We laugh - oh how we laugh! - at the benighted people of ancient times who believed in 'The Divine Right of Kings' to rule nations. We ask ourselves, how could they have been so foolish?
I can't help but wonder if people in the centuries to come will look back at us, and laugh merrily at our strange belief in the divine right of voting, our commitment to the absolute power of unrestrained democracy.
Stephen Marche has written a piece in the Guardian about his recent book, The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future. It's grim reading. And the problems it identifies are not only found in the USA. All over the world, democracies are steadily tearing themselves apart.
Marche quotes from Michael German, a former FBI agent who worked undercover against domestic terrorists during the 1990s. “If you look at how authoritarian regimes come into power, they tacitly authorize a group of political thugs to use violence against their political enemies,” German says. “That ends up with a lot of street violence, and the general public gets upset about the street violence and says, ‘Government, you have to do something about this street violence,’ and the government says, ‘Oh my hands are tied, give me a broad enabling power and I will go after these thugs.’ And of course once that broad power is granted, it isn’t used to target the thugs. They either become a part of the official security apparatus or an auxiliary force.”
The worse things get, the more we 'need' a 'strong leader'. We believe that everything will be fine, because we voted from him - it usually is a 'him' - and we can vote for someone else when this crisis is over. And this works ... right up to the point where the crisis is so deep that we discover we are not allowed to vote again, for some perfectly plausible reason; or we find there are, strangely, no plausible candidates left to stand up to the Great Leader.
There is nothing magical in democracy, nothing that will automatically protect us from our own foolishness. As various wise people have observed, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." Note: they did not reassure us that "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, unless you live in a democracy."
The hard truth is that democracy is just a tool, an imperfect tool, and what it produces is entirely determined by how we use it. Democracy - the activity of choosing a government by voting - relies on other structures, such as an independent judiciary and a free press. Governments always want to limit the power of other institutions to investigate their activities, challenge their decisions and hold them accountable for their actions. If we choose to elect politicians who cannot be trusted with power, we should not be surprised if their actions tend to benefit them, and not the nation.
And democracy is always tempted to ride roughshod over the rights, needs and desires of the minority. "We won!" say the majority, "We should get our way!" The divine right of voters needs to be tempered by compassion and generosity towards the minorities, and those who lost the popular vote. The winners may have the legal right to implement their policies, but in exercising our rights we can be in danger of losing our humanity. Democracy must be restrained by compassion and wisdom or, in the long run, it will fail.
Voters - like Kings - have no divine right to rule. Enlightened government, operating in the best interest of the nation (not to mention humanity and the environment), is a difficult, complicated creature which requires time and attention, and a long-term commitment to its wellbeing. In simple terms, the survival of enlightened government will depend on whether we care enough.