Because Americans have the word “democracy” humming in our heads like a mantra all the time, we tend to see the entire world through majority-rule lenses. The common fly’s-eye view, in which judgments can be made only in multiple, makes us crazy to cast our ballots on everything. This accounts for the success of ridiculous pseudo-entertainments like "American Idle" and "Prancing with the Stars." Our democracy mania is laughable, but it's also dangerous. One of the threats that atheists face is the misconception among the rabble that all areas of human endeavor are subject to a vote.
But they're not.
This one should be obvious. No matter how the public feels, scientific truths are not subject to popular wishes. Yes, the morons in the electorate can vote to forbid any kind of public teaching that doesn’t suit them; they can spread officially sanctioned ignorance from sea to shining sea (that shine may be pollution); they can insist that a belief in the literal truth of Genesis be required for any researchers who want government funding; but they don’t get to cast a ballot on scientific knowledge. The god-crazed masses can lobby against “Darwinism” all they want, but they can’t stop the flu virus from evolving. Even among scientists themselves, there’s an understanding — although tacit at times — that consensus doesn’t necessarily reflect the way things actually are. Hey, maybe medical experts will find out that Hostess Sno-balls are good for you.
OK, it’s a field wide open to interpretation. As Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” (And the Winstons, too.) But I’m not talking about written history; I’m referring to what actually happened. You can’t call for a show of hands to change events of the past. Godpushers can continue to insist that America was founded as a Christian nation, for example, but it just ain’t so. There’s no historical evidence for that conclusion, and plenty of evidence against it (like, um, the fact that no deities are mentioned in the Constitution, and there’s not even one word of religious propaganda). Again, the majority can affect what’s taught in public schools; they can influence what idiot senators like John McCain have to say; they can forbid certain facts from being uttered. But they can’t hold a referendum to undo what actually happened. Sorry, folks: Elvis died.
Admitted: You can lie with statistics. But you can’t make two plus two equal five, regardless of what We the Innumerate People want. For instance: If the figures overwhelmingly show that abstinence education doesn’t work to stop teenage pregnancies, a voice vote — even led by the loudest, most pious throats in the country — won’t alter the calculations. Those girls are carrying real, countable babies. Get out your abacuses, fundies, you’ve got some adding to do.
Hell, art isn’t democratic at all. What we call “art” is, of course, subject to the plastic ballots we carry in our wallets. But there are objective standards, for anyone who cares to apply them. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is objectively better than “Jingle Bells.” Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer is objectively better than those poker-playing puppies. Alice in Wonderland is an objectively better kids’ book than any of the Harry Potters. Hamlet is an objectively better play than Cats. And Double Indemnity is the best movie ever made. (Well, maybe that’s not objective.) There are real criteria for determining what is and isn’t art, although critics and aficionados may disagree about what those criteria are. But popularity isn’t one of them. And neither is eligibility for government aid. Most important, no polling-place mandate can determine what art isn’t. Oh, sure, when the hoi polloi’s nays outnumber the yeas, the authorities can step in to ban books from libraries, force museums to remove certain works from display, tell musicians what they may not perform in public. But, as long as there are objective standards — not “community” standards, mind you — art is art. I may not be able to define it, but neither can the guy who can't figure out how to punch a chad.
If U.S. citizens were asked to vote for or against democracy, as a principle of government and not just a word, they would probably vote against it. As they did in 2000 and 2004. The Bush administration has never followed the “will of the people.” Not about the Iraq War, not about abortion, not about stem cell research, not about the environment, not about stopping pork-barrel legislation, and not about refraining from out-and-out criminality. Fortunately, in a system like ours — where there are certain basic guarantees that trump the whims of the multitude — it’s not possible for democracy to be democratically rejected. Of course, that doesn’t stop the politicians and the theocrats from trying.
I suspect I’m going to be in the minority on some of the views expressed above. But you know what? This blog is not a democracy, either.