Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Two Cheers for Democracy

Paul Brink


May 22, 2009

Something remarkable happened in India this week. On Tuesday, India’s president invited Manmohan Singh, leader of India’s historic Congress Party, to form a new government following an election that began April 16. Despite being one of the most hotly contested elections in the history of the Indian republic, it was carried out without major violence and with only the usual amount of controversy. Voter turnout approached 60 percent, comparable to recent elections in the United States (61 percent) and Canada (59.1 percent).

Without commenting on the Congress victory in particular, to call this outcome remarkable is a considerable understatement. To get a sense of the scale of Indian democracy, consider that since the general election in 2004, voting rolls have increased by 43 million to a total of 714 million. Or consider that India contains more than 2000 ethnic groups, 1500 languages and dialects, and populations representing every world religion. Overlaid on this diversity is India’s caste system, officially outlawed but still a significant factor in Indian politics. Even noting that the 2009 election was unusually stable—the first since Nehru when a government was reelected after completing a full term—the relative success of Indian democracy is a conundrum. Given the country’s tremendous social divides, its democracy should be in more trouble than it is. Yet it persists.

Meanwhile, one month and several thousand miles away, another Congress party cruised to victory in South Africa, falling short of the two-thirds majority it sought, but obtaining 66 percent of the vote nonetheless. However, the popular but controversial Jacob Zuma, inheritor of the legacy of Nelson Mandela, now leads an African National Congress that is facing stiffer competition, and many, like the Rev. Desmond Tutu, think that this is good for democracy.

Again, without commenting on the ANC’s ability to deal with the great challenges facing South Africa, Tutu’s view is exactly correct. This election represented the first genuine challenge to the ANC from a black-led party, and turnout approached 80 percent, less than the historic 1994 elections but high by western standards. As it turned out, the opposition fizzled, but both main opposition parties gained parliamentary seats. Optimists hope that this was a transition election, because it won’t be long before voters born after the end of the apartheid start lining up to vote.

As we witness these momentous developments, it’s worth considering why Christians see democracy as so important. In taking a close look at the dominant secular justifications for democracy—such as promoting autonomous freedom—the ideological pretension of democracy becomes ominous. In his 2008 Kuyper Lecture, Jonathan Chaplin helped point us to an answer. Given the responsibility of the state to promote public justice, the chief end of democracy cannot be that it gives citizens the right to determine the state’s purpose. Rather, citizens and governments together must heed the norms of justice to pursue the common good. Democracy in that regard is one of the important means by which citizens share in the duty to discern and pursue those norms.

The value of a Christian understanding becomes particularly apparent in the light of the Indian and South African cases. Political community in such deeply divided societies cannot be sustained over the long term by democratic systems that place individual autonomy and the securing of personal interests as the highest political value. On the contrary, it’s when elections are characterized by genuine political dialogue that defies sectionalism and when citizens move beyond calculations of individual and group interests to considerations of public justice that the potential for a genuine politics of the common good becomes possible. For India and South Africa—and for America—this would be a truly remarkable development.
— Paul Brink, Associate Professor of Political Studies
     Gordon College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”