Santayana and democracy
6 September 2003, 3:44 PM
Well, and Your Humble Blogger is sorry about the delay. Much business at work, much news in the personal life, and so on. Still, I have at last finished George Santayana's essays on Character and Opinion in the United States. I'm not in agreement with much that he says, though he does have a way with metaphor. Sadly, I don’t have the book with me at the moment; the one that sticks in my mind I’ll paraphrase as “Consistency is a jewel, and as with other jewels, one is often surprised how much some people are willing to pay for it.” Beats the hobgoblin line into a cocked hat, as far as I’m concerned.
Anyway, my main complaint about the book is that Santayana does not seem to really understand democracy (as many moral philosophers don’t), and therefore makes some plausible but wildly inaccurate statements about it. In particular, he says that democracy can only really work if the whole society is in fundamental agreement about all the important things. That way, everybody can stand to lose elections, as they know that the government led by the victors will be largely irrelevant anyway.
I do think that there are a few things that most people need to agree on for democracy to work properly, but there can also be lots of fundamental disagreements. The main thing is that everybody (and by that I mean almost everybody, that is, a large enough majority to effectively be the society) has to actually believe in democracy. They have to believe first that it works, that elections are real, free and fair, and that all the votes are counted (or at least almost all), and that the candidate with the most votes wins. They also have to believe in the ideal of democracy, that is, that a participatory democracy with elected representatives is a good thing in and of itself, and not simply one way to govern.
See, Santayana sees democracy as a tool. It’s one way, among others, to choose legislators and laws and a civil service. Viewed that way, it has strengths and weaknesses. Its primary weakness, as identified by Santayana, is that the minority has to go along with the results of the election, even though it may well be to their detriment to do so. In much of the world, the minority will rebel after losing an election, or if in power before the lost election will refuse to step down. Often, a rebel group will boycott the election or a government will call off the election rather than lose. As a means to achieve power, elections are risky. Even to a pragmatist, having an election can be a risk not worth taking.
To a democrat, though, who wins the election is not as important as that an election takes place. Whitman, of course, said it better: “The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing.” On Election Day, even in this off year, there will be—what—fifty million people, volunteering their time to the benefit of the nation. More than Napolean’s armies, indeed. That’s what Santayana never quite got.