The Common Good

Democracy is a Marketplace of (Sometimes Obnoxious) Ideas

Time was when a determined minority vowed to change the nation’s collective mind about racial integration and the Vietnam War.

Demonstration against racism and police brutality held in Philadelphia, Pa. on Feb. 15, 1986. RNS file photo by Bruce Williams

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I was in that minority. We considered our cause just. We called our tactics “civil disobedience,” “grass-roots organizing,” “protest,” “civil rights,” “saving America.”

It’s a bit disingenuous now for us to lambaste a conservative minority for wanting the same leverage and for using the same tactics. “Civil disobedience” can’t be relabeled “obstructionism” just because the other side is using it.

Like it or not, democracy isn’t about absolute claims of “justice,” or being entitled to prevail because one’s cause is “biblical,” or “true to the Founding Fathers,” or “patriotic.”

Democracy is about voices and votes. All voices should get heard, and the system is broken when some voices get stifled, not when some voices are obnoxious. All votes should count, and the only egregious error is when votes are stolen or manipulated, not when they are foolish or erroneous.

Today’s Tea Party partisans, as odious as I find their views, are just another minority trying to get their way in the competition of ideas. The only danger is when they — or any group — bully, buy, and intimidate less fervent souls into fearful silence, not when they refuse to compromise their ideas in deference to my or your greater wisdom.

For example, I find Sen. Ted Cruz to be a fool. I would be embarrassed to call him my senator. But he’s the senator from Texas, not New York, and if Texans want him to represent them in Congress, that’s their business.

Democracy is a marketplace of ideas and ideals. Some “sell,” some don’t. Some capture huge “market share,” some remain fringe. If I want my ideas to prevail, I need to work at making them compelling. I can’t just assert my “right” to win.

All Americans are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but we aren’t entitled to get the government we want or policies that benefit us.

Strong passion feeds partisans. That passion has many roots, from a reading of Scripture to a reading of history, from self-interest to self-denial. But as fervently as I believe in my views, my passion isn’t entitled to chart the nation’s course without amassing an electoral majority.

I can believe, as “The Star Spangled Banner” puts it, that “our cause it is just.” But our cause only becomes the law of the land when we convince a majority to favor it.

Our enemy isn’t passion or partisanship. Our enemy is special favors granted to a few, special entitlements that circumvent the democratic process, closed and rigged systems that deny voice or vote to some people.

Thus, the right wing has every right to push state legislatures to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act. But they can’t be allowed to rig voting laws to scare off minority voters. Or to draw artificial district lines to guarantee perpetual control.

It is ideas that must prevail. Stealing votes is a crime against the nation. Stupid ideas are, well, just people being stupid, as is our right.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Via RNS.

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