For many of us, the notion of “democracy” is buried in school textbooks or is something that only happens once a year when we vote. We don’t often realize that we can change the status quo – we can define for ourselves what democracy means for us. We can have a role in influencing decisions that affect us on a regular basis – not just when we vote.
People across the country are coming together to share their ideas and opinions with others and to work together to create better communities on a wide range of issues such as education, food security, racial equity, community-police relations, and building prosperity. We asked people working towards change in several communities what democracy means to them, and this is what they said:
"Democracy.....just a word unless it is about people living and working together with respect and equal rights and elected leaders who value and practice the same.
My commitment will always be to find ways to encourage more people to take part in the process at the local to national level!"
"For me, democracy is a work in progress, with the emphasis on work. It means having a voice and using it. (I just called my Senator! In a vital democracy, I’m at liberty to do that.) Democracy dares to make room for all kinds of people and ideas. It gives us the privilege of listening and learning from one another, without fear. And it requires us to be 'actors.' It’s a gift, not a birthright. "
"Having just read “The Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein, I’m sobered about the difficulty of democracy as new forms of colonization and theft of resources are sanctioned by international bodies purporting to address human rights and social need. Democracy is really about neighborhoods, cities and towns and advocacy groups that work through coalitions for the broad interests of as many residents and citizens as possible. I don’t think government is “broken”, but it’s slow. Capital is fast. Capital is able to manufacture consent and maneuver in any context, without moral compass, accountability or sense of interdependence on a green and blue earth. Organize."
"What democracy means to me is a government obeying our Constitution and staying out of individual citizens' personal lives. This means allowing citizens to make their own decisions for their own personal lives, making mistakes and all. It means not having politicians in office who believe citizens freedom of speech should have any limits. It means that government does not have any authority to take any individual right away or change it in any way. Our individual rights are God-given rights to all and no human can take those away. America is a Republic because a democracy doesn't work any more than totalitarianism, marxism, socialism or any other -ism. And America will stay a Republic, 'if the people can keep it that way through the election process.'"
"To me democracy means we're in this together & we share responsibility for the outcomes of govt."
-@socialcap (on Twitter)
"Democracy is the embracing of independence to actively engage in the ever-changing society of which I live to protect its existence and to ensure an appreciation with grace for all those that fought and continue to fight for its survival."
"Today is for red
and white and blue,
but what does democracy
mean to you?
Freedom to live
in safety and peace,
and to seek that for others
so all will increase.
With freedom comes
to be engaged and to grow
Stripes show us red
and white today,
but blue shows us stars
which light our way
You are the star
that we are waiting for;
so step out and be counted
on November 4 (2)."
"Democracy for me means the alienable right of self determination and participation in governance by the consent of the governed."
-Ronald Randolf Winley
"Democracy to me means decision-making and deliberations by all affected."
"In a Democracy that believes in diversity, equality and a government for, of and by the people, the most important tool we have as a society is the tool of communication. Communication is a skill, just like music, athletics or academics, a skill that must be practiced, honed and advanced. The quality of our communication helps our relationships, our communities and our society. The quality of our communication affects the quality of our well-being. It is through communication and deliberation that our forefathers built the foundations of this great country and it is through our everyday democracy that we will continue to be a great country."
"To me, democracy means that government derives all of its authority from the people, and all of the people have a voice in government policy -- not just an elected elite or self-appointed partisans -- but all the people."
"Democracy is a way of living and working together based on freedom, equality, justice, and mutual respect."
"Democracy means freedom and the responsibilities that come with that freedom: the responsibility to be educated and informed; the responsibility to vote; the responsibility to give back to the community; the responsibility to listen openly to opposing points of view and learn from them; and the responsibility to participate respectfully in the democratic process."
"Democracy means that no matter the circumstances of your birth you have a right for your voice to be heard and to seek to have that voice be represented in government"
"Democracy means to me exactly what Tony Judt describes it to mean in his April 29, 2010 essay in the New York Review of Books, titled Ill Fares the Land. I cannot say this nearly as well as he has, but his perspective on democracy resonates and is completely aligned with mine:
'Though I am now more sympathetic to those constrained to silence I remain contemptuous of garbled language. No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right-- and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.' "
"Democracy means that 'We, the People' includes EVERYONE (regardless of race, class, religion, education, sexual orientation, gender, ability, etc.), & everyone has an equal chance to participate in ALL levels of our society. "
"Democracy for me is more fundamental than a political philosophy. It is the human struggle for the shared life of community. Democracy, unchecked, leads to oppression. Our work is to ensure that we build a community that protects every group and every person…particularly those we dislike."
"To me, democracy means having the same freedoms and rights as everyone else, regardless of your ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic status. It’s a beautiful thing, democracy."
"Democracy means that everyone has a voice and that every voice matters. It is something that may never be achieved to its full potential, so the journey toward democracy is constant, but absolutely necessary."
“Democracy is a journey. Sometimes the road is smooth, sometimes rough, but each step brings up closer to the ideal. We’re on the path, but not there yet.”
THE most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard-headed they were. They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon.
The need for hard-headedness is particularly pressing when establishing a nascent democracy. One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy. The power of the state needs to be checked, for instance, and individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise must be guaranteed. The most successful new democracies have all worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism—the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases. India has survived as a democracy since 1947 (apart from a couple of years of emergency rule) and Brazil since the mid-1980s for much the same reason: both put limits on the power of the government and provided guarantees for individual rights.
Robust constitutions not only promote long-term stability, reducing the likelihood that disgruntled minorities will take against the regime. They also bolster the struggle against corruption, the bane of developing countries. Conversely, the first sign that a fledgling democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power—often in the name of majority rule. Mr Morsi tried to pack Egypt’s upper house with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Yanukovych reduced the power of Ukraine’s parliament. Mr Putin has ridden roughshod over Russia’s independent institutions in the name of the people. Several African leaders are engaging in crude majoritarianism—removing term limits on the presidency or expanding penalties against homosexual behaviour, as Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni did on February 24th.
Foreign leaders should be more willing to speak out when rulers engage in such illiberal behaviour, even if a majority supports it. But the people who most need to learn this lesson are the architects of new democracies: they must recognise that robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote. Paradoxically even potential dictators have a lot to learn from events in Egypt and Ukraine: Mr Morsi would not be spending his life shuttling between prison and a glass box in an Egyptian court, and Mr Yanukovych would not be fleeing for his life, if they had not enraged their compatriots by accumulating so much power.
Even those lucky enough to live in mature democracies need to pay close attention to the architecture of their political systems. The combination of globalisation and the digital revolution has made some of democracy’s most cherished institutions look outdated. Established democracies need to update their own political systems both to address the problems they face at home, and to revitalise democracy’s image abroad. Some countries have already embarked upon this process. America’s Senate has made it harder for senators to filibuster appointments. A few states have introduced open primaries and handed redistricting to independent boundary commissions. Other obvious changes would improve matters. Reform of party financing, so that the names of all donors are made public, might reduce the influence of special interests. The European Parliament could require its MPs to present receipts with their expenses. Italy’s parliament has far too many members who are paid too much, and two equally powerful chambers, which makes it difficult to get anything done.
But reformers need to be much more ambitious. The best way to constrain the power of special interests is to limit the number of goodies that the state can hand out. And the best way to address popular disillusion towards politicians is to reduce the number of promises they can make. The key to a healthier democracy, in short, is a narrower state—an idea that dates back to the American revolution. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men”, Madison argued, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The notion of limited government was also integral to the relaunch of democracy after the second world war. The United Nations Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) established rights and norms that countries could not breach, even if majorities wanted to do so.
These checks and balances were motivated by fear of tyranny. But today, particularly in the West, the big dangers to democracy are harder to spot. One is the growing size of the state. The relentless expansion of government is reducing liberty and handing ever more power to special interests. The other comes from government’s habit of making promises that it cannot fulfil, either by creating entitlements it cannot pay for or by waging wars that it cannot win, such as that on drugs. Both voters and governments must be persuaded of the merits of accepting restraints on the state’s natural tendency to overreach. Giving control of monetary policy to independent central banks tamed the rampant inflation of the 1980s, for example. It is time to apply the same principle of limited government to a broader range of policies. Mature democracies, just like nascent ones, require appropriate checks and balances on the power of elected government.
Governments can exercise self-restraint in several different ways. They can put on a golden straitjacket by adopting tight fiscal rules—as the Swedes have done by pledging to balance their budget over the economic cycle. They can introduce “sunset clauses” that force politicians to renew laws every ten years, say. They can ask non-partisan commissions to propose long-term reforms. The Swedes rescued their pension system from collapse when an independent commission suggested pragmatic reforms including greater use of private pensions, and linking the retirement age to life-expectancy. Chile has been particularly successful at managing the combination of the volatility of the copper market and populist pressure to spend the surplus in good times. It has introduced strict rules to ensure that it runs a surplus over the economic cycle, and appointed a commission of experts to determine how to cope with economic volatility.
Isn’t this a recipe for weakening democracy by handing more power to the great and the good? Not necessarily. Self-denying rules can strengthen democracy by preventing people from voting for spending policies that produce bankruptcy and social breakdown and by protecting minorities from persecution. But technocracy can certainly be taken too far. Power must be delegated sparingly, in a few big areas such as monetary policy and entitlement reform, and the process must be open and transparent.
And delegation upwards towards grandees and technocrats must be balanced by delegation downwards, handing some decisions to ordinary people. The trick is to harness the twin forces of globalism and localism, rather than trying to ignore or resist them. With the right balance of these two approaches, the same forces that threaten established democracies from above, through globalisation, and below, through the rise of micro-powers, can reinforce rather than undermine democracy.
Tocqueville argued that local democracy frequently represented democracy at its best: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.” City mayors regularly get twice the approval ratings of national politicians. Modern technology can implement a modern version of Tocqueville’s town-hall meetings to promote civic involvement and innovation. An online hyperdemocracy where everything is put to an endless series of public votes would play to the hand of special-interest groups. But technocracy and direct democracy can keep each other in check: independent budget commissions can assess the cost and feasibility of local ballot initiatives, for example.
Several places are making progress towards getting this mixture right. The most encouraging example is California. Its system of direct democracy allowed its citizens to vote for contradictory policies, such as higher spending and lower taxes, while closed primaries and gerrymandered districts institutionalised extremism. But over the past five years California has introduced a series of reforms, thanks in part to the efforts of Nicolas Berggruen, a philanthropist and investor. The state has introduced a “Think Long” committee to counteract the short-term tendencies of ballot initiatives. It has introduced open primaries and handed power to redraw boundaries to an independent commission. And it has succeeded in balancing its budget—an achievement which Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the California Senate, described as “almost surreal”.
Similarly, the Finnish government has set up a non-partisan commission to produce proposals for the future of its pension system. At the same time it is trying to harness e-democracy: parliament is obliged to consider any citizens’ initiative that gains 50,000 signatures. But many more such experiments are needed—combining technocracy with direct democracy, and upward and downward delegation—if democracy is to zigzag its way back to health.
John Adams, America’s second president, once pronounced that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” He was clearly wrong. Democracy was the great victor of the ideological clashes of the 20th century. But if democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young—and carefully maintained when it is mature.