The prospect of a presidential race between the two most unpopular candidates in American electoral history should give us serious pause to reflect upon the inherent precariousness of any democratic system.
On the one hand, democracy protects a people from the whims and excesses of despotism by creating a system of accountability and popular will. On the other, it places power in the hands of the masses, who may be uninformed and easily manipulated; as Robert A. Heinlein once wrote, does history record any case in which the majority was right?
A lot of people seem to agree. Even now that the outcome appears inevitable in both primary races , opposition to the status quo has grown so intense that, in both parties, the voices of pragmatism are being drowned out by the battle cry of revolution.
Each rebel camp is a bizarre mirror-image of the other. On the Republican side, the party orthodoxy is rejecting the presumptive nominee for being indifferent to its values and unfit to lead. On the Democratic side, a surging upstart movement rallies around an untethered independent while decrying the corruption of the party orthodoxy itself.
Both insurgent groups are threatening to turn to third-party candidates. Leaders on both sides are warning that such a move would be political suicide, and history supports their fears. Third-party campaigns backfired for Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, Strom Thurmond (nearly) in 1948, Ross Perot in 1992, and Ralph Nader in 2000. So isn’t it better to vote for the lesser of two evils than to give away the election by grasping at straws?
That’s a good question: how bad do the choices have to be before conscience permits no other option than rejecting the choices? How broken does a system have to get before even tacit acceptance of it becomes morally intolerable? How bad do things have to become before I stop cursing the rain and follow Noah into the ark?
The Framers employed every device imaginable to ensure the survival of their fledgling nation: First, they created a democratic republic, in which elected representatives run the government, as opposed to a true democracy, in which everything is determined by popular vote. Second, they invested ultimate power in a Constitution, thereby protecting the individual from “the tyranny of the majority.” Third, they designed a system of checks and balances, with each branch of government holding a measure of power over the other. Fourth, they devised the electoral college as a bulwark against unbridled populism. And finally, they empowered the press to bring the transgressions of public officials to light.
But the Framers could not account for the ideological irresponsibility of mass media, the corrosive influence of money, the myopia of entitlement culture, the self-absorption of secular progressivism, or the disingenuousness of constitutional revisionism. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson recognized that the forces of human nature would eventually corrupt any system from within when he observed that, the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
Indeed, the tree of Western democracy has become rotten from within and beleaguered from without.
The Talmud instructs us to pray for the welfare of even a corrupt government because, when anarchy reigns, man will swallow his fellow alive. But what do we do when a government contains the seeds of its own destruction? Do we try to preserve the status quo as long as possible, or do we try to rekindle the passion for revolution that brought it into existence?
The questions demand answers. And we may not have much time left.