Unanimity Not Required: Democracy, properly defined, is that system of government which allows those issues which perennially divide a people to be resolved by the will of (at best) a majority, or (at worst) a simple plurality of the responsible adult population.
“GOVERNMENT OF THE PEOPLE, by the people, for the people”. Abraham Lincoln’s supremely succinct definition of democracy has been repeated so often it has become a political cliché. And yet, even as he spoke it, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of Thursday, 19 November 1863, his formulation was political humbug.
The American “people”, in whose name the battlefield at Gettysburg was being consecrated, was then engaged in a titanic civil war over what it meant to be an American. The democratic system of government enshrined in the US Constitution had grappled with this question for 87 years and it had failed. The “people” had been unable to agree, and so now the future of the American Republic was being decided by blood and iron.
Most nations are only held together by sentiment. A unifying national mythology; a common language and history; familiar and beloved institutions; the reflected glory of an all-conquering sports team: these are the things that bind a people together.
But there are many forces that tear a people apart. Class prejudice; religious bigotry; the inequitable distribution of wealth and resources; racism; overbearing courts and tribunals; brutal law enforcement; exactly who should, and who shouldn’t, be defined as the “peoples’” friends and enemies. Nations have gone to war with themselves over such matters.
Democracy, properly defined, is that system of government which allows those issues which perennially divide a people to be resolved by the will of (at best) a majority, or (at worst) a simple plurality of the responsible adult population. Obviously, the stronger the sentimental glue which binds a people together, the more willing those who find themselves in the minority will be to abide by the decisions of the majority. Equally obvious, however, is the need for democratic governments to honour the minority’s forbearance. No democracy can survive an elected government’s attempt to transform its transitory political dominance into a system of permanent rule. The composition of the majority must be permitted to change – or democracy has no meaning.
These musings upon the nature of democracy are inspired by a week of quite alarming revelations. New Zealanders have learned that, at the highest levels of their government, there is evidence of an abiding scorn for the traditions and institutions that make for a cohesive society and functioning democracy.
The Report of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security into the release of SIS information to Cameron Slater; Justice Chisholm’s Report into the conduct of the Minister of Justice, Judith Collins; the introduction, under urgency, of the Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill; taken together, all of these developments suggest a potentially dangerous loosening of the struts and ties that prevent our democracy from flying apart.
The impression conveyed is of a political class that sets little, if any, stock by the whole notion of democratic restraint. In some very high places, the idea that the minority’s forbearance should be honoured, or that linking the minority’s interests with the majority’s remains a crucial objective of democratic government, elicits only derisive guffaws. In its place has arisen an attitude towards the Government’s opponents which borders on the sociopathic. They are no longer regarded as fellow citizens with rights and opinions to be respected, but as enemies who must be destroyed.
That such short-sighted conduct leads only to destruction, both morally and practically, should be obvious to the meanest political intelligence. One need not be a biblical scholar to grasp the meaning of the verse: “For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” The democratic politician understands that he, his party, and all those his party represents, will not be in power forever; and that it is, therefore, prudent to use only those political tactics that one’s own side could tolerate being used against itself.
But what if this tradition of democratic self-limitation were abandoned? What if a politician and/or a political party, refusing to accept that what comes around goes around, adopted a morally reckless, winning-is-everything strategy? Wouldn’t that mean that, very soon, political defeat entailed such monumental personal and institutional risk that it had to be prevented at any cost – including democracy itself?
Abraham Lincoln: His Gettysburg Address offered Americans "a new birth of freedom".
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was not, in the end, about defining democracy, but about redefining the purpose of the United States in a way that gave the conflict’s appalling losses meaning and prevented another civil war from breaking out. It was about giving Americans a sense of citizenship so vast and inspiring it could dissolve the lure of self-interest and drown out the rancour of partisanship. A “new birth of freedom” is what Lincoln promised the American people – North and South.
Perhaps it is time that we New Zealanders “highly resolve” that our own nation should have the same.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 November 2014.