What is Democracy?
What is democracy? In the narrowest definition it is popular self-government. It is political, it involves many people, and it requires tallying judgments to record popular decisions. Elections are the crucial element, with the rule that majorities can never eliminate minorities from the electoral process. However, voting is not enough. To make political participation effective citizens need information and public associations to give them access to the system, and they need elected officials to respond.
Democracy is not everything all the time anywhere. It doesn’t favor capitalism, socialism, or any other -ism. It does not mean two-party politics, constitutions, a vigorous press, or voluntary associations. Democracy does not contain cures for cruelty or oppression. It has no exclusive claim to compassion or social responsiveness. It has affinity with liberty, equality and fairness, but it doesn’t give reliable support for any of these. Democracy, as Robert Wiebe writes, “reveals our humanity not our salvation. We may not like it.”
The risks of the modern world make us realize that a collective life defines democratic citizens. Democracy can’t rely on private interests and private rights. It is about shared purpose, community and public lives and duties. As we realize limits to growth, we begin to understand that IT must go in SOMEONE’S backyard. “Democracy,” Robert Hiskes writes, “presumes a set of ideas about what it takes to accomplish things together and voluntarily as a matter of faithfulness and engagement – not out of force.”
The way we understand ourselves as a public is our most critical issue today. There is widespread frustration that money rules, not citizens. Has our American public become a myth? Our democracy was formed during colonial days when people decided what to do about common problems and acted together to implement their solutions. Citizens are powerful when they act collectively. While we may despair of the national picture, we still act locally. When citizens do, they are willing to act at a higher level.
Of course, local interests can be unrelentingly selfish. Well-intentioned leaders, self-styled as “the public’s agents,” can be very contemptuous of people. It may be because they see the “big picture” and the public through a lens of idealism, which blinds them to community interests. Yet, no argument for self-rule is as compelling as what people experience and how they cooperate with those who hold different values within local communities. If we want democracy to flourish, we need to encourage people to grow where they were planted.
“Society in every state is a blessing,” Tom Paine wrote in Common Sense, “but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer…our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.” Functioning as private consumers and private property owners, rather than as public citizens with common or community interests would seem to make his point. The state or a few of its leaders do not exercise public reason. It can only occur through deliberative action, and deliberation is a joint social activity. Thus, in the fullness of its meaning, democracy is we the people, acting together to reform or improve our shared public sphere. Increasing participation is its indispensable goal. As Langston Hughes wrote:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!”
John Legry, December 28, 2001
Executive Director, (ret.)
Citizen Involvement Committee
Multnomah County, Oregon
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