Aristotle said that the ideal polis has no more than ten thousand citizens. Well, Dixville Notch has twelve. That little hamlet in New Hampshire, nestled up there by the Canadian border, has exactly one dozen citizens—five of whom voted in the 2020 election; all five went for Mr. Biden.
If there had been fraud committed in Dixville Notch, we would have heard about it pretty quickly. The ballots are officially counted and reported as soon as the five voters submit them. If one had voted for Donald Trump, he would have cried foul then and there, and then… well, then the game would be afoot, I suppose.
Aristotle understood that small-scale democracies are high-trust democracies. The machinery of state is pretty simple: you stick a few paper ballots in a box. It takes about two minutes to tabulate the results, and the margin of error is basically nil. Recounts take another two minutes. In fact, there’s no real need for proof of residence: you probably run into your poll worker once a week at the grocery store. He knows you, and you know her.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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More importantly, in small democracies, voters feel connected to one another. They feel accountable to one another. To cheat in an election doesn’t mean only striking a blow to your political opponent. It means ripping off your neighbor, your cousin, your pastor, your dentist, your plumber, your friend. It’s harder to cheat someone you know and love—whose well-being is so intimately bound up with yours.
Now take New York City, whose population stands at over eight million. That’s about twenty-seven thousand souls per square mile.
I understand that some people like New York. I’d rather cut off both my feet than spend a week in the Big Apple, but to each his own. The point is this: when you have so many different people packed into such a small space, you can’t even feel confident in the results of the election for your Condominium Owners’ Association.
You don’t know those people. You have nothing in common with them except proximity. You were born in different towns, different states, even different countries. Some of you shop at Whole Foods, some at Trader Joe’s, some at Fairway; some of you patronize a farmer’s market or bodega. You don’t go to the same bars, the same cafés, or the same restaurants. You all attend different churches or synagogues or mosques or temples—assuming that any of you believe in God at all. Every day, you might pass on the street the guy who lives in the unit above you and never recognize each other.
The Philosopher understood that large-scale democracies are low-trust democracies.
That trust breaks down even further the more “diverse” a society becomes. I don’t mean skin color; that’s incidental. I mean cultural and economic spheres. Not only do you not know your neighbor: you can’t even imagine what kind of person she is. You have no idea what she’s like, what she believes, what her values are. You have no way of finding out, either—not unless you try to get to know her. In that case, she may take out a restraining order on you for sexual harassment. (If you’ve ever seen how many creeps live in these big cities, you could hardly blame her.)
These thoughts ran through my head as I read Catholic columnist Ross Douthat’s latest piece in The New York Times, which is succinctly titled “Why Do So Many Americans Think the Election Was Stolen?”
By way of an answer, I might ask, “Why don’t more Americans?”
Mr. Douthat’s analysis is smart, as always. He doesn’t think there was widespread voter fraud; I think he’s wrong, but he’s wrong in the smartest possible way.
I don’t know why a smart fella like Mr. Douthat would have so much faith in the electoral process—in thousands upon thousands of poll workers about whom he knows absolutely nothing and with whom he has very little in common. (Few Americans have anything in common with many other Americans.) Why should he assume they’re honest? Why should he assume they don’t have an agenda? Why should he assume that none of them believe the mainstream media’s narrative about President Trump—that he’s a fascist, a racist, a xenophobe, and must be removed from power by any means necessary?
Maybe Mr. Douthat has faith in the basic goodness and integrity of ordinary men and women. That’s quaint, even admirable. But it’s not very Christian. We’re supposed to be a little more skeptical about human nature, and our political views are supposed to reflect that skepticism. It’s one of the main reasons the Church forbids us from embracing utopian ideologies like Marxism.
What other explanation could there be? Is it possible that Mr. Douthat et al. are simply too afraid to face the reality: that America is coming apart at the seams?
Mr. Douthat and his Times colleague David Brooks (another very smart, conservative-ish personage who usually gets election stuff wrong) have observed for years how America’s cultural divisions manifest themselves in government. As our social order breaks down, so, too, does our political order. At some point, however, things must fall apart. The center can’t hold forever.
As Messrs. Douthat and Brooks might observe, the issue of election fraud isn’t really the point. It’s a serious issue in itself, but it’s not the issue. The issue is that Americans don’t trust each other. We don’t even like each other. Poll after poll shows that conservatives and liberals don’t just think the other side is wrong, or even stupid. We think the other guys are bad. We think they’re malicious. We think they’re trying to hurt us.
And how could it be otherwise?
Most Crisis readers are right-leaning, orthodox Catholics. We believe that life begins at conception. But about half of our countrymen believe in abortion. That means, from where we stand, about half of Americans support infanticide in one form or another. We know that most of those folks (somehow) don’t believe that a baby in the womb is really a living human being. But that doesn’t make you feel much better about the person.
Much as I hate to play the Hitler card, I would ask progressives to imagine what it would be like to sit across from your sister at Thanksgiving dinner and have her casually mention that we ought to euthanize the mentally ill. After all, they’re not rational, so they’re not really people. They’re just a drain on society.
That’s how pro-life conservatives see pro-choice liberals. We don’t necessarily think they’re malicious. But all the talk about “preserving the integrity of our democratic institutions” gets to be a little cheap when you’re dealing with people whom you believe want to kill babies.
Here’s my question. How long can a country survive when its members can’t even agree on which human beings deserve life and which can be killed for the sake of mere convenience? What can we possibly have in common, besides proximity? How can we possibly feel any kind of loyalty to one another?
“Why do so many Americans think the election was stolen?” Mr. Douthat asks himself. I ask myself, Why do so many Americans think unborn children aren’t people? Why do so many Americans think a little boy should be surgically castrated because he likes wearing dresses? Why do so many Americans turn a blind eye to the epidemic of black-on-black violence in our major cities? Why do so many Americans care more about blaming one another for putting migrant children in cages than about reuniting those children with their parents? Why do so many Americans think we should be allowed to eat at restaurants and shop at malls, but not worship in churches?
Why do so many Americans get it so wrong? And why can’t I even begin to understand what they’re thinking?
Over the years, I’ve gotten into the habit of saying that Americans talk about politics so much because it’s the only thing we have in common. I’m totally unlike a fundamentalist Baptist from Georgia, or a liberal atheist from California, or a Chinese immigrant in New York—except that we live under the same government. Now, we don’t even have that. Whoever occupies the White House come February, a little less than half of the country isn’t going to recognize him as the legitimate president. And I don’t see why that should change in 2024, or 2028, or 2032.
I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I think Our Lord gave us a good place to start. “Love your enemies,” He said, “and pray for those who persecute you.”
No, that doesn’t mean that we stop fighting for the unborn, or for fair elections, or for our First Amendment rights. But as the Catholic philosopher Charles Péguy wrote, “It is not arguments that are wanting. It is charity.” Pretty soon, there may be nothing else to hold our country together—nothing except love. And not love as in feeling good about everyone, as the hippies say. Not love as in lust, as the Sexual Revolutionaries say. Love as in charity, as the Christians say: the absolute, unconditional desire for another person’s good.
Crisis Magazine takes seriously the possibility that political violence will become a fixture of public life. Some have made fun of us for doing so. But it wasn’t our idea. We’re simply taking groups such as Antifa and the Boogaloo Boys at their word. They want civil war. They’re openly advocating for mass political violence. And, judging from the events of the last year, they’re not joking.
Crisis Magazine take seriously the possibility that different political factions will use the power of the state to suppress their opponents. Some have made fun of us for doing so. But this wasn’t our idea, either. Joe Biden has said that he would make it a priority of his administration to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraception as part of the healthcare package they offer to their employees.
Now, the Little Sisters run twenty-eight care homes throughout the country. That’s a lot, but they’re not exactly a corporate powerhouse. Why would Mr. Biden single them out? It’s all about revenge. Revenge for humiliating the progressive establishment in the Supreme Court. Revenge for opposing the Obamacare mandate, which Mr. Biden helped draft.
That’s one of the reasons Joe Biden won’t be a Catholic president in any meaningful sense of the term. It’s not only because he supports abortion. It’s not only because he would force nuns to pay for contraception. It’s because he’s openly embracing the Politics of Revenge. He sees the government as a means to punish and humiliate his opponents. He has no interest in winning over conservatives. He has no obvious desire to govern for our good, too, as well as the good of his supporters.
I’ve written in these pages before about the need for a Politics of Charity—to govern for the good of the American people, especially those who have been abandoned by our financial and political elites. That goes for poor, right-wing white folks in West Virginia as well as poor, left-wing black folks in Detroit.
But before we can embrace a Politics of Charity, we must embrace charity. We must truly desire the good of our countrymen, regardless of their party affiliation. Regardless of how much they desire to punish or humiliate us. Regardless of how they persecute us. Especially if they persecute us.
Saint Peter asked Our Lord, “How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus replied, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” That isn’t only sound spiritual advice: it’s the only way human beings can coexist peacefully in a civilized society. We have to learn how to forgive one another, to love one another, to desire only good for one another.
And we Christians, we Catholics, must take the first step. It’s only when we forgive that we ourselves are forgiven, and not before.
It would be easy enough to say all of this if we ourselves had power. It would be easy to say if Mr. Trump were to remain in office through 2024. That seems unlikely now—not impossible, but unlikely.
Can we endure the next four years with longanimity? Can we seek to regain power, not for the sake of punishing our enemies (they will give us more reasons than we can count), but so that we can serve them? So that we can work for their good as well as ours?
The poet W.H. Auden came to regret his most famous line, “We must love one another or die.” He felt it was too sentimental. In fact, just the opposite is true. It’s brutally pragmatic. There are only two choices: love one another, or die.
Charity will make America great again, or nothing will.
[Photo credit: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images]