Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Changing the wind: elections and social change

Why elections don't really matter

In our idolization of modern secular democracy we have imagined that, provided our leaders attain power by a popular vote, that’s all that matters, and that the only possible critique is to vote them out again next time round. The early Christians, and their Jewish contemporaries, weren’t particularly concerned with how people in power came to be in power; they were extremely concerned with speaking the truth to power, with calling the principalities and powers to account and reminding them that they hold power as a trust from the God who made the world and before whom they must stand to explain themselves.

-N. T. Wright, Where is God in 'the War on Terror'? H/T Hebel.

Leading up to the recent US mid-term elections, I noticed a number of insightful posts. This, combined with continuing to read Oliver O'Donovan has led me to realise that elections are quite peripheral to a well-functioning society. Democracy is a procedural system to ensure some measure of respresentation (which for O'Donovan has more to do with the populus seeing themselves in their leader than any idea of congruent proportions of genders, races, backgrounds, religions, etc), but the real heart of our political system ought to be free and open parliamentary debate, informed by a broader public debate, over the imperfectible task of pursuing the common good. Elections can actually impede this through emphasising partisanship at the expense of genuine inquiry into the common good.

Jim Wallis makes a similar point with less nuance (but more memorably) with his image of 'changing the wind' - elections simply exchange one set of politicians waving their fingers around in the air to see which way the wind is blowing for another. Changing the politicians doesn't make much difference. The point is to change the wind.

Actually, now I think of it, I've realised the fairly obvious point that Wallis and O'Donovan are both limiting the importance of elections but for quite different reasons. For Wallis, it's a pragmatic one: popular opinion is more important than the (nearly always derivative) opinions of politicians. This is a cynical admission that few politicians are willing to step out in front of the electorate and lead. For O'Donovan, it's because the pursuit of the common good is more important than the process used to select leaders to take us there. Less important than who is how they interact with each other and their constituents. O'Donovan therefore claims that it's not the ballot box that represents a free society, but parliamentary debate.
Ten points for naming specifically where I was standing to take this photo ('London' is not good enough - and is technically incorrect since this is part of the city of Westminster anyway).

13 comments:

Kyle said...

Neat post, Byron.

Thanks for the link and your kind compliment. :0)

Christian A said...

"they were extremely concerned with speaking the truth to power, with calling the principalities and powers to account and reminding them that they hold power as a trust from God"

I'm interested: what are the ways that this happened? I can only think of Paul doing it in Acts...was it really part of the early Christians' every day life?

(What a beautiful building. Good job Guy Fawkes never got his way)

byron said...

Kyle - no probs.

Christian - I think of Jesus in John 19.11, Peter in Acts 4, Stephen in Acts 7, Paul in Acts 23-28. However, while these points of crisis and open confrontation were important, you're right that they might not have been part of the everyday life of 'ordinary' Christians. Yet this possibility remained a live one (e.g. 1 Peter 3.14-15 (I take it that given the context of persecution in the rest of the letter, that Peter may well be thinking of giving an answer for your hope when you are brought before authorities). The whole idea of martyrdom includes that of being a witness to authorities that their time is up and that Christ is king. However, outside this, I wonder whether the common life of believers is a witness (Matt 5; 1 Peter 2, etc). The foundational Christian practices of koinonia (fellowship - Acts 2) and forgiveness of sins only make sense if death has lost its sting. Because, as Wright points out, the ultimate power of the tyrant is death. Thus, I would say that while the NT envisages the possibility of being hauled before authorities and being made a martyr, the everyday 'ordinary' Christian community is a witness to the fact that resurrection has broken into this world and undermined the fear of those with deadly power.

byron said...

Speaking of politics, Australians might be interested in this recent speech by former PM Malcolm Fraser summarising some key parts of Australian political history since WWII.

Anonymous said...

This is the back of the parliament building along the Thames. You're down at the end where Big Ben is, as opposed to the end where Westminster Cathedral sits.

Especially based on poor voter turnout, even worse voter education and a confusing electorate system to top it off... elections are definitely an exercise in blind optimism.

byron said...

Miner - yes, I'll give you the points, though I had in mind the name of the bridge on which I was standing. I'll offer another ten points for the first to get it right.

In Australia, we avoid the turnout issue by making voting compulsory, yet this probably reduces the average level of voter education since it doesn't weed out those with no idea or who don't care. It also makes it expensive for those who on principle don't believe in voting.

Winston Churchhill once said: "The best argument against democracy is five minutes with the average voter."

Christian A said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply Byron. Yes, a group of us just finished Wright's Resurrection book today, and the last three paragraphs make for stirring reading.

Jonathan said...

I was going to say Westminster Bridge, but then I saw that the description from the Miner was good enough. I guess you probably were in the right part of the bridge to be in Westminster, rather than Lambeth, but they're both part of (Greater) London anyway.

There are some good points there about the role of elections in a "free society", but surely Wright's point is broader. The early Christians were speaking up for the truth without a "free society" and without working for a "free society".

byron said...

Jonanthan - ten points for Westminster bridge. And you're right about Wright making a broader point. Though in the context of the lecture, this broader historical point is intended to criticise the narrow view that political involvement means voting once every few years.

byron said...

Christian - glad you made it to the end. It's a big (and slightly repetitive) book.

And yes, whatever the rightness or otherwise of GF's cause, a beautiful building is still a good thing.

Anonymous said...

The more I think about the views you present from O'Donovan and Wallis, the more I am intrigued. Right now I am less convinced than I was that the difference between reasons for limiting the importance of elections is as significant as you suggest, but mainly it makes me think about "how [leaders] interact with ... their constitutents".

The whole discussion seems to rest on the idea that we choose leaders to lead us. In this case, the idea that politicians are only interested in how the wind is blowing is cynical. If, however, we think of our representatives as intended to represent our views, rather than our backgrounds or anything else, it would be quite reasonable. The fact that politicians don't simply reflect the view of their constituencies is one of the reasons why we must consider them as leaders.

If our elected members did genuinely seek to faithfully represent our views, rather than simply make us want to vote for them, would the system be more "democratic"? Would it be ethical? The biggest problem I see with this idea is that it emphasises the common view, not the commmon good, but every system does something like that.

Surely debate over pursuing the common good is the most fruitful part of any system that allows debate, parliamentary or otherwise, and the main consequence of democracy is the part that all of us have to play in the debate is emphasised.

peter j said...

Is the location of the camera on Westminster Bridge?

byron said...

Pete - ten points! Well done. Almost in the lead now.