Tuesday, November 09, 2004Lots of people argue about the meaning of the word "democracy." Some suggest it is primarily a process - i.e. majority rule within the context of rational discourse. Others think it is about substance - where the social surplus is distributed throughout the community rather than concentrated in a few hands. Those are just two definitions. There are many others.
To me democracy is really very simple. It is about self-governance: a free people as a whole makes decisions about everyone in the community. It is both process and substance, and there is a strong moral component. Democracies imply a certain restriction on political conflict, and requires a willingness to look beyond temporary personal interests towards the broader needs of the polity.
Another debate revolves around the naturalness of democracy. Some thinkers (let's call them the democratic optimists) believe that democracy is the normal form of human governance. Any people, if they choose, will take to it. Once they get a taste for it, they will stick with it because it just makes so much sense. Others (the democratic pessimists) believe that democracies are fragile hothouse flowers, highly dependent on underlying conditions. The psychological, material, and ethical foundations of the democracy are prerequisites to its continued existence and take constant care.
I fall firmly in the latter camp. I think the democratic optimists don't know much history, since democracies have come and gone over the millennia. They also confuse the philosophical justification for democracy (which is nigh-indisputable) with its stability. They forget things like the collective action problem, or interpret it in the wrong way. For example, a President has a rational interest in not cheating on his spouse, but that doesn't mean he won't do it.
But the democratic optimists have held sway in the last generation, unsurprisingly given the success of our form of government. Our last democratic crises was over seventy years ago! Why worry? Of course over the last generation the foundations of our democracy (those objective conditions I was talking about) have steadily eroded under the pressure of neglect and historical change. The superstructure of the democracy has been actively wrecked as well. The institutions which encourage popular participation (the media, the bureaucracy, interest groups, political parties) have generally been in decline, either withering away or becoming perverted, captured by elite interests. As democracies go, we are not all that healthy. At the moment I think we are downright sick.
What does all this have to do with George Bush? To repeat myself, he is no democrat (small "D"). His policies have accelerated the decline of our democratic foundations (particularly the declining middle class) while he his political style is positively fascist. Marginalizing your opposition, suppressing the vote, and manipulating the citizenry is scarcely sound practice for a democratic leader. And his party is contemptuous both of democratic process (look how they treat the House minority) and democratic substance (no give-away to corporations is too big.)
This election has shaken my faith in American democracy's future. It appears our corruption is quite well advanced now, to quote Lincoln in another context. When there is such a disjuncture between fact and perception, when citizens are so willing to invest their psyches and responsibilities in a Great Leader, democracy is scarcely possible. There are just too many people of good will who are simply deluded, and too many unreasonables who are motivated by hate and fear. You just can't make a good omelette with bad eggs. I'm not saying they are rotten- they are just starting to smell a bit funny, and I'm trying to remember how long ago I bought them.
So now I have to watch the democracy I love place its fate in the hands of a man who doesn't care about it. I have to live with the risk of 4 years of consolidation by pseudo-fascists. It's like having your first love break up with you and date a man who beats and cheats on her.
It will not be an easy time.