Politics & Policy

Defining Democracy Down

The problem with Keyes in Illinois.

American democracy is in sorry shape these days.

Usually, when I hear pronouncements of this sort, my eyes roll and I start counting ceiling tiles. Indeed, as a democracy curmudgeon, I applaud most of the things democracy fetishists complain about. I wish it were harder to vote and that fewer people did it.

The Founding Fathers understood that voting in itself is value-neutral. A mob can vote to lynch an innocent man, but that doesn’t make it moral. Conversely, few things would be more morally admirable than a man of good conscience thwarting the “democratic will” of the mob to save the same innocent man’s life.

Democracy must be tempered by not only the rule of law, but by custom, good will, good faith, and good character. Whenever I speak to college students I try to explain to them that the “liberal arts” aren’t a description of Michael Moore’s cinematic skills. The liberal arts describe the bundle of skills and learning necessary for citizens to both deserve and protect their freedom.

Anyway, what’s got me grumpier than usual about democracy in America is the candidacy of Alan Keyes. After a comedy of political errors and just plain bad luck, the Illinois GOP found itself without a candidate to challenge the popular African-American Democrat Barack Obama for the open U.S. Senate seat. So Keyes, a former U.N. ambassador, two-time presidential candidate, and a radio show host, accepted an invitation to run. One problem: Keyes is from Maryland–indeed he ran for the Senate once already in that state.

Now, I like Keyes. He’s one of the best rhetoricians in America. Off the cuff he can articulate very conservative positions on everything from abortion to the United Nations better than most politicians can in prepared speeches. Indeed, this may turn out to be a great race. Two hyper-educated, successful, and civil African-American men with very different philosophies vying for a Senate seat in the land of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. No matter who wins, Illinois will have the only black Senator in Washington. Even better, race won’t be much of an issue between the two because, as Keyes puts it, “if you are racist you have no one to vote for.”

That’s great stuff.

Except for the pesky fact that the Keyes candidacy is the latest example of a disturbing trend in which both parties are overturning the norms of democracy, with help from the media. Just in the last few years we’ve seen a dead man (dubiously) elected out of sympathy in Missouri, so that his widow could get a Senate seat as consolation. In New Jersey, Democrats were able to yank Bob Torricelli off the ballot after the deadline, knowing he would lose. In California, Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor because the voters wanted a do-over. In Texas, Republicans violate the longstanding tradition of redistricting only once a decade. And, of course, in 2000 Hillary Clinton won her vanity campaign in New York as a carpetbagger. And, while I think there’s a lot of liberal myth-making about the Florida recount, there’s no denying the event undermined many Americans’ faith in the system.

Now, just as with the Keyes candidacy, each of these irregularities may be justified by no shortage of good arguments. But so what? That just demonstrates the political and cultural pressures driving efforts to rewrite the written and unwritten rules of our system.

The trends at work are complex and numerous. The cult of celebrity allows famous but unqualified candidates to drop into politics in ways that, say, scholars or economists cannot. Loopy campaign-finance rules encourage the super-rich to buy their offices, and weakened political parties are only too happy to serve as closing agents for the sale. Worse, consumer culture has infected civic culture. The push to make voting so convenient you can do it with a remote control exemplifies a growing tendency among voters to regard their “choices” as more important than their obligations. Indeed, for some reason, lots of people think it’s imperative that criminals vote. Put your ear to the ground and you’ll hear the bulldozer coming for the Electoral College.

Taken to its logical extreme, these trends would produce a nationalized political system in which voters in California, New York, and a few other states would have undue power to select presidents, senators, and congressmen.

Keyes understands all of this and admits that, as a matter of principle, carpetbagging is a bad idea because it violates the small-r republican principle that representatives should be products of the communities they represent. (Hillary Clinton, typically, derided such arguments as “dirty attacks” on her character.) In fact, Keyes wants to repeal the 17th Amendment, which empowers voters rather than state legislatures to elect senators.

Keyes also says in his defense that he was asked to run by the party in the state he hopes to represent–unlike Hillary, who foisted herself upon New Yorkers. Fair enough. But doesn’t such institutional desperation illustrate how much worse things have gotten in just four years?

Copyright (c) 2004 Tribune Media Services


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