The Catholic Thing
On Elections Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A column such as this, published a week before the general election, can hardly avoid referring to the event. What is an election anyhow? How did it ever come about that we think we can choose our leaders by such a chancy method?

We recall those periods in history when kings and queens were chosen by birth from a royal family. Today we seldom think that this method could be seriously considered. Yet it had a point to it.

The hereditary monarchy solved one obvious political problem, namely that of the orderly transition from one regime or ruler to another. The issue was settled upon the birth and growth of an heir.

It was a kind of divine lottery that arguably produced good and bad rulers in about the same proportion as other systems of selection. We know also of rule by conquest or by military leaders.

But usually we have, in most political societies, some element of election. Some more or less large body would be assigned the task to choose the next ruler. The winner would be decided by a majority of some description. Sir Ernest Barker, I believe, remarked that much of this elective system was initially hammered out in the monasteries, especially in the chapters of the Dominicans.

Usually, there were two questions concerning elections: Who wanted to rule? Who could rule? Chesterton said somewhere that the most dangerous person to rule was the one who wanted to rule. Reluctant rulers were often safer rulers. Something about political power corrupted the souls of many men, especially those in the highest political positions.

If this view is true, we should not be overly surprised that we ought to change men in the highest position rather often. We have, to be sure, examples of long-ruling old men and women who became wiser with age. But we also have a long series of rulers who did not leave their positions of power soon enough. They did not often die in their beds.

     King Charles Led to Execution by Charles Crofts (1901)

The question of regicide or tyrannicide arose out of the problem of changing rulers who apparently needed to be removed, but who were not yet ready to admit it. Elections, I have always thought, are peaceful ways to kill kings and tyrants. If we look at the possibilities of corruption in elections, however, we can sometimes wonder if they are not messier than the former much derided method.

Elections, moreover, have this peculiarity about them, one noticed by Aristotle, who noticed most things worth noticing. When we have elections decided by narrow margins, the result is a rather weak rule. If a victor receives 50.1 percent of the votes and the opponent 49.9 percent, it is not overly clear who was the better (or worse) choice. However, when large majorities (98 percent) decide elections, we suspect no real freedom of choice existed at all.

The American Founding Fathers were sober men. Steeped in the lessons of political history, they did not provide for direct elections by majority rule. They spread things out so that other factors besides raw numbers would factor in. Straight majority rule usually has all the suspicions of tyrannical rule as does that of one-man rule.

In classical Greek terms, participation in rule was considered a necessary requirement of maturity and full human development. How was this participation to be accomplished? It was still recognized that not just everyone could rule. A selection had to be made both for leadership and advisory roles.

Participation in elections on a wide basis of citizenship enabled everyone, by a vote, to exercise some form of political prudence. Voting was not intended to be just another roll of the dice. Thought and judgment were to mark the voter’s selection.

Does the rise and fall of nations depend on elections? Sometimes. We can have what I call Ciceronian elections. Cicero sought, and failed, to save a republican form of rule from what he foresaw to be a tyrannical rule. All power came to be concentrated in the ruler, the Caesar, as he came to be known. Our Founding Fathers were students of Roman rule.

Both Plato and Aristotle were clear that polities or republics could easily morph into democracies, that is, into a form of popular rule that saw itself as free to do whatever it wanted, that was limited by no law or rule but itself. It was out of this background that the real tyrant arose, though he would not be called that. He would be a “leader of the people” and take away even their random liberties.

To recognize what sort of an election one faces is itself an issue of prudential insight. Regimes, especially elected ones, reflect the souls of the citizens. Perhaps this is really why elections were invented.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, October 30, 2012
In his Treatise on Government, Aristotle says of the various ways of appointing magistrates, "Of these there are two adapted to a democracy; namely, to have all the magistrates chosen out of all the people, either by vote or lot, or both; that is to say, some of them by lot, some by vote." [IV:15] He seems to have thought there was little to choose between the two methods: one is as much a lottery as the other
written by Jack,CT, October 30, 2012
I predict Romney will win by the smallest
margin' in history.We need to vote to make
this happen!
written by Grump, October 30, 2012
Father, as long as you mentioned Plato, I think if he were alive today he would favor a government led by a king with a sharp axe.
written by Athanasius, October 30, 2012
Tyranny of the majority is a real danger in direct democracies. Our system was intended to disperse power from the chief executive through the separation of powers between Congress, President, and Supreme Court on the federal level, and reserve police powers to the states. The electoral college helps to protect minority rights, as does the Bill of Rights.

However, the underlying requirement is a virtuous populace. But you can't have a virtuous people unless they are religious. Further, they must be religious in a faith that is consistent with reason. Catholicism is such a religion, as are many Protestant denominations and Judaism. I question whether Islam falls into this category.

My point is that I believe American constitutional government can succeed if we as a people truly repent and believe in the gospel. We will always have challenges this side of eternity, but virtuous people of good will can face them together if we place our trust in God and not government.

This year, that means voting republican. And when the election is over, we need to double over efforts to Evangelize the 40+% that vote pro-abortion and pro- culture of death.
written by senex, October 30, 2012
A leader who has gained his leadership position lawfully, e.g. through the election process, may nonetheless become a tyrant if and when he exercises power beyond his statutory limits, such as by ignoring Constitutional limitations on his office in regulating, or failing to enforce the laws of the land.

During the debates over the Declaration of Independence, when some objected to the mention of King George as a tyrant, Jefferson responded “The king is a tyrant, and he shall remain a tyrant.” There is a lesson here that we could learn from.
written by Graham Combs, October 30, 2012
Fr. Schall offers up a melancholy meditation on the political perhaps emphasizing by its absence the need for communities not based exclusively on politics and any constitutional order. Dorothy Day quoted Martin Buber and his definition of government not too many years before her death. Government is a community of communities. She had also learned by that point that political solutions are often the most unsatisfying of all. Sadly we now live at the whim of various city-states from Washington to New York to Boston to Chicago to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Their cultural extremism and soft fascism is the new civic standard. And their impatience for change has become intolerance for those communities which have chosen the supernatural over the natural to borrow from Eliot. Even if the Republicans win, it may be too late for this country. The pathologies have burrowed so deep into American life that it is almost unimaginable that they will be extricated. Just as I was disappointed with Cardinal Dolan's recent choices, so I wonder if the Knights of Columbus which has spent significant sums in the media calling for a civil campaign understands that there is a huge difference between the Romney campaign and Obama's proxy advertisement. I won't detail the ugliness here. I suspect many readers are familiar with the products of Samuel L. Jackson, Lena Dunham, Michael Moore and others. And they are truly vulgar, even depraved. George Wiegel spoke on this last week and said what many of us have said in private: that it isn't the 1950s anymore. We are in a "new cultural moment." When will the Church truly express an understanding of this? I don't know. A priest here, a bishop there seem to understand. But so many speak as an auxiliary bishop here did of a "misundertanding" regarding the HHS mandate. The bishop still believes a deal can be made and our first freedoms retained or at least re-negotiated. He's wrong.

As for the people. I have even less faith in them at this point. The have simply conceded too much ground.

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