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Jewish World Review Nov. 27, 2000 / 29 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Jonah Goldberg

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Duking it out with democracy -- THE SPECTACLE in Florida has inspired talk about how we're enjoying a national "civics lesson," educating the American people on our precious system. Pundits have turned into secular greeting-card writers, penning little odes to the supremacy of the vote and the holiness of the ballot box. Jesse Jackson talks about the disenfranchisement of voters as if denying a vote automatically condemns a soul to the sixth plane of hell to toil amidst thieves, bullies and the road-show cast of "Rent."

Now, I adore democracy, and I believe, especially around Thanksgiving, that we should be profoundly grateful for the blessings of our democratic system. But let us not forget that democracy is a form of government, not a state of being. The most famous description of democracy in the 20th century was Winston Churchill's observation that democracy is the worst form of government, save for all the others.

Being least worst is not a holy status - it is a practical one. If a mule is your best option to get out of the desert, that doesn't mean it's the ideal option. It is quite possible to live in a brutish, nasty and Hobbesian - yet democratic - world. If you don't believe me, just ask the millions of slaves who lived in American bondage under what was at the time the most democratic regime in the world. (Even if slaves had the vote, they could have theoretically been outvoted in a pure democracy.)

The Founding Fathers embraced democracy because it was, and is, the most practical and equitable means to oppose tyranny. But they didn't have stars in their eyes. They created checks and balances such as the Electoral College, and the system of federalism generally, because they understood that men are not angels and that a "tyranny of the majority" is no less a tyranny.

Right now, the Electoral College and federalism are under attack, not just from Hillary Clinton, but from democracy-worshippers in all parties. Their argument is a simplistic one: The Electoral College is "undemocratic," which is to say un-good. But, as Justice Antonin Scalia recently argued in a lecture to The US-Swiss Foundation in New York, federalism has an advantage lost on many of its opponents: It makes people more happy.

In a pure democracy, the majority simply has its say. Imagine that 75 percent of Americans want to ban smoking in all public places. Shouldn't they be able to? A strict majoritarian would say absolutely. But what if the 25 percent of Americans opposing the ban lived in one or two states? In a pure democracy, those people must cave to the will of the many. But under a federal system, the pro-smokers get to decide the sort of government they want to live under. From school prayer to abortion to drug policy, an "undemocratic" national system allows for a more democratic local arrangement, which helps ensure more happiness for everyone.

Indeed, thwarting the will of the majority is not only essential to ensuring happiness, it is essential to ensuring justice. Our inalienable rights, for example, are immune to popular will. I can write almost whatever I want even if millions of people vote otherwise. I can worship whom I want even if millions vote otherwise. The courts, our most undemocratic institution, are the chief protectors of our rights precisely because they are the most immune to the fickle impulses of the public. Hence the irony that lawyers are duking it out in Florida to settle the "will of the people."

There is a reason why we call it the "democratic process." Democracy is an essential, but not a sole sufficient, ingredient of the American experiment - not a good in itself but a means toward a good.

Confusing the process with the intended result is as silly as confusing your car with your intended destination.

To comment on JWR contributor Jonah Goldberg's column click here.


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11/14/00: Gore's us-vs.-them campaign
11/10/00: Dot-com disasters missing brand-name success
11/06/00: Conventional wisdom turns with the polls
11/03/00: Clinton photo, appropriately, hits below the belt
11/01/00: Electoral college ensures democracy
10/30/00: New Yorkers, media letting Hillary off the hook
10/23/00: Gore needs to put first things first
10/20/00: Treatment of Farrakhan glosses over odd issues
10/16/00: Secrets of election can be found in 'Star Trek'
10/12/00: Arafat hardly 'provoked' into violence
10/10/00: Undecided voters may be ignorant, not discriminating
10/06/00: The importance of character isn't debatable
10/03/00: Conservatives are the true friends of science You know why?
09/29/00: Symbolic 'born alive' vote makes sense
09/25/00: Conservatives adopt abandoned liberalism
09/21/00: Ventura's media backpedaling makes fiction of his new book
09/18/00: Tough questions target Hillary Clinton's elitism
09/14/00: Hollywood morality to blame
09/11/00: Specifically, AlGore's detailed plan is meaningless
09/07/00: Time-honored tradition: Insult the press
09/05/00: Scouting out justice
08/30/00: The ADL's historical revisionism
08/28/00: Sitcoms will survive, post-"Survivor"
08/24/00: Candidates' choice of movies shows refreshing honesty
08/21/00: An AlGore victory? Only if dead birds fly
08/17/00: AlGore is doomed, but Dems ignore warning signs
08/15/00: Proud and true: He's a Jew
08/10/00: Exploiting religion would be tragic mistake
08/08/00: Cheney serves up tempting appetizer
08/03/00: Republicans now 'nice,' media still nasty
08/01/00: Presidential campaign could use some anti-metric mania
07/27/00: Government shouldn't subsidize Reform Party
07/25/00: Campaign finance 'reform' gives too much power to liberal media
07/20/00: Hillary slur speaks volumes
07/18/00: AlGore's McCarthyism
07/11/00: 'Survivor' shows hypocrisy of animal rights groups
07/05/00: McDonald's deserves a break today
07/03/00: On July Fourth, time to reflect on America's founding
06/28/00: America bashing becomes international pastime
06/23/00: If Fonda is sorry, let her say so
06/06/00: NAPSTER exposes artists' hypocrisy
04/18/00: Not much difference between TV journalists, TV actors

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