It’s election season in Canada, which means it’s time to decide which distant oligarch is slightly less distasteful to us in the charade that many believe to be democracy. When Winston Churchill described democracy as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried,”[ref]Decontextualized quotations fascinate me. In its context, Churchill is obviously defending democracy against its detractors, softening this frequently deployed quote as folk wisdom with the qualifiers it has been said and from time to time. The original quote more fully reads: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” See the Winston Churchill Wikiquote page.[/ref] I hear him differently than most, who assume that it’s appropriate to describe the system of governance that we live under as democracy.
I instead mentally paraphrase Churchill’s oft-misued quote as “We have this form of government that’s definitely better than oppressive and/or totalitarian regimes, but it falls incredibly short of the classic democratic ideal.” If you aren’t hearing bitching and moaning about our form of government as “chaotic” or “disruptive” or “unworkable,” then it isn’t democracy.[ref]The first canonical attempt at democracy in Athens was routinely called that, and it only included land-owning males as “the people.”[/ref] True democracy is rule by the people, and not just the people you would expect to be capable of having a say. Democracy is the breathtaking ideal that everyone, no matter their race, gender, religious affiliation, or other definable characteristic, would have full and equal say in their governance. This is ennobling to everyone, but terrifying for the rich and powerful, who would then have their privileged place of power and influence threatened by so much unworthy rabble.
True democracy is therefore always deemed “impractical” and systems that subvert actual democracy are suggested in order to make democracy “workable” and “practical.” The dark genius behind all these attempts is that they contain some features that resemble democracy, and appropriate the name democracy to this only minimally realized system.
Of course the feature that deserves the most notice is representative democracy. This is the system our Social Studies classes taught us to equate with the word democracy. Instead of having direct say in our governance, we are instead allowed to elect a representative to speak for us in some governing body. In a five-year election cycle, this effectively gives us one day out of 1,826 to exercise our democratic rights, leaving the elected representatives to play power games for most of the remaining 1,825 days.[ref]They do have to pretend like they’re doing no such thing, especially in election season.[/ref]
None of this is to advocate for a withdrawal from politics proper. Quite the contrary, we all need to rouse from the slumber of believing that voting once every 5 years is being “politically responsible.” We must be engaged in our communities, believing that we have a right to have a say in how we are governed even though the system doesn’t reflect that reality. Politics, after all, is too important to leave to the professionals.
Finally, as a Christian, I find it doubly distressing that so many of my brothers and sisters buy into the “vote responsibly” bullshit flung about during election season. We worship a failed political revolutionary executed as a state criminal. They would have painted “terrorist” on the sign above Jesus’ head if they used today’s language, for he relativized everything about power and authority in the name of the kingdom of God. If we walked around saying we only obeyed “the nation of God” like he did, folks would start getting mighty suspicious.
It was precisely this politically subversive language that got early Christians in hot water. In calling Jesus Lord, they were saying that Caesar was not. They held themselves under the law of Christ, which is to say under the law of love for God and neighbour, which led them to political acts such as the rescue of infants left exposed to die and care for widows and orphans. The law of love in God’s kingdom always seeks out those ignored and abused by the “legitimate” powers of the day.
This is what God’s politics looks like: love, especially the seemingly irresponsible love of the poor and the marginalized. Voting for one chump or another every few years is all fine and well, but it has nearly nothing to do with responsibility. Unless political responsibility takes on the face of our neighbour, it means nothing at all.