Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture

Democracy and the Politics of Virtue

16 Jun 2017

By Rt Rev'd Professor Stephen Pickard, Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture 

In 1994 the retired CIA analyst Patrick Kennon wrote The Twilight of Democracy. This provocative book challenged conventional beliefs, arguing that democracy is an outdated and doomed form of government that cannot keep pace with rapid change, and that only highly trained technocrats with enormous authority are capable of guiding a nation.

That's a scary thought; the politics of top down bossing by highly trained technocrats unaccountable to the citizens of a country. Representative democracy is a system of political organization specifically designed to maintain accountability and ensure checks and balances in the exercise of authority. Such a system requires a delicate tripartite arrangement between (a) the one; that government responsible for the development and implementation of policies for the common good (b) the many; that body of people from whom such representatives come and (c) the few; those who have developed expertise and specific wisdom and mediate between the many and the one. When the few are deliberately removed, undermined or ignored by those in political power, as is the case today (e.g. the treatment of the CSIRO is the best recent example), conditions are established for the rule of the many by the one. Alternatively, the few (so called elite group of experts or, as is increasingly the case, those with big business interests) may  exercise control and influence behind the scenes with political leaders turned into puppets. The twilight of democracy comes about when the delicate tripartite balance of power between the one, the many and the few begins to collapse. The first sign of this is the loss of respect and trust.

The twilight of democracy has become not just a crisis but a metacrisis according to John Milbank and Adrian Pabst in The Politics of Virtue. The tripartite form of representative democracy under the pressure of a culture driven by self-interest and greed is beginning to collapse.  Social trust is being hollowed out as the deepest shared values of the common good and the virtues that sustain it begin to evaporate.

This tripartite relationship at the core of modern democratic life deserves more careful exploration. For example, the citizens of contemporary western society constitute the many, the masses. They are the focus for the media and advertising; political machinery is designed to appeal to them; to manipulate and create allegiance. They are easily swayed. The most effective means to control the masses is by appeal to simple binaries: good and bad; us and them; lifters and leaners; patriots and unpatriotic; fake news; alternate facts. The many can be made suspicious; fearful or optimistic. The post truth world is the devil's playground with the people.

Contemporary society swings between the masses (the many) and the ruling elites (the one). What is singularly missing in this simple binary is the third mediating voice of the wisdom traditions; what John Milbank and Adrian Pabst in The Politics of Virtue, refers to as the wisdom traditions – the advisors; those who mediate between the people and the rulers. It is fundamental to democracy for a vibrant threefold interplay between the one, the few and the many. This prevents manipulation of the whole; provides considered wisdom for the rulers; and acts as a check on political and religious self interest. In this way the common good is kept alive.

In Luke's Gospel (chap. 11) we have a snapshot of Jesus engaging with the masses. He knows their foibles, vulnerability and their thirst for immediate satisfactions. The many are like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus also engages with the rulers. He is critical of their callous disregard for the people; their self interest masquerading as care. Between the one and the many Jesus appears as the prophet who occupies that third place mediating God's loving wisdom in a sustained and fearless manner. He stands between the one and the many; the masses and the rulers. The first casualty of the abuse of power is the marginalisation of this third voice. We see it unfolding today not just in cruel dictatorships but from within the very fabric of Western democracy. The church is called to exercise a new prophetic middle voice from within, albeit from a de-centred marginal place.

It is against the above background that the ACC&C is hosting this year's scholar's consultation on the theme of Democracy and the Politics of Virtue. This event belongs to our Centre Pillar: Wisdom for Civil Society.

Scholars and practitioners from many walks of life and disciplines will engage with the theme and consider its relevance for the life of the churches in Australia. We will be assisted in this by addresses by Professor Frank Bongiorno (ANU) and Canon Professor Scott Cowdell (CSU).