I voted this month. I always vote. It was the state primary and the city election. Who could resist? Most people. Most people don’t vote. On one hand, I wish we held elections only in even numbered years and had polling places open all weekend to encourage people to vote. On the other hand I half-wish that “low information” voters didn’t vote. But when a majority doesn’t vote, is this a democracy?
We hear a public refrain: we have the best political system in the world! But we brag about our system in theory, and we bemoan it in practice. We believe our system – like Muhammad Ali – is the greatest, so we try to export it no matter the cost or the results.
The recent city/state election showed signs of democracy. Two months ago in the local primary, there were several viable candidates for Mayor. That’s good. In 2000, the national primaries started with two viable candidates in each major political party. That’s bad, and I don’t think that’s democracy.
There are many ways we could and should question the meaning of “American democracy.” But the simple fact that the majority is electorally silent says: this isn’t a democracy.
Democracy, of course, is not a biblical concept. Even theologically, it is fraught with contradictions. Reinhold Niebuhr saw it as a way to prevent absolute power from corrupting individuals and nations absolutely. Given his heightened skepticism about sinful human nature and evil institutions, he hoped democracy could moderate the worst of each. Democracy is not “the light of the world” (I have other ideas about that), but it’s better than flawed alternatives.
In a sense, when I vote, I vote for democracy. I vote because it’s one way to claim some power for ordinary people. My view is more pragmatic than principled. Often I vote without enthusiasm to choose the lesser of two evils, much as Niebuhr preferred democracy to dictatorship. I vote because in our society, I believe that Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” includes voting even if what we live in is a quasi-democracy.