Every year at the beginning of Government class I ask the question, “If 80% of the people voted to put the entire tax burden only on people with red hair, would this be ‘democratic?'”
I am always surprised and a bit dismayed at how many answer ‘yes.’
Of course our discussion then moves toward defining “democracy,” which, for as much we use the word, proves more difficult than we might expect.
“Democracy” is a “good” word, and “empire’ is one of those words you cannot say on TV. But empires had many things that proponents of democracy value, such as religious tolerance and ethnic mixing.
So how, exactly, should we define “democracy?”
Democracy in the modern era grew out of Enlightenment universalism. Jefferson said that, “all men are created equal,” and France produced the “Declaration of the Rights of Man.” Spengler may have been a nut, but he might have been on to something when he commented that “the rights of Englishman,” made a lot more sense to him than, “the rights of man.” The ancient Greeks, for example, considered by many as the progenitors of democracy, knew nothing of “universal rights.”
This universality gave early democratic movements their enormous power and enabled them to move speedily through Europe. But this is not the whole story, for coupled with this universality came the rise of nationalism.
How do we reconcile these different forces? The French had a hard time of it, rallying to defense of the “patrie” against Austria and Prussia and then expanding under Napoleon both to spread their universal ideals and rule others in the name of France. The recent presidential election showed this tension. It has been with us for a while.
On the one hand, democracy thrives on the idea of self-determination. Democracy grants people the right to determine our lives because we share common interests, cultures, goals, etc. Modern democratic movements have their genesis in rebelling against rulers who do not share our culture our goals, those that do not speak for us.
On the other hand . . . democracy believes in equality for individuals as well as groups, and this equality, applied in a heterogeneous culture, must in turn limit some aspects of self-determination for the state to hold together.
This has led some to speculate that increased diversity can contribute to more autocracy.
Germany’s Jeroen Zandberg (a proponent of democracy) put it this way:
Of course nationalism can also be used to exclude and eliminate others, but this is rare. These rare occasions are however often used to discredit nationalism. An elite who doesn’t have the best interest of the people at heart, but which does want all the benefits of a high social position often tries to promote patriotism instead, and at the same time downgrades nationalism. Patriotism is simply to owe allegiance to the state even if that state is not legitimized by the people. The state is in that perspective merely an organisation like any other. If that were true it would be like asking soldiers to die for the telephone company. Without identification and an emotional bond between people and state we would have no alternative then to live under a police state. If we don’t want a police state then we need some degree of nationalism.
If you have multiple cultures present in the same location who each have different rules on how to order the world then there needs to be another ethical system to mediate between them. For example, Muslims have Sharia law which describes how a good Islamic society should be organised. These laws are not accepted by non-Muslims for if they would accept them they would be Muslim as well. In a truly multicultural society the Sharia law would govern the lives of Muslims and each of the other cultures would have their own laws as well.
Now Germany, as with other European nations, has a culture based on Christianity and the Enlightenment, which values ideas like freedom, equality and self-determination. If you implement multiculturalism then the values of the Enlightenment are degraded to the level of only being appropriate to the ethnic German population. You would get a Germany where each (ethnic) community has its own rules. Of course such a system could never work in a modern society because people are not isolated in small communities.
Multiculturalism can however also be used to invalidate all of the cultures present, because if all cultures are equal, which multiculturalism implicitly states, than none may rule over the other. This means that, in the case of Germany, the mere presence of another culture is already reason enough to replace German culture with something else. This ‘new’ culture is by definition anti-democratic, because it is one of a small elite who appoints itself as mediator between the various cultural groups. In this way an elite rules over a set of distinct peoples. In that sense multiculturalism is a leap backward in time when there were large empires ruled by a small nobility and people’s positions in society were fixed by birth. Characteristics of such empires are that they are fiercely anti-democratic, oppressive and unable to compete economically in a globalised world.
As much as we might wish, we cannot work out either ideas of liberty and equality in a vacuum. Something somewhere has to give.
It appears that those who lean towards the multi-ethnic, tolerant, and globalized side of democracy must tolerate some degree of nationalism for the support structure of multi-ethnic tolerant societies to exist. The balance will be hard to find.
On what side should the Church fall? Here we must take great care to avoid identifying too much with either camp. The first half of the 20th century gave us the disasters of nationalism, and more recently, we see the problems created by multiculturalism. All the more reason for the Church to create its own culture . . .