The thing that is really required for the proper working of democracy is not merely the democratic system, or even the democratic philosophy, but the democratic emotion. The democratic emotion, like most elementary and indispensable things, is a thing difficult to describe at any time.
But it is peculiarly difficult to describe it in our enlightened age, for the simple reason that it is peculiarly difficult to find it. It is a certain instinctive attitude which feels the things in which all men agree to be unspeakably important, and all the things in which they differ (such as mere brains) to be almost unspeakably unimportant.
The nearest approach to it in our ordinary life would be the promptitude with which we should consider mere humanity in any circumstance of shock or death. We should say, after a somewhat disturbing discovery, “There is a dead man under the sofa.” We should not be likely to “There is a dead man of considerable personal refinement under the sofa…”
But this emotion, which all of us have in connection with such things as birth and death, is to some people native and constant at all ordinary times and in all ordinary places. It was native to St. Francis of Assisi. It was native to Walt Whitman. In this strange and splendid degree it cannot be expected, perhaps, to pervade a whole commonwealth or a whole civilization… No community, perhaps, ever had it so little as ours…
It is a sufficient proof that we are not an essentially democratic state that we are always wondering what we shall do with the poor. If we were democrats, we should be wondering what the poor will do with us. With us the governing class is always saying to itself, ‘What laws shall we make?” In a purely democratic state, it would be always saying, “What laws can we obey?”..
But the modern laws are almost always laws made to affect the governed class, but not the governing. We have public-house licensing laws, but not sumptuary laws. That is to say, we have laws against the festivity and hospitality of the poor, but no laws against the festivity and hospitality of the rich…
GK Chesterton, Heretics
Reflection – I have to admit that, as I read this chapter of the book (and, for those of you who are wondering, we are almost through it), I wondered if it was as highly relevant to our modern scene as some of the other ones.
But these last two paragraphs cleared that up for me. Yes, indeed. In fact, the situation has gotten considerably more dire in the ensuing century. The very first thing that is done when some laborious, tiresome, burdensome, unlivable set of regulations is passed these days is that the governing class include an amendment, or slip in some paragraph somewhere else, declaring themselves and their families and cronies and donors exempt from it.
This has become so much the norm of political life in North America that nobody even blinks an eye at it. In Canada, for example, we are all in a single-payer health care system. I have no great quarrel with it, and frankly suspect it’s the best possible option of a lousy bunch of options. But it does mean that, barring a life and death emergency, when you have a health problem in Canada you go on a waiting list, and you stay on that waiting list until it’s your turn.
But a few years ago in Canada, a certain politician who was (as they all are) a passionate advocate of that system needed surgery… and promptly flew down to the States to get it immediately. Where the rest of us have to wait six months to two years for non-acute care, the governing class do not.
And it is the same in the States, where the first thing Congress did after passing the Affordable Care Act was excuse themselves from most of its provisions. And there have subsequently been many exemptions granted and waivers given to the various groups that financially support the political party that has passed this particular piece of legislation. And it goes on like this, and as I say, is the absolute norm of political conduct (all parties do it, to the extent they have power to do so) which nobody even gets worked up about, apparently.
Well, it may be many things—a corruption that cries to heaven for redress, or simply venal and unprincipled human beings acting as we would expect them to act—but the one thing it is not is democratic. And it does seem to me that, indeed, the question more and more that needs to be asked by the powerful, the elite, the governing, is the question posed by GKC in this passage. At the risk of sounding like a rabble rouser or a revolutionary (which is indeed a side of my personality that I usually don’t air too much), I will simply repeat it and sign off for the day.
When the day comes when people have had enough of this nonsense, what exactly do you think the poor will do to you?