Smashing Success: Democracy and Discontent

“Democracy,” quipped Winston Churchill, “is the worst form of government except for all the others.” This week’s Torah portion (Ki Tisa) couldn’t agree more.

While awaiting Moses’ return from atop Sinai, the people felt afraid and abandoned. Seized with fear, they rebelled against the Ten Commandments they just received: they wanted Aaron to make them a “god” to venerate in Moses’ absence. What they got was a false calf-god of gold.

Sound familiar? Read today’s headlines and see whether this spiritual story maps to modern-day democracy and its discontents.

Democracy is a treasured Jewish value to protect against autocracy. Our rabbinic ancestors held that they must “go out and observe the common practice [among the people]” (Eruvin 14b) and then “rule with the majority” (Bava Metzia 59b).

Jewish democratic values are so important that our ancestors insisted that even God consulted the people before appointing leaders. When God tapped Betzalel to build the Mishkan (Ex. 35:30, also in this week’s Torah portion), the rabbis held that God asked Moses first – and when Moses demurred, God told Moses to consult the people for permission (Berakhot 55a). Then again, the reign of Solomon, early Israel’s most opulent (and abusive) king, was ratified by “all the people” (1 Kings 1:39) – and the people suffered greatly for it.

That’s the rub: the majority can be wrong. As this week’s Torah portion puts it, the people can run “wild and out of control” (Ex. 32:24) – in Hebrew paru’a, the same root word as Pharaoh! The public can be oppressive like a tyrant. Populism stoked by fear, xenophobia or greed can enslave and even kill. The golden calf depicts a failure of democracy so spectacular that Moses smashed the twin tablets against the golden calf, crushed the tablets to dust and made the people drink the dust of their bitter rebellion.

Democracy would have many smashing failures. Mob discontent wandering the desert brought repeated calamity. The hordes of Korach‘s rebellion against Moses brought ruin. Solomon brought ruin. Democracy’s modern abuses are too long to list: even Hitler and Mussolini purported to be democratic at first.

That’s why Jewish values uphold rights that, by definition, can’t depend on majority rule. Perhaps ironically, political theorist Ronald Dworkin understood rights to be “trump cards” against the discontent of majority abuse. Democracy can’t validate racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and xenophobia just because a majority supports it: majority rule must have its limits.

That’s why the ancient Jewish system of government divided power between king, court and prophet. That’s why today’s modern system of government divides power between executive, legislative and judicial – and holds spiritual power (“church”) separate from secular power (“state”) to functionally protect both. That’s why stoking populism and then using populism to justify abuse can never lead a free people. That’s just Pharaoh by other means, a false “god” of gold.

Democracy can’t be perfect until people are perfect. Until then, democracies that separate power and protect minorities come closest to the smashing success that Churchill and our ancestors had in mind. Making it so isn’t up to any structure, system or leader: in the end, it’s up to us.

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

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