can ever be perfect.
But rather than leaving us discouraged, this should invigorate us. There is work to be done to improve the world. In the end, we get the democracy we deserve. We build the world we live in with our questions and criticism as well as our votes.
Honor the Constitution
Two events are scheduled at the Fresno State Satellite Student Union in honor of the 229th anniversary of the Constitution:
Presidential Election Roundtable: 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16, featuring Fresno State political science professors and Bee political reporter John Ellis
Vote for Democracy Forum: 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 17. Students and community leaders discuss the future of our democracy. Sponsored by the Fresno County Civic Education Partnership, the Fresno Youth Commission, the Ethics Center at Fresno State and other community partners. For more information go to the Civic Education website: www.fresnociviclearning.com.