Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Liberal Democracy

Two significant elections were held yesterday, with two significantly different results. In one, Vladimar Putin's United Russia party swept up the open seats in the Russian parliament, making very clear that the electorate likes the way Putin has used the nation's oil revenue to reinvigorate national pride and power.

In a far more shocking vote, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who's made his career out Bush-bashing, went down in stunning defeat in an election that would likely have made him, like his buddy Fidel Castro, in Cuba, President for Life. I don't know that anyone here guessed he would lose. To his credit, Chavez urged his supporters--he lost just 51 to 49%--to remain calm. A champion of the poor, the belligerant Venezuelan leader could likely have set off a major crisis had he even hinted at some kind of retribution.

This morning's news is one of those good news/bad news jokes. At least some of the wind has gone out of Chavez' sails. Putin's power reserves, on the other hand, are overflowing with this new commitment; he's certainly got a mandate.

And thus goeth democracy. Some people claim that while President George W. Bush may well pray to God, his real faith is in not so much in Jehovah as it is in democracy. For most of his two terms as President, he's credited his vision of our intervention in Iraq as an exercise in bringing democracy to Iraq, a place that had suffered greatly under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Hussein was no sweetheart--that's for sure; and there were those weapons of mass destruction that everyone thought he had in some blind pocket; but the real blessing of our venture into Iraq was our bringing representative government to Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds, blessing them with democracy.

Calvinists like me tend to think that much of our motivation is, in fact, self-interest. I vote my wants, my needs, because if I don't, nobody else will. That kind of motivation has been in us since the fruit of one particular tree seemed vastly more luscious than any other of those gorgeous offerings in that prelapsarain garden. What we choose may well not be best. How did Winston Churchill put it?--"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

It's not that long ago that Iraq's very first vote--remember the ink-dipped fingers?--was powerfully celebrated both here and there. Today, even though the surge has been working and violence across the country is down, nobody--nobody!--has any faith at all in the government all those inky fingers chose.

Before the word liberal became a nasty expletive, countries in the West were often called that--"liberal." And for a good reason: democracy is, really, an incredibly idealistic form of government because it dares to assert that its people--that's right, it's people--will choose what's best, not just what's best for them individually, but what's right for them as a people, as a nation. Really, in 1776, that was an outrageous proposition in a world of kings and queens; but it still is today, at least to those of us whose worldview doesn't include a great deal of faith in the human character.

Our original sin--or our total depravity--does not mean that all choices are self-centered or that all our behavior is outrageous in its opposition to God or the common good; it asserts simply that our "natural" inclination is for self-preservation, for the comforts of home, for lining our own nest first, for putting ourselves on the first lifeboat dropped from the sinking ship. We all know people who run into burning houses. Some risked everything to save Jews in occupied Europe. People willfully choose to die for others every day of the week. We can do the right thing, and we do. But often, it's a stretch.
Democracy depends on an informed electorate making the right choice for the good of others, not just self. Democracy depends on the faith that an electorate will value Presidential debates more than Dancing with the Stars, and that people will be as passionate about the goodwill of others as they are about football. Democracy depends on its people taking a role--and voting. That's why we're a "liberal" nation; we actually believe those things.

Responding to someone who asked what form of government the Constitutional Convention had come up with, Benjamin Franklin said, "We've given you a republic, ma'am--if you can keep it."

Franklin wasn't wrong. Want proof?--it's there in spades in this morning's headlines.