‘Oh Captain! My Captain!’: The West’s Dearth of Leadership
Democracy is seen by most people, much of the time, as one of the brightest jewels in the crown of Western culture. Unlike the slavery-based ancient Athenian democracy it is the product of assertion of the freedom and dignity inherent in every human being, and as a result on 12 December every UK citizen over the age of 18 will have an opportunity to exercise a right to vote.
Despite an otherwise laudable system of government there has been a distinct dearth of good leadership visible in the West generally. This can be seen in the manifest if gradual decay of Europe. The average fertility rate of the European Union is now 1.6 and even the highest rate, to be found in France, is below replenishment level. This dangerously low fertility rate follows on a shift in Western cultural values. Attitudes to marriage, for example, have changed rapidly. Unprecedented levels of immigration have transformed London, for example, into what is styled – love it or hate it! – a global city. The public were never consulted about implementation of policies that have produced this state of affairs. Assorted Western leaders, and particularly Donald Trump, have received criticism for coarsening public discourse and for some elements deemed unsavoury in their rather ‘public’ personal lives. We have, we might admit, the politicians we deserve, as they are themselves a product of the prevailing culture to which we have all somehow contributed. But, understanding the very limits of democracy is critical to solving our leadership crisis.
It is worth looking at the fundamental difference between ancient Athenian democracy and ours today, built as it is on recognition of the freedom and dignity of all human beings. This has arisen out of an essentially Christian spirit. Whilst it may be the product of Christian ideas its domain is wholly civic. It seeks to balance competing interests and powers that naturally arise in society, and serves as a system to elect a leader who will be to a considerable extent accountable to the community.
Since modern democracy’s domain is civic it asserts that it cannot dictate morality. Morality cares little for the whims of a majority. If democracy ceased to be a tool to help individuals flourish, it would have lost the very values that have in some degree ennobled it. Pope St John Paul II concluded that, ‘a democracy without values easily turns into an open or thinly disguised totalitarianism’. If democracy were to become a tool to establish morality, that morality might easily become subordinate to democracy, and should be left with no protection against the fickleness of democratic procedure. The lack of good and virtuous leadership in the West surely points up a loss of essential values.
Especially in the past twenty years or more, democratic procedures have been allowed to usurp natural law. When Ireland voted to make abortion much more accessible in 2018 its citizens overturned a previous vote in 1983 that sought to defend the lives of the unborn. What once was considered very wrong has now become a fundamental female prerogative in the space of thirty-five years. When democracy, or any other form of government, trespasses into moral territory freedom is all-too-often trampled underfoot. This is not to say that we already live in a totalitarian state, but we must certainly be careful to remember that democracy is a tool, to be used as such. If we want it to promote and safeguard freedom, then it must be subordinate to natural law. It is difficult to say whether good and virtuous leaders will arise as the cause or the consequence of returning to Christian values, but for now we might see our current situation in the sombre words of Walt Whitman, ‘But I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead’.