The Scope of Our Democracy: A Response to Mark Noll

[1] Mark Noll sketches his positions on six issues that he considers to be “paramount,” and declares that he will not be voting in the presidential election because neither of the major parties is “willing to consider the political coherence of this combination of convictions or willing to reason about why their positions should be accepted-much less willing to break away from narrow partisanship to act for the public good.”

[2] The obvious response is that democracy nearly always involves compromises. The give and take that goes into creating political platforms virtually assures that not even the most partisan supporters of a particular candidate are completely happy with all of that candidate’s positions. Voters with little initial commitment to either major candidate will likely be even less satisfied. This is especially true in a large and diverse country such as ours, in which candidates who hope to win must appeal to a broad range of interests. Conscientious voters must choose the candidate whose positions most closely approximate their own. The Christian tradition, in the main, forbids withdrawal from the affairs of the world. No matter how marginal the good one may achieve by choosing one candidate over another, it is still worthwhile-yes, a Christian duty-to do one’s part to make that difference. This world is not the kingdom of God and will remain a fallen world until Christ comes. But in the meantime, we ought not to omit doing anything to make it somewhat better, at least. And in a democracy, we all have the opportunity and duty to do so.

[3] But before merely dismissing Dr. Noll’s position as irresponsible idealism, we ought not to miss a deeper point. A great deal of his frustration can be traced to the fact that many of his issues are, to a greater or lesser degree, not subject to democratic decision making at all. Dr. Noll seems to envision a democratic process in which persons from various religious and secular traditions bring their best moral wisdom to the table as they wrestle together with the difficult problems facing us. Assuming that these moral traditions contain large areas of agreement, such a democratic process would prevent much of the polarization that afflicts our political life and generate government policies based on a more coherent moral vision. Unfortunately, such a democratic process simply cannot work with regard to most of the issues Dr. Noll cites because they are largely immune to being affected by any democratic decision-making process.

[4] There at least three reasons for this.

[5] First, some issues cannot be affected by democratic decision-making because they have been removed from the jurisdiction of legislatures by judicial activism. The obvious example is abortion. Dr. Noll strongly opposes abortion in principle, but acknowledges that it is necessary “to legislate with nuance and sensitivity when acting to preserve life.” Presumably, he means that legislators have to take into account such things as cases in which the mother’s life is endangered or the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. One suspects that something like his position would find widespread assent among the American people. But instead of letting legislatures struggle to find appropriate legal expressions that approximate the moral sense of the people, the Supreme Court has unilaterally decided the issue in a way that privileges one position-an extreme libertarian individualism-and silences all others. Short of a constitutional amendment, legislators are almost powerless to do anything about abortion. The result is an extreme polarization. Those who dissent from the court’s decision are excluded from having any input whatsoever on public policy and, whenever they try to use democratic processes to change laws in the direction of their moral convictions, they are accused of trying to “impose” their morality on others. With regard to abortion, then, Dr. Noll’s frustration with the present state of politics in the United States is understandable. The solution, however, is not withdrawal, but working to curb judicial activism and to bring issues such as abortion back into the democratic arena where they belong.

[6] Other issues about which Dr. Noll has deep convictions are not amenable to political solutions, democratic or otherwise, simply because there is much that governments do not control. Healthcare, for instance, is largely controlled by private interests-clinics, hospitals, insurance companies, drug companies, etc. We may declare that decent healthcare is a “basic right,” but how can the government guarantee this “right?” Surely this is not the same kind of right as, say, freedom of speech or freedom of religion. Guaranteeing a “right” to healthcare means providing a benefit to citizens. But the normal way citizens get such benefits-food, for instance-is through the market. And the market is not controlled by a democratically arrived-at consensus reflecting the electorate’s best moral wisdom. In the market, those who have money can buy what is on offer and those who don’t are left out. At present we have a mixed system. The poor, the handicapped and the elderly receive healthcare as a “right”-and this “right” is indeed subject to the vagaries of politics. On the other hand, those with private insurance have no such “right” and must buy their healthcare on the marketplace. But they are much less vulnerable to politics. And that means that a politician’s positions on healthcare make relatively little difference to the private sector. It seems unreasonable to blame politicians for not doing what is not in their power to do. Of course, politicians could extend their power by more or less abolishing the private sector in medicine. In that case, perhaps, healthcare resources could be allocated in a democratic way, guided by the moral imperative that access to healthcare is a right. But this would involve a huge increase in the scope and power of government. Perhaps Dr. Noll is disappointed that no candidate is proposing such a plan, but again, the solution is not withdrawing from the political process but working to make socialized medicine politically respectable, while meanwhile supporting those candidates whose positions most nearly approximate this ideal.

[7] The limits of government and the democratic process also come into view with regard to the issue of race. Since the civil rights movement there has been a general agreement that governments should not enshrine racism in law and in the U.S. discriminatory laws are long off the books. But Dr. Noll would like to see the U.S. go a step further and launch a “Marshall Plan” to address the “racially infested plight of impacted urban areas,” by which he seems to mean some kind of government activism to redress the historic wrongs of slavery and oppression. This raises many serious questions. Is it right to label a whole group of citizens as victims? Is it right or helpful for present generations of African Americans to receive “remediation” for the wrongs suffered by their ancestors? Will such efforts at remediation foster racial reconciliation and mutual respect or further enflame racism? But the most significant question for our purposes is the question of whether this proposal should be part of the public debate at all: Is this something government can or ought to do? Noll’s unhappiness with the present political situation in the U.S regarding this issue stems from the fact that people have for the most part answered this question in the negative and so proposals for racial remediation through government activism have been bracketed out of the public debate. Noll’s job is to convince a large enough number of people that the racial reconciliation that happens in churches, neighborhoods, the workplace and similar settings is not enough, that in addition there is large role for the government to play. This is a tall order, no doubt even harder than convincing Americans that we need socialized medicine. Most Americans probably believe that race should not be a political issue, except to make sure that laws are colorblind. So instead of coming within the ambit of the democratic process, the correcting of racial injustice will happen, if it happens at all, mostly in the realm of individual and social relationships.

[8] Finally, the kind of morally informed political consensus Dr. Noll envisions is to a large extent irrelevant to some of the issues he raises insofar as their solutions are dependent on technical expertise rather than moral wisdom. He seeks candidates for public office who will make the moral case within the democratic process for free trade and a progressive income tax. But how do we decide whether free trade is, on the whole, better for most people, than restricted trade? The answer depends more on economic analysis than on any moral vision. The same is true when evaluating the effect of a progressive income tax in comparison, say, to a flat-rate tax. If we want to know what the facts are, we don’t take a vote. We go to the most reliable experts. Of course, experts may willfully or unconsciously distort the facts and there are honest disagreements among the experts about how to interpret the facts. Nevertheless, it seems odd to take a principled stance precisely on positions in which so much depends on empirical rather than moral judgments. The less politicized the empirical debate the better, and we should be glad when politicians do not take sharp and inflexible stands on such matters.

[9] Dr. Noll’s disappointment with the American political system is largely a critique of the limits that have been drawn around our democracy. The issue of abortion has been withdrawn from the democratic process. The solution is not to withdraw as a citizen from the democratic process, but to work to limit the power of the courts arbitrarily to constrict the realm of democratic decision-making. The argument about healthcare is really an argument about the scope of the democratic process: to what extent should healthcare be a right guaranteed by the government and distributed according to democratic principles and to what extent should it be a commodity subject to market forces? The question of race, as Dr. Noll states it, asks whether and to what extent government, informed by democratic consensus, should attempt to redress historical wrongs. In both cases, the solution is not to withdraw from the democratic process, but to work within the democratic process to make the case for where, exactly, the line between public and private should be drawn. Finally, technical matters are not decided democratically at all, although such judgments should inform democratic decision-makers.

[10] The two remaining issues Noll mentions are religious freedom and foreign policy. Noll doesn’t explain why he is dissatisfied with the present candidates on the issue of religious freedom. It is clear, however, that he opposes the U.S. intervention in Iraq and perhaps other aspects of present U.S. foreign policy as well. This issue unquestionably belongs within the realm of democratic decision-making. And indeed, the question of the international rule of law and U.S. unilateralism has been a central issue in the campaign. Dr. Noll may be right to be dissatisfied with the quality of the debate and with the positions of either of the candidates, but he is not thereby absolved from choosing the candidate that most closely approximates his own views. Democratic debate is almost always a messy business, clouded by passions, self-interest, and the temptations of power. Even when democracy functions poorly, however, Christians cannot turn their backs on their duty to do their part to guide their society toward a better future. On this issue, at least, Dr. Noll owes his country-and God-a vote for president on election day.