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Santayana and democracy

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.

Redintegro Iraq,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

To a democrat, though, who wins the election is not as important as that an election takes place.

Thanks. I have a tendency to lose sight of this occasionally, so the reminder is helpful.


... for democracy to work properly ... [significant bunches of people] 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.

or a method of discovering the most bestest permanent poobah. in other words the ideal democratic population would be moral skeptics, disinclined to believe in perfectibility or virtue.


I was going to note that this reminded me of my observation that consensus can only work if everyone involved supports the idea and goal of consensus.

And then it occurred to me: could that be said of any governmental system? That they only work if everyone involved believed in them? Could that be almost a definition of an effective governmental system? (Sufficient, let's say, though not perhaps necessary.) I could well be wrong about that, though.

...And that roundaboutly reminds me that money works the same way: it has value only because people believe it does.


I agree with you about consensus, democracy and money being things we make exists by agreeing that they should exist, and if we can't agree that they exist, they stop existing.

Whether it's true of any governmental system ... well, people under a crazy dictator may well think that crazy dictatorships shouldn't exist, but that isn't quite the same as believing they don't exist, or being willing to defy the crazy dictator. Also, the subjects of a crazy dictator might well believe that they are not in a lunarchy (or whatever that form of government is called) but a theocracy of sorts, or perhaps even a benevolent monarchy.

And aren't there wacky science fiction stories about societies where everyone believes they live in a (whatever) but actually, unbeknownst to them, they are being ruled by a (something else)? And then, after discovering the ruse, they throw off the (something else) and attempt to restore the (whatever) only to discover that (tricksy ending)?

R.I.,
-V.


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