On Elections

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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019