I confessed a few weeks ago that during a contentious election season I do some necessary therapy reading. I turn first to the election of 1952. I have a book of campaign speeches by Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate that year, and from the Republicans I have Eisenhower’s Mandate for Change in which he writes about the election that took him to the White house. The thoughtfulness, civility, and the perfect agreement on values one finds in these two books are comforting. It is good to remember that there was a time when our political discourse was productive – even elevating. If I need a bit more of a boost I read the letters exchanged between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson concerning the elections of 1800 and 1804 which were contentious in the extreme. Partisans (mostly James Callender) accused John Adams of being insane, hen-pecked, and a hermaphrodite. Later some (mostly James Callender) accused Jefferson of fathering children by his slave, Sally Hemmings. We have always had elections which were, in President Obama’s words, “silly season.”
I turn to Will Rogers as well. His book How We Elect Our Presidents contains his punditry on the elections of 1924, 1928, and 1932. Much of the humor is dated, but his political analysis is as relevant today as it was a century ago. I am especially fond of a quote from a piece he wrote shortly before the Coolidge inaugural in 1925. Rogers writes:
“No Element, no Party, not even Congress or the Senate can hurt this country now….Even when our next war comes we will, through our short-sightedness, not be prepared. But that won’t be anything fatal. The real energy and mind of the Normal Majority will step in and handle it and fight it through to a successful conclusion…(the Country) is founded on right and even if everybody in Public Life tried to ruin it they couldn’t. This Country is not where it is today because of any one man. It is here on account of the big Normal Majority.” (p.46)
There is much wisdom in that, and thus much comfort. His prescience about the coming war is astonishing. But there are also some glaring omissions. One is that the country is not founded on majority rule – normal or otherwise. Rousseau argued in The Social Contract (1762), that true power in a just government must lie in the “general will” of the people – their shared values. These values must be codified and respected. Only when we have something beyond ourselves as final authority, like a constitution, will “the people” be treated justly. Our founders believed this too, and thus adopted a representative form of government, with separation of powers, and a binding constitution. The big Normal Majority is not intended to be the ultimate authority in our country.
A second problem is that faith in the big Normal Majority is only as reliable as the humans who comprise it. If the big Normal Majority was so trustworthy, we wouldn’t have had to fight a Civil War, nor needed the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Also, it often happens that we can’t even identify a big Normal Majority when we need it most – as when we need to deal with issues like abortion, immigration, or who should be President.
“It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps,” God reminds us in Jeremiah 10.23. While we are thankful to live in a representative democracy, and thankful to ever soldier, sailor, marine, airman, and first responder who make our democracy possible, we understand that no majority decides what is right. God does. And so our great need is to listen to Him. Any majority, even a “normal,” well-intentioned one - which shouts in an echo chamber babbles to itself alone, and establishes nothing.
And so the best course of action for us to take is to be still, and listen to God as He speaks to us in His word. This is true therapy reading.
Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold, and because I consider your precepts right, I reject every wrong path. Psalm 119.127-128