On Being Bubba
Politics is important, certainly, but it is also frequently ugly and even more often amusing. Thus the cover story in a recent issue of Newsweek was devoted to the question of whether Barrack Obama has a sufficient “bubba” quotient to be elected President. With arugula serving as Obama’s symbol and beer as the symbol of, well, “bubba”, the essay revolved around the question of whether the Democratic leader was perceived as too much of an upper-crust snob to garner support among the working classes. Image, as the saying goes, is everything, or at least mostly everything in contemporary politics.
The bubba analysis has no less merit than any other perceptual issue which afflicts those running for public office in a mass culture in which almost nobody knows the candidates. But it is humorous all the same, and it points out one of the many weaknesses of democracy—or at least of large democracies in which almost nobody knows the candidates. In some documents, I think, the Church has gone on record as identifying democracy as the form of government most consistent with human dignity. I would have to check carefully to see precisely what has been said and with what Magisterial weight, but in any case the following caution is required: The political system most theoretically consistent with human dignity does not thereby become the only acceptable political system. And all systems must adapt themselves to the exigencies of time, place and people.
Certainly it is more consistent with human dignity that persons should participate in their own governance than that they should not. It is presumably undeniable that democracy provides the numerically widest possible opportunity for such participation. But worthwhile participation—meaningful participation—is another matter. There are many ways to participate in or influence different kinds of government; voting is only one of them, and it is hardly the most effective. What appears on paper to be most consistent with human dignity may not prove to be so in practice, especially (if I may stress the point again) in mass societies where almost nobody knows the candidates. When citizens have only limited ways of building influential voting blocks, and when so much political information is mere illusion, one can at least ponder the advantages of voting.
All theoretical forms of government (monarchy, oligarchy and democracy, for example) have their own strengths and weaknesses. We who advocate democracy need to understand that it provides no guarantee of having the best possible government. Theoretically, monarchs are raised in constant training to rule and can do so without pandering to anyone, and oligarchies are staffed with the people most fit to rule, so while both may seem foreign to our democratic spirits, they do have theoretical strengths that populist forms lack. Moreover, all the actual implementations of each form of government also have their own strengths and weaknesses, and no two implementations are alike. Pure democracy is impossible except among very small groups, and it always suffers potentially from the tyranny of the majority. The various forms of modified democracies, including our own republican form of government, inevitably include procedures and mechanisms which, when abused, permit repression of not only the minority but sometimes even the majority.
Still, it is not my point to make a case for this or that political form. The two most important things about any government are, first, that the governors understand the natural law and, second, that they desire to govern in accordance with it for the common good. After these comes competence. For this reason, the highest political obligation of citizens is to do their best to ensure that these conditions are met, through whatever means they have. But since such conditions are never perfectly fulfilled, the posturing, strategies, machinations and image-making which constitute the pursuit and exercise of political power remain, as I said, frequently ugly and even more often amusing.
So Barrack Obama will have to boost his bubba quotient. Indeed, his success or failure in doing so may be more important than any issue on which he has (or has not) taken a position, including issues of life and death. Truly, politics is a strange animal, and we respond to the process in odd ways. All citizens, and especially Christians, need to be wary. As a minimum first requirement, we must keep a close eye on our own motives and reactions, lest we render a disservice to the common good through decisions based more on personal affinities or emotions than on reasoned moral judgments. There are all sorts of bubbas, and at every level, just waiting for the right group-centered or self-centered vibes. Not, of course, that any of us would ever admit to being one.
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