Democracy is as much about limiting the power of the government as it is about elections, and we have Magna Carta to thank for that.
June is democracy month in America, even without major elections. Every year, the Supreme Court ends its term by pronouncing broadly, often dramatically, further defining just how much or how little power the government has over us. This month, the Supreme Court has already passed judgment on Muslim headgear and Facebook manners, and will soon decide on health care reform and gay marriage.
This perennial June flowering of democracy in 21st Century America stems from a fading document signed 800 years ago this month in Runnymede, England. Magna Carta offered a basic blueprint to our democracy, because it was much more about protecting citizens from leaders rather than about what we often consider the foundational act of democracy—choosing leaders.
Defining democracy exclusively through elections is like defining marriage exclusively through childrearing; such narrowness slights many other essential activities. Yet many Americans, from the Left to the Right, tend to reduce democracy to the right to vote. Jimmy Carter’s post-presidential headquarters, the Carter Center, with no irony, boasts on its website of elections monitored in such bastions of freedom as China, Venezuela, the West Bank and Gaza, the Sudan, the, er, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Egypt, and Qaddafi’s Libya. Similarly, when George W. Bush was president, he tended to confuse the occasional peacefully administered Middle East election with an outbreak of true democracy.
Democracy involves much more than participation in periodic elections. Democracy is America’s “Don’t tread on me” independence, wherein each of us forges a particular, individualistic, path without government dictats. Democracy is our First-Amendment-protected outspokenness, wherein we are free to denounce our government loudly, aggressively, publicly. And democracy is our “Live free or die” plushness, wherein we live in a remarkably safe, functional, comfortable, and rich country, the international headquarters for the coalition of mass, middle-class civilizations, where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are happy, healthy obsessions.
Even when we fight—actually, especially when we fight—between elections, we demonstrate the vitality of our democratic rights and protections from totalitarianism. The recent breakthroughs in civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, stem more from a commitment to limiting government and maximizing freedom than from balloting or even politicking.
Perhaps the confusion starts in elementary school, when most American kids elect a class president who is subservient to the teacher. It persists on the schoolyard, when kids often call something unfair or annoying “undemocratic” or “unconstitutional.” Democracy is good but its opposite or absence are not synonyms for bad.
These are benign examples of democracy as fig leaf or cure-all. When American foreign policy legitimizes elections in totalitarian countries or declares victories for democracy where none exists, our naiveté becomes harmful. The oppressed people of the world rely on Americans—who Ronald Reagan called “freedom man”—to defend them. One of Barack Obama’s most shameful moments was his uncomfortable initial silence in 2009 during Iran’s Green Movement, when young Iranians risking their lives hoped the president might risk leaving his comfort zone to endorse their fight for democracy.
Celebrating the eight-hundredth anniversary of Magna Carta, signed June 15 (possibly June 19), 1215, reinforces this most necessary democratic lesson: just as a hero is lots more than a sandwich, a democracy is lots more than elections. Essential requirements for a functioning democracy include free citizens and a limited government; elections are a vehicle reflecting the consent of those who are governed freely, but without basic freedoms they cannot choose freely, and without a stable civil society based on rule of law, they cannot function constructively.
The real headline was that finally, citizens were getting some basic rights and protections.
The headline in the Medieval Times eight hundred years ago, would have been “KING JOHN ACCEPTS SOME LIMITS.” Yet the real headline was that finally, citizens were getting some basic rights and protections. The king, flailing, failing, bullied by land barons, now granted his subjects freedom, due process of law, and private property. From these new affirmative gifts—and the game-changing kingly constraints—flow the wild cultural, political, ideological carnival that is America today.
Just as we root our rights in Magna Carta, the “Great Charter” has its own pedigree. The Bible invented the notion that every individual is equal, that liberty should be proclaimed throughout the land, and that even sovereigns have limits. Long before Samuel Adams the revolutionary—or the brewer—the prophet Samuel, my favorite Biblical democratic pioneer, warned against aggressive kings dominating the children of Israel, and punished King David for arranging to kill a warrior married to the woman David desired.
Millennia later, Magna Carta took these ideas and applied them legally, politically. It would be another five centuries before British Whigs and American revolutionaries would go even further, establishing the ideological and political structures we take for granted as “normal” today.
So let’s raise a glass of grog, and eat some dried out British delicacy, to honor Magna Carta, a wellspring of our equality, our protections, our collective sovereignty. And as we map the links from Biblical Israel to Medieval Runnymede to Revolutionary Philadelphia to today’s Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill, let’s celebrate democracy as Political Miracle Gro. Rights are dynamic, epitomized by the way those amazing words “All men are created equal” have grown over the years to encompass blacks as well as whites, females as well as males.
Though far from perfect, this form of government is at least empowering, expansive, and self-correcting. And that is why we are all better off living with imperfect democracies, wherever they may be, blessed as they are with tremendous capacity to reform, to heal, as opposed to perfectly awful dictatorships.