The voice of the people is the voice of God

A central question of political philosophy is, “who is fit to govern?”

Is it those who are born into power or those who demonstrate the skills and knowledge needed to wield power appropriately? Proponents of democracy would say that all people have the right to collectively govern themselves. But as idealized democracy makes that seemingly inevitable transition into the more practical representative democracy, the question again arises. Who is fit to govern?

Elected officials are supposed to represent the will of the people, yet I’m not sure I know anyone wholly satisfied with the behavior of the mass of politicians. The current congressional approval rating is a whopping 13%, up from a recent 9% dip but below the historical average of 33%. Am I the only one who thinks it’s a bad sign if the best approval Congress can get is only a third? President Obama, meanwhile, is enjoying a sunny approval rate of 40%.

So what is the problem? I could give you dozens of answers. The electorate is too polarized. The financial resources needed to mount a presidential or congressional campaign bar too many people from participation and give too much power to those with money. The media is too eager to cover scandal and too polarized itself to accurately report the news – leading many Americans to be misinformed on candidates views or the real facts of an issue. Not to mention that the “real facts” of an issue have become contested ground.

I could go on.

But what if there’s a deeper problem? An issue so delicate small-d democrats can hardly acknowledge it. The shadow you catch out of the corner of your eye, when you know something is there but you can’t bring yourself to look. What if there’s a problem with the underlying assumptions of the system?

In his 1922 book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann commented on the founding theories of our country:

“[The founding fathers] were engaged, against the prejudice of ages, in the assertion of human dignity…But every analyst seems to degrade that dignity, to deny that all men are reasonable all the time, or educated, or informed, to note that people are often fooled, that they do not always know their own interests, and that all men are not equally fit to govern…Had democrats admitted there was truth in any of the aristocratic arguments they would have opened a breach in the defenses. And so just as Aristotle had to insist that a slave was a slave by nature, the democrats had to insist that the that the free man was a legislator and administrator by nature…The only way out was to assume without much discussion that the voice of the people was the voice of God.”

Indeed, as Lippmann says, the stakes were too high, the ideals of human dignity too important, to let anything jeopardize their argument. I certainly would rather live an imperfect democracy than a “perfect” monarchy. Regardless of how one feels about the fitness of all people to govern, I agree with Lippmann that all people have “an inalienable right not to be used as the unwilling instrument of other men.”

But does the ideal of the “omnicompetent citizen” satisfactorily describe the realities of every day life? As a journalist who had seen the effects of propaganda first hand, Lippmann answered that question with a resounding no. I would be inclined to agree – people are imperfect, and under no system will “the people” be perfect all of the time.

And not only is the omnicompetent citizen a myth, but perhaps more importantly, the omnicompetent leader is a myth as well.

Who is fit to govern?

No one.

So what would it look like to cede that point? To say that no one is a legislator by nature? To say simply that every person has a right to a voice in their affairs, but that every person is fallible? There is no ruling class that knows what’s best, only a great number of possibly self-interested individuals who are all of limited capacities.

Perhaps, then, we’d have to find the time to talk to each other. To learn from each other. To accept our own weaknesses and grow from eachother’s strengths.

Perhaps, then, ceding the imperfection of human nature would not be so catastrophic after all.

But then again…I could be wrong.


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