By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Democracy makes us masters of our political destiny, for good or bad; and it reflects our human nature in those we elect to represent us. Democracy can either liberate us or oppress us--and Americans have managed to do both. At our nation’s birth we liberated white people, and at the same time we oppressed black people by ignoring the evil of slavery.
Robert Tracy McKenzie has observed conflicting rationales for democracy: “There are really only two basic reasons to believe in democracy. The first is because you have faith in human nature. The second is because you don’t. ...Americans long ago embraced democracy for the wrong reason. We think too highly of ourselves, and this comforting misperception worsens our dysfunctional governance and magnifies our partisan polarization.”
McKenzie notes that the Founding Fathers “spoke unapologetic-ally of human depravity, by which they meant not that we are desperately wicked, but rather that we are driven by self-interest, even at the expense of others.” Thomas Jefferson was a deist who considered the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus as ”the sublimest moral code ever designed by man.”
America’s increasingly polarized tribal culture thrives on human depravity, even as the altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus promote reconciliation. God’s will is to reconcile and redeem, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer. Sadly, Satan is winning popularity contests in democracies by doing a convincing imitation of God in politics and the church.
McKenzie considers Andrew Jackson the progenitor of America’s populist politics, and Donald Trump is an avatar of Jackson. Trump’s narcissistic immorality is antithetical to the altruistic morality taught by Jesus; but ironically Trump was elected with the support of 80% of white Christians. Their hypocrisy exemplifies moral depravity in politics.
The politics of radical right Republicans continue to trump the common good, while leftist “progressive” Democrats advocate socialist policies that erode freedom and threaten future generations with excessive debt. American voters are split on party loyalty, and the parties remain polarized. A politics of reconciliation is needed to promote the common good.
Human depravity is deeply embedded in America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture. It will take a moral reformation to restore decency over depravity in American politics. The church lost its moral compass in the 2016 election. To restore its legitimacy, the church must give primacy to the universal moral teachings of Jesus over exclusivist Christian doctrines.
Unless the church can promote a politics of reconciliation among America’s competing tribes of race, religion and partisan politics, a moral reformation to counter the corruption of human depravity will have to come from outside the church. Without a politics of reconciliation and the moral stewardship of democracy, human depravity will continue to corrupt democracy.
Robert Tracey McKenzie is a history professor at Wheaton College who has given human depravity a historical context in American democracy. He begins with the Founding Fathers who acknowledged “We are naturally selfish and self-centered. The founders believed that human beings are capable of acts of sublime self-sacrifice, but they also spoke unapologetically of human “depravity,” by which they meant not that we are desperately wicked, but rather that we are driven by self-interest, even at the expense of others. When they gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, the architects of our Constitution took this view of human nature for granted, and they applied it equally both to the government and to the governed. They knew that officeholders would be inclined to abuse their power. They knew that their constituents would be predisposed to seek personal advantage above the common good. And so they took precautions. They designed a Constitution with a separation of powers and checks and balances as an extended commentary on human selfishness and the temptations of power. Andrew Jackson was America’s first populist president, and he changed the political tone. “He told voters that they were “uncorrupted and incorruptible,” “enlightened” and “patriotic,” marked by “good sense and practical judgment,” and renowned for their “high tone of moral character.” When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States during Jackson’s first term, the author of Democracy in America observed that Americans had “a very high opinion of themselves.” They lived in “perpetual self-adoration,” had an unshakable confidence in their “good sense and wisdom,” and only voted for candidates who praised their many natural virtues. For all the weighty differences that distinguish the politics of the 1830s from our own, when it comes to our understanding of human nature, contemporary American democracy is Jacksonian democracy. What politicians like Andrew Jackson preached two centuries ago about human nature, modern-day Americans wholeheartedly believe. Because our democratic gospel preaches that we are naturally good, we deny that the line separating good and evil passes through our hearts but instead runs outside of us, and our comforting democratic assumption is that it neatly separates “We the People” from all who would threaten our liberty or imperil our prosperity. In times of war (hot or cold), we draw the line between the United States and foreign foes. At other times, we distinguish between “We the People” and a host of domestic “enemies.” Americans on the left have often pointed to Wall Street financiers, white nationalists and Christian fundamentalists on the right have regularly targeted socialists, Hollywood liberals and the mainstream media, among others. Traditionally, we have conceived of these sinister groups as small in number and confined to the poles of the political continuum. We’ve assured ourselves that the rest of the country, the “real America” worthy of the title “We the People,” comprised a vast middle ground in which loyal citizens disagreed over details while remaining unified in their most fundamental commitments. But no longer. A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of Democrats and Republicans viewed the other party as “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” On the eve of the 2020 election, a survey by the same organization revealed that four-fifths of voters believed that party differences went beyond policies to “core American values and goals.” Almost nine-tenths agreed that their party’s defeat would bring “lasting harm” to the nation. What has not changed is our characteristic conviction that those who agree with us are righteous; and our overoptimistic appraisal of our own righteousness contributes substantially to the white-hot partisanship that now paralyzes Congress and poisons national elections. When the line that separates good and evil is the boundary between the major parties, the bipartisan cooperation needed to break the gridlock in Washington becomes a form of moral compromise, even of moral cowardice. To the degree that we frame our elections in such stark dichotomies, we imply that the other side is not merely misguided; it’s malevolent. We flirt with the position that the other party isn’t merely to be defeated but rather dismantled, that its views are not merely unintelligent but fundamentally illegitimate. Such a position is incompatible with an open, pluralistic society. No one-party state has ever been truly free.” Even so, “American democracy’s cardinal political dictum is that “We the People” are basically good, and our collective decisions bear moral authority. We must either jettison our democratic faith or find evidence of illegalities that prevented the voice of the “true” majority from being heard. All things equal, a people confident in the righteousness of “We the People” will be disinclined to accept the legitimacy of electoral defeat at the hand of those they view as “enemies.” The irony is that, in acting to save democracy, they may undermine popular faith in the democratic process.” According to the World Values Survey, roughly three of four Americans born prior to World War II find it “essential” to live under a democratic form of government, but that proportion falls for every subsequent generational cohort. Among “millennials” born after 1980, fewer than 3 in 10 feel that strongly. Thanks to their healthy awareness of human selfishness, our Founding Fathers insisted that power is always a threat to liberty, regardless of who wields it, regardless of how we justify it, regardless of who benefits in the short run. Their writings reverberate with warnings about “the love of power,” the “thirst for power,” the “natural lust for power so inherent in man.” Too much power may be dangerous in the hands of the people’s enemies, but we’re confident that we — as well as our designated champion — can be trusted. And because we are naturally selfish and don’t realize it, we’re also naturally short-sighted. We prefer immediate gratification to self-denial, and that makes us susceptible to foolish bargains. When we expect to benefit in the short run, by a temporary increase in security or prosperity or comfort, we can be persuaded to jeopardize our liberty in the long run. This is why Alexis de Tocqueville could write in Democracy in America about “the burden of liberty.” The task of sustaining liberty is hard, and it never ends, not only because we live in a fallen world, but because each of us is fallen as well. The founders understood this, but it’s a truth that we’ve largely forgotten or rejected, and that makes our task even harder. See https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2021/10/24/americans-embrace-democracy-for-the-wrong-reason-and-it-could-be-our-undoing/.
George Will has deplored the depraved but “progressive” politics of San Francisco, citing observations of depravity by Michael Shellenberger, who “has a history of progressive preoccupations.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/11/12/progressives-ruined-san-francisco-least-advocacy-is-thriving/?utm_campaign=wp_post_most&utm_.
While President Biden’s personal morality is a vast improvement over that of Trump, the “workaround” morality of his policies have been said to “damage the machinery of democracy.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/11/08/biden-administrations-workarounds-damage-machinery-democracy/.
A recent Washington Post /ABC poll indicates that Americans remain deeply divided on issues and party preferences: “The Post-ABC poll finds that 63 percent of Americans support Washington spending $1 trillion “on roads, bridges and other infrastructure,” while 58 percent support spending roughly $2 trillion to “address climate change and to create or expand preschool, health care and other social programs.” But even with that overall support for the president’s spending initiatives, nearly 6 in 10 Americans also say they are either very or at least somewhat concerned that Biden will do too much to increase the size and role of government in U.S. society. Clear partisan divisions exist on concerns about the government’s size and scope, with nearly 9 in 10 Republicans saying they are concerned about this, while 7 in 10 Democrats say they are not. But 3 in 10 Democrats register some level of concern, and more than 6 in 10 independents say they are worried. Neither party is seen by most as being in touch with the concerns of most people: A third of adults say that Democrats are in touch with people’s concerns, while 62 percent say they are not. Similarly, 37 percent say Republicans are in touch, and 58 percent say they are out of touch. Disgruntlement with the opposition party is strong, but partisans also are not uniformly happy with their own side. One-quarter of Democrats say their party is out of touch, and the same portion of Republicans say the GOP is out of touch. Clear majorities of independents see both parties as being out of touch. The Post-ABC poll finds that 27 percent of adults identify as Democrats, while 26 percent identify as Republicans, narrower than the six-point advantage that Democrats have averaged in Post-ABC polls since last fall. The long-term stability of party identification suggests Republicans’ current parity may be temporary, although patterns will become clearer in the coming months.” If the poll is accurate, it indicates that 53% of Americans are about evenly divided in party preferences leaving 47% as independent voters. That would indicate that partisan polarization is not as pervasive as once thought. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/11/14/post-abc-poll-biden/?utm_.
The “Rittenhouse acquittal magnified divisions [and human depravity] in a polarized America. “ See https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/reaction-rittenhouse-verdict/2021/11/19/bd9c9ede-47d4-11ec-973c-be864f938c72_story.html?utm_.