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The Will of the People: Dangerous Political Rhetoric?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 06, 2014

The comments of the bishops of Oregon on the Supreme Court’s refusal to stay same-sex marriage there demonstrate the limits of political rhetoric. Recalling the 2004 referendum in which Oregonians approved an amendment to the State Constitution defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman, the bishops stated: “It is a sad day for democracy when one federally appointed judge can overturn, without any representation, the express will of the people of Oregon.”

I do not object to this statement as political rhetoric. But it occurs to me that it is the sort of political rhetoric that often confuses people about the demands of the common good. The problem is that the passage of an amendment by a 57% to 43% vote in 2004 hardly constitutes in any literal sense “the express will of the people of Oregon.”

Of course, we do not always need to read things literally. Part of what it means to be a well-run commonwealth is to be consistent in following the procedures which have been reasonably set forth for peaceful governance, though these procedures vary with time, place and culture. In our system, it is no small thing for the constitution of a state to be set aside by a single Federal judge, especially in a matter ordinarily regulated at the State level, like marriage. Therefore, the Supreme Court seems cavalier in its refusal to at least explain why this decision should be allowed to stand.

It goes without saying that whatever is politically cavalier is a prime target for political rhetoric. Those living in a political system commonly regarded as a sort of “self-government” understandably regard “the will of the people” as having been thwarted whenever the accepted procedures for determining the political will have been ignored. In this sense, we are not dealing with the literal. The reference to “the will of the people” may be taken metaphorically as a judgment that the positive goods of representative government and the rule of law have been undermined.

Political Mythology

But the frequent repetition of political slogans tends to disrupt our recognition of political reality. The literal truth is that no political decision has ever been made based on the “will of the people”. Politics, and the laws which arise from politics, are always a matter of some people imposing their will on others. Even if a decision were to be reached unanimously among those voting, there would be many people who had no vote, were unable to vote, did not care to vote, or had written off the voting process as something which could do them no conceivable good.

In this sense, expressions such as “the will of the people” are used to construct a political mythology. Every culture does this, partly as shorthand for its leading ideas, and partly to mask the somewhat brutal reality that human laws consistently reflect the will of whichever groups tend to have elite status according to the values of a given culture. And so mythologies proliferate. For example, the king may be regarded as the very embodiment of his people. Or the ideological use of political force may be said to serve some overriding and ultimate future good.

In just the same way, modern democracies invest heavily in what we might call the myth of self-government, even if they have long-since degenerated into bureaucratic or even totalitarian states. We are all trained up in our political myths, and we are by now instinctively comfortable with our political rhetoric. But this comfort entails a significant moral danger. We can forget the fact that the “will of the people” is never realized. And we are even more likely to forget that even a universal “will of the people” can never be the source of justice.

A Moral Danger

When a public official is elected according to our voting procedures (quite possibly by a bare majority or even a plurality of a tiny percentage of active voters), we say the people have spoken. When legislation is passed by our elected representatives, we say the same thing. And when some (who have apparently not spoken) are punished under these laws we ordinarily accept this, too, as an expression of the popular will. This is part and parcel of the mythology we in the contemporary West use to invest our governments with maximum legitimacy.

Unfortunately, under the influence of all this highly inaccurate but easily understandable political rhetoric, we encounter a temptation. We want to conclude that whatever has been enacted through proper procedure by our representative form of government has thus been justly enacted and ought to be obeyed. But this is a fallacy, and if we succumb to it—as do enormous numbers of Westerners who have no higher source of morality than the passing fashions of contemporary culture—then we invert the very first rule of the common good for government.

This very first rule is not that a properly enacted law is just, but that an unjust enactment is not properly a law.

To return to the case with which I began, the Federal invalidation of an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Oregon is not unjust because it ignores the will of the people. Under other circumstances there could be ample moral justification for ignoring that will. Imagine, for example, a popular amendment favoring infanticide or slavery.

No, the overturning of the Oregon amendment is unjust in the first instance because it is a violation of the natural law. The justice of human laws is determined by that moral order imparted by God to all creation, a moral order that is discernible by all even if nobody discerns everything perfectly. The moral danger of political rhetoric is that it so often obscures the nature of justice itself.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jun. 10, 2014 5:11 PM ET USA

    This "confusion" between the pronouncements of government & the teachings of our Church is neither the legitimate fruit of our government or of our Magisterium, it is the work of the Devil & should be treated as such. This is not so much a political or theological outcome, but rather is a consequence of spiritual warfare poorly waged. You cannot oppose the Devil with reasoning alone, even less politics alone... You must oppose it with prayer, or else you risk scandalizing both. Ave...!

  • Posted by: djcastel7241 - Jun. 09, 2014 10:23 AM ET USA

    One positive aspect of recent political developments is that those with traditional ideas of virtue are daring to re-examine the basic tenets of democratic civic religion. This would have been unthinkable among conservatives a few decades ago.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jun. 06, 2014 9:15 PM ET USA

    This is one of those essays that, as you read it, makes the heart beat faster with a mix of recognition, gratitude, and assent. Since I was a teenager I have espoused a personal watchword concerning the democratic myth [I think it is original but perhaps I've just forgotten the actual author over 50 years. If anyone recognizes it as someone else's, I'd appreciate knowing]: "50% plus 1 vote cannot possibly be a reasonable definition of virtue."

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Jun. 06, 2014 8:27 PM ET USA

    Was it not "the will of the people" who voted for the politicians/legislators, governors, senators, and congressmen who appointed these lefty judges? The blame for gay marriage spreading like wildfire across the country lies squarely on the voters, especially Catholic voters.

  • Posted by: jacquebquique5708 - Jun. 06, 2014 6:47 PM ET USA

    The "will of the people" has to be expressed in some manner. Voting is a common sense way. If 57% of the people approve, then that is the "will of the people". Of course, the issue is based on the natural law of God. However, the Lord doesn't vote.

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Jun. 06, 2014 5:33 PM ET USA

    Careful Dr. Jeff. You're throwing around words like justice and law, as if they are related. I suppose in theory they are, but in the real world they rarely, if ever, brush up against each other--not if the politicians and lawyers have anything to say about it, and unfortunately they always do. True justice will exist only in the Kingdom of God. Too bad they'll be no politicians and few lawyers to witness it. But who are we to question God's will? Better to just enjoy it when it comes.

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