Saturday, December 11, 2021

Musings on the Moral Dysfunction of Democracy

           By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Democracy is a political process that’s often confused with moral standards of political legitimacy.  Both are important in politics, but they are different.  Democracy requires free and fair elections for its political leaders, while political parties promote conflicting ideals.  America’s libertarian democracy has proven that it can support both liberal and conservative politics.

There is little danger of democracy ending in America; that’s as unlikely as hell freezing over with global warming.  But the legitimacy of American democracy depends on a social contract that provides for civility and respect for others.  The  election of Donald Trump did not signal the end of democracy in America, but it revealed the erosion of America’s social contract.  

A democracy reflects the values of its people.  America’s self-centered materialistic and hedonistic culture reflects the dominance of greed, a lust for power and disrespect for those who differ with our politics.  American politics have long been morally deficient, but in 2016 voters sacrificed America’s social contract when they elected an egregiously immoral President.

Religion is the primary source of the moral standards of political legitimacy, and most Americans claim to be Christians.  The altruistic teachings of Jesus provide the moral foundation of Christian morality, and they are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.  

Jesus was a Jew whose teachings were universal in the Hebrew prophetic tradition.  Jesus never promoted any religion, not even his own; and he never suggested that he was divine.  The greatest commandment is taken from the Hebrew Bible.  It was taught by Jesus and has been accepted by Islamic scholars as a common word of faith for the Abrahamic religions.

It was Paul’s atonement doctrine that asserted the divinity of Jesus with his crucifixion as God’s blood sacrifice for all believers.  It was the foundation of church doctrine that subordinated the moral teachings of Jesus to exclusivist Christian beliefs in Jesus Christ as the alter ego of God; and today Paul’s letters resonate from the pulpit more often than the teachings of Jesus.

In the 4th century Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, and the church never looked back.  Christianity became the world’s most popular and powerful religion and sanctified the divine right of kings to rule.  It wasn’t until  the 18th century that the Enlightenment allowed democracy to make people the masters of their political destiny.

Thomas Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment who described the moral teachings of Jesus as “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.”  In the 20th century an unholy alliance of the church and big business culminated with the moral dysfunction of American democracy in 2016 when white Christians crucified Jesus on the altar of Republican politics. Since that election democracy has lost its luster in the U.S. and around the world.



Leonard Pitts has described legal and moral dysfunctions in democracy as  shattering the social contract..  A new wave of flash-mob robberies have hit in California, Illinois, Minnesota and Maryland.   Retailers ranging from Nordstrom to 7-Eleven have been hit. For some, the search for will be an invitation to uncork pet theories about poverty, permissiveness or punishment. But none of those things is unique to this era. This model for robbery has always been available to enterprising thieves. What is it about this particular era that has inspired this particular trend?  The social covenant has shattered. Meaning the thousand unspoken understandings by which a society functions, the agreements to which we all sign on without a word being spoken. Some are encoded in law, others just encoded in us. Either way, they are rules — “norms” might be a better word — people usually obey even when they could get away without doing so.

You don’t stand facing the back wall of an elevator. In heavy traffic, you take turns merging. You stop at the red light even when the street is deserted. And, oh yes, you don’t join a mob to ransack a store.

While there is almost certainly some hardcore criminality leading this crime wave, one suspects that many of its foot soldiers are people with little in the way of serious police records. How much do you want to bet most of them will turn out to be ordinary, workaday folk who got the word there was free stuff to be had, and all you had to do was take it, like some giddy holiday from social norms? Where would they have gotten the idea such a holiday was even possible? Surely the opportunistic looting that marred last year’s largely peaceful protests for racial justice helped influence them. But that’s hardly the only — or, arguably, even the most corrosive — transgression of social norms we’ve seen in recent years. To the contrary, we’ve seen police and other authority figures exempt themselves from mask and vaccine mandates — and dare mayors and governors to do anything about it. We’ve seen ex-public officials thumb their noses at congressional subpoenas. We’ve seen a seditionist mob breach the U.S. Capitol and be lionized for it by certain members of Congress and the media. And we’ve seen a president who delighted in shattering norms, refusing to provide his tax returns, flouting the emoluments clause of the Constitution, openly politicking on government property . . . the list goes on.  Worst of all, we’ve seen little in the way of accountability for any of it. …Everywhere you look, someone else is seceding from the covenants that make it possible for civil society to function.” 


Bob Dole’s legacy of character and integrity and his appeal for unity in politics belongs to a bygone era.  See

On the global stage, Biden is right that global democracy is at risk, but the threat isn’t China.  “Biden’s Summit for Democracy is a deeply flawed organizing principle for America’s approach to the world by drawing lines between democracies and autocracies.  China and Russia are not the main causes of the weakening of democracies around the world. Most of the backsliding, according to a recent study, has been caused by erosion within the world’s democracies, including the United States and many of its allies. Indeed, the upcoming summit includes a number of countries — India, Brazil, the Philippines and Poland among them — marked by growing autocratic movements and infringements on freedom of expression and a free press. And pushing these and other countries to reform their political, electoral or judicial institutions from the outside is hard if not impossible.  Though Biden insists that he doesn’t want a new cold war, some of his overcharged rhetoric belies this view. In March, Biden announced his intention “to invite an alliance of democracies to come here to discuss the future,” including holding “China accountable to follow the rules” on issues such as persecution of its Uyghur citizens and its territorial disputes with Taiwan. Biden has said of China’s President Xi Jinping that he “doesn’t have a democratic bone . . . in his body” and that Xi believes “democracy cannot keep up with” China.” See  

Biden’s Summit for Democracy includes countries that hardly seem to qualify.  That “has prompted tensions and anger from various countries, while highlighting that the globe is hardly binary. Some of the invitees have undisputed democratic credentials, and some of those omitted are clearly authoritarian, but many countries fall into a murky area. By the State Department’s own account, the governments of both Pakistan and the Philippines, another invitee, are responsible for “unlawful or arbitrary killings.” Not making the cut are Hungary, a member of the European Union, and Turkey, a NATO ally, both of which have seen their democratic safeguards crumble in recent years.”   At a time when  America  should be promoting libertarian democracy, it seems to favor those nations that favor the Biden political agenda and ignores others. See ttps://,

China has claimed to be a democracy, but was not invited to Biden’s Summit for Democracy.   “China [has claimed it] is as much a democracy as the United States. After China was excluded — along with Russia and other nations deemed autocratic from Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” this week, Chinese state media, think tanks and officials have lined up to take potshots at the event.  Aside from mudslinging and off-color humor, the campaign also betrays Beijing’s desire to redefine international norms and present its controlling, one-party political system as not just legitimate but ideologically superior to liberal multiparty democracies.

Global rankings of national democratic institutions regularly label China as an autocracy. The V-Dem Institute, based at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, ranked China 174th out of 179 countries on its liberal democracy index in 2020. (In the same year, the United States fell to 31st place from 20th in 2016 and 3rd in 2012.) A white paper released over the weekend by the State Council Information Office, titled “China: Democracy That Works,suggested that Xi’s recently coined “whole-process people’s democracy” was a legitimate inheritor of the ancient Greek ideal of citizen rule.

The weakening of democratic norms in the United States has emboldened Beijing’s propagandists to be more determined to present the party as building a coherent and superior system of governance. After China and Russia’s ambassadors to the United States jointly opposed the democracy summit as the product of a “Cold War mentality,” Pakistan, one of China’s closest diplomatic and military partners, announced on Wednesday that it would not take up an invitation to join.” Global rankings of national democratic institutions regularly label China as an autocracy. The V-Dem Institute, based at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, ranked China 174th out of 179 countries on its liberal democracy index in 2020. (In the same year, the United States fell to 31st place from 20th in 2016 and 3rd in 2012.) See

In commenting on the moral dysfunction of democracy in the American Congress, Catherine Rampell has said that “No one in their right mind would design a government that works like ours.” See

Statista has provided a chart showing the evolution of America as a Fragile Democracy.  See

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