Democracy…as We Know It

For pundits and political junkies it has been an interesting few weeks. As Republicans deal with a growing reality that they may have no nominee before the convention, and Democrats deal with the reality that a candidate not earlier considered a serious contender continues to win primaries with no real hope of winning the nomination, many are wondering what has happened to our democracy. How can it be that someone who gets more votes than another (though not a majority) may not win a nomination? How is it that someone who wins state after state has no path to the nomination? Why don’t the people’s votes matter? Well, though the party rules that are generating such questions may be, the answers are not complicated. The most obvious answer is that “the people” have lost touch with the nature of representative democracy. Quite simply we no longer understand what we are voting for.

This is a disquieting state of affairs for republican government and the innate character of American democracy. For some reason—the causes are too numerous and too complex to explore here—we have forgotten that our vote for the executive in all its local and national forms has never been a vote to pick the individual we wish to be president.  Americans have voted, in the near 228 years since the ratification of the Constitution, for the Electoral College to select the President of the United States. We do elect, quite directly, those who will represent us in Congress but who will, without consulting us at every turn, vote their conscience and ours as they understand it. This concept was superbly highlighted during the first Democratic debate when Senator Sanders explained why we had voted against a gun safety measure in the interest of the people of Vermont. This is what makes political life hard; it is also what makes our choices so important.

The primary process is not found in the Constitution, but recognition of a need for the organizing strength of political parties is found throughout other founding documents. How the parties decide to choose their candidates is up to them. The rules of the various parties in the various forms of primary contests and of electing delegates to the conventions are published and so ought to be known by anyone seeking high office through such a system. The voters ought to understand they are expressing a preference to later-named delegates of how they should vote in a first ballot at a nominating convention. That they do not understand this does not entitle them to declare the method “undemocratic” any more than it entitles candidates who do not make themselves aware of the intricacies of the process to cry foul about a “rigged” system. The case for any candidate to attain the nomination simply because he has more delegates or votes than another even though he does not attain a majority of the delegates or voters must fall on rationally deaf ears. How can it be called remotely democratic to disenfranchise the majority of primary voters who did not vote for the candidate making such a claim? Our founding ideals are not those of direct democracy, and no party has any obligation to forfeit its rationale for being to voters who may not even be counted among its members. In fact, it has a duty not to.

James Madison foretold this “factious spirit (that) has tainted our public administration” in writing to the people of New York in November of 1787. In Federalist No. 10 he defined a faction as “…citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united…by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed (sic) to the rights of other citizens…” and declared “the most common and durable source of faction has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” There is something here for Republicans and Democrats alike. In arguing for a republic built on representative government, he cautioned against relying on the “passion” of the people at large. We would do well to revisit such wisdom in the coming months. Perhaps we will hear Madison invoked from a convention stage in Cleveland or from Philadelphia, where delegates in another age bequeathed to us the finest form of government yet practiced. One can hope.

Time, a Canyon, and the Power of Story

Time is a relentless and demanding mistress. As far as we know she flows always in a single direction. According to the laws of physics as we currently understand them, we cannot alter her path or reverse her course. We can, at very great speeds, slow her down, but because of Relativity such travelers experience time exactly as we do. Time, no matter where we are or what we do, seems to us to tick off at the same steady rate toward what is yet to come and away from what has already been.

There is probably nowhere better on earth to peer back toward the time that was than Grand Canyon. Its sedimentary rock layers are successively older the farther one wanders below the rim. Its youngest formation is over 260 million years old, older than even the first dinosaur. At approximately 4,000 feet down, the brilliant colors that seared my psyche decades ago give way to black and tortured metamorphic rock known as the Vishnu Schist. It is almost two billion years old, nearly half the age of the earth.

The canyon’s architecture has existed for all of human history. Our genus made its debut 2.5 million years or so ago. Only the dust at the very rim is so young. Every human who has ever lived and died has done so long after the ancient seabed that is now the Kaibab Limestone dried and turned to stone. That kind of perspective becomes increasingly important as long-time friends begin to deal with time’s ultimate consequences. When those we’ve grown with are struck by debilitating disease or lose spouses before we think they should, it only highlights how fleeting is our experience. There is a lesson here too.

Grand Canyon’s aesthetics are equaled by what it can teach us about our dynamic world. In its layers we see how a now arid landscape successively housed a great sea, high dunes, and massive volcanoes. It teaches us how earth’s crust cracks and crashes against itself creating tall mountains and fracturing in faults that still slide across each other. It can do so because of an aspect of time known to the only species capable of considering it philosophically—that is it allows for the power of storytelling.

Without the directional nature of time and the relativistic quality that paradoxically gives it its constancy, we would not know history, art, genealogy, or geology. No novelist or ancient shaman could weave a tale to some great climax or capture the essence of his culture. With all our human frailty, we would be paralyzed with foreboding if we could remember the future. Could my friend have had decades of happiness knowing he would one day make the decisions that would end his wife’s life? What form would those decades take? How could we “be” if we were not constrained, consecutively, to the present?

Time allows the story of the earth to be told in the layers of rock at a grand canyon. It also allows the power of story—of a life and of the events that unfolded at its conclusion—to begin to temper the pain of loss. Simply being present, around a familiar kitchen island, in such a telling is as powerful as any revelation of nature I have come to know. Relentless and demanding is time, but she is sometimes forgiving. We carry stories no less important than one carved by a mighty river in sandstone and schist. Time allows us to repeat those stories, laid down like the sediments over the course of a life, and so to hold those we’ve lost forever in our present. How fortunate we are.