The Grail Code 
The Holy Grail of Democracy

Whatever you think of the outcome of the American elections this week, you must admit that democracy in action is an amazing thing to watch. Every two years, we Americans tell a certain number of our most powerful leaders that their services will no longer be required. And they just pack up and go.

They leave their power, their privileges, often their very homes—all because a bunch of people they’ve never met told them to go away.

The President of the United States is often called the most powerful man on earth. He’s commander-in-chief of the world’s biggest armed force. Yet not once in more than two centuries of fearsomely interesting times has one of our presidents refused to step down when his time was up. Not one of them has called the army into the streets to prevent his successor from taking office.

There’s a lot at stake there. Every president must have had strong opinions on how the country should be run. Every Federalist succeeded by a Whig, every Whig succeeded by a Democrat, every Democrat succeeded by a Republican, and so on, must have been sure that his successor would lead the country to ruin. A president who was popular with the generals would find it very easy just to decide that the current emergency (and when is there not a current emergency?) renders it absolutely necessary that the current administration remain in power.

That is exactly what has happened, over and over again, in almost every other country whose constitution is modeled on ours. We often praise the wisdom of the authors of our Constitution, but that wisdom has seldom been successfully exported. Our Constitution gives our President an awful lot of power. In other countries, that power turns presidents into dictators. But though our President is the most powerful of them all, we never doubt that he’ll be gone after eight years at most.

We’ve had some pretty bad presidents in our history. My personal nominee for worst ever is James Buchanan, who’s also the only one from Pennsylvania. It figures. But even he walked away when it was time for Lincoln to take office—even though he knew that Lincoln’s taking office meant inevitable civil war.

Why do people just walk away from the most powerful positions on earth? Why don’t our presidents cling to power with every last fingernail? Why didn’t the Republicans just decide to annul last Tuesday’s elections if they didn’t like the result?

It must be because there’s something they want even more than power. The ideals of democracy and the rule of law actually have more physical power than the President of the United States has.

There is, in other words, something worth even more than the very best and the very most the world has to offer.

That’s a very hard lesson to learn. The things of this world, after all, are here right now, where we can see them. “Democracy” is out there somewhere in the land of invisible abstractions.

Yet this is the lesson we need to learn if we really want to be happy. Clinging selfishly to possessions and privileges won’t make us happy: in fact, it ends up making us miserable. This world has a lot of good things in it, but we’re born with a longing that they can’t satisfy. Only the people who are willing to give things up for the sake of something greater will ever be happy.

If you’ve read The Grail Code, I don’t need to tell you that this is also the lesson of the Holy Grail romances. The things we love and prize may point the way to the thing we really want, but they may also stand in our way. In the Walter Map romances, Lancelot had to lose everything to learn that lesson. The things he had prized most in the world didn’t make him happy. In fact, they stood in the way of the only thing that could really make him happy, which was meeting God face to face.

So some congratulations are due to the winners in Tuesday’s election. They’re taking on a noble public duty, and we certainly hope they’ll fill their positions with wisdom and dignity. But even more congratulations go to the losers. They’ll walk away from their power and privileges, and toward what just might make them truly happy.

4 Responses to “The Holy Grail of Democracy”

  1. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » One year Says:

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(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey