Dreaming About Democracy

In a speech to the House of Commons in 1947, Winston Churchill uttered one of the best-known and most profound witticisms on the subject of democracy, although he was apparently quoting someone else:

Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

Benjamin Franklin was responsible for the other best-known and profound remark on the subject. One of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 recorded the following exchange in his diary:

A lady asked Dr. Franklin, Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy? A republic, replied the Doctor, if you can keep it.

Churchill and Franklin summed up the situation quite nicely. Few people these days (at least around here) question whether some kind of democracy is the best form of government. Most of the discussion now regards whether we’re losing our democracy or have already lost it.

In that vein, one of Salon’s writers, Andrew O’Hehir, published an article a few days ago called “This Is Not What Democracy Looks Like”. O’Hehir argues that our democracy is hardly a democracy at all and, furthermore, it’s unlikely to get any better (more democratic) than it already is:

We have to consider the possibility that the current state of American politics, with its bizarre combination of poisoned, polarized and artificially overheated debate along with total paralysis on every substantive issue and widespread apathy and discontent, is what we get after 200-odd years. It’s not a detour in the history of Jeffersonian democracy but something closer to a natural outcome. We also must consider that our version of a democratic system is not, in fact, designed to reflect the will of the people … but to manipulate and channel it in acceptable directions.  

On O’hehir’s view, those who believe our dysfunctional democracy might one day evolve toward a more democratic ideal are as misguided as the defenders of the Soviet Union who thought the state would eventually wither away and be replaced by a truly egalitarian form of communism. Given the influence of money in our political system and the increasingly bizarre politics of the Republican Party, it may in fact be too late for America to become less oligarchic and plutocratic. O’hehir may be right about that.

Still, he doesn’t suggest anywhere in the article that Churchill was wrong and we should prefer aristocracy or anarchy instead. He only argues that democracy is a fantasy, which seems to imply that we should all relax and accept our politics for what it is, a tool of the rich and powerful meant to keep the rest of us in line. Why try to elect better politicians or advocate particular reforms if nothing is going to improve? At this point, our best strategy might be looking for refugee status in Scandinavia.

Assuming that Sweden and Denmark aren’t realistic options for most of us, it seems to me that we might as well do what we can to make America more democratic, even if we can’t do very much. It isn’t out of the question that there will be a reaction in coming years to the right-wing onslaught of the past several decades. It certainly seems possible that we could one day institute real campaign finance reform, for example. We could make it easier for everyone to vote. The Fairness Doctrine that once called for broadcasters to present opposing viewpoints on important public issues could conceivably be resuscitated and even strengthened. We might make the tax code more progressive again. Regulations that interfere with the most rapacious forms of capitalism might be adopted. It isn’t impossible that labor unions will reverse their recent decline.

It seems unnecessarily pessimistic to conclude from the past 30 or 40 years that we might never have another New Deal. Or too assume that corporate capitalism can never be replaced by democratic socialism, even in the United States. Human institutions do evolve. Maybe it will take a crisis of some sort. Or maybe we just need to help. 

Meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt to occasionally remind ourselves why democracy is worth fighting for. To quote the great American philosopher John Dewey:

Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws and carrying on governmental administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officers. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that. The political and governmental phase of democracy is a means, the best means so far found, for realizing ends that lie in the wide domain of human relationships and the development of human personality. It is … a way of life, social and individual. The key-note of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together, [which] is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.

Universal suffrage, recurring elections, responsibility of those who are in political power to the voters, and the other factors of democratic government are means that have been found expedient for realizing democracy as the truly human way of living…. Democratic political forms are simply the best means that human wit has devised up to a special time in history. But they rest upon the idea that no man or limited set of men is wise enough or good enough to rule others without their consent; the positive meaning of this statement is that all those who are affected by social institutions must have a share in producing and managing them.  [“Democracy and Educational Adminstration”, 1937]