education philosopher

Is Democracy Really What We Want?

Posted in political philosophy by KevinCK on January 8, 2010

Here is an article detailing an upcoming court case seeking to overturn a prohibition on gay marriage in California. There is a serious problem I have with this case, even though I am a very fervent supporter of gays’ and lesbians’ right to marry. This paragraph illustrates the problem:

The case will decide a challenge to California’s gay marriage ban that was approved by voters in 2008, and the ruling will likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. (My italics)

The problem is not that there is a challenge being brought over whether gays can be denied marriage rights. The problem is that we are asking a state court to set aside a democratic ruling about a state issue. And deeper still, I think that such an action helps illustrate what I think is the American public’s tenuous relationship with democracy. We tend to extol it as the most just way of government, want more of it when it isn’t being allowed to operate, but then try and trump it when it gives us results we don’t like.

I remember very well the protests when the election of 200o was effectively decided by the Supreme Court (whether justly or unjustly): “More democracy!” was a commonly heard cry. And in many political tracts, the  word “democratic” is often used as an adjective synonymous with “just,” “good,” and “egalitarian.” But here we are in a bizarre predicament: scenes like the one in California are forcing us to face up to the idea that democratically chosen policies do not always lead to egalitarian and just results. As our founders feared, sometimes democracy really does mean the right of some to vote against others.

Am I trying to make an argument against democracy? While it may seem so, I rather like democracy. But my like for democracy does not blind me to the idea that it is a process, not an inherent good. Like many processes, it can lead to both good and bad results. And like so many forget, one of the reasons our American democracy works so well is that there are many things very undemocratic in our form of government that balance against democracy. We have a bill of rights that place certain rights above the touch of democracy. We have set terms and term limits for office holders so that we cannot vote people out of or into office any time we’d like, or vote someone to be a hereditary queen or king. In fact, most of the federal government is made up of unelected officials appointed to do things and their job is not up to a democratic vote (TSA, FDA, FAA, FCC, etc).

All of this is to say that democracy is not good or bad in or of itself, but a process that can either be good or bad. Me, I see democracy much the way philosopher Karl Popper saw it: a system whose chief benefit is being a way to change leaders in our out without violence. It is a very minimal definition, but notice its moral neutrality. To me, that is key. Democracy is not, as some say, “a way of life” because we only vote in or out leaders once every two, four, or six years. Democracy does not entail egalitarianism because people are fully capable (as we see in California) of stripping citizens of rights and privileges given to other citizens. Democracy doesn’t entail ANYTHING except for a process of changing leadership without violence and with the populace taking the lead (for good or ill).

So, while I fully support the idea of gay marriage and feel very strongly denying gays and lesbians the right to marry is an egregious discrimination, I also support the right of Californians to have a say in policies by casting ballots.That puts me in a hard position: democracy vs. justice. All I can say for now is that, contrary to the opinions of some, those two words are not necessarily connected.


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