Struggles of Democracy

28 June 2016

Like most words for powerful ideas, “democracy,” is a bit ambiguous, a bit blurry around the edges; the word itself is a contested item in our democracy and others.  It would help if we have a preliminary definition.   I like Lincoln’s.  “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  But now we have to ask what that means.  Here’s my take on it.

Government of the people means that all the people are subject to the laws; the rights don’t just apply to the rich or noble; the duties don’t just fall on the poor and hard-working.    We all get traffic tickets; we all pay taxes.

Government by the people includes, I think, two important ideas.  First it means that the governors, ---Presidents,  Prime ministers, senators, governors, mayors, whatever-- are citizens of the very entities they rule; no distant kings, no colonial rulers.  No Guams, no Puerto Ricos, no Flints. 

Second, and probably the most central part of our conception of democracy, the government is chosen, in a fair and equal way, not only from among the governed citizens, but by the governed citizens.  In a pure democracy, as in Ancient Athens was for a while, all the citizens are part of the governing assembly.  Well, Ancient Athens wasn’t that pure, if you take account of the fact that only men were citizens.  Women were excluded, and they also had slaves.  At any rate,  in a representative democracy, all the citizens have equal votes in choosing who governs.

It’s worth noting that  the U.S. falls short.  We do have colonies. So much for “by the people”.  Delaware has two senators, a Vice-President, and less than a million people.  California has two senators and thirty-five million people.  So much for equal votes.

Still, we are closer to being a real  democracy than Trump University was to being a real University, just to get in a gratuitous swipe at the Donald.

But now, what does “for the people” mean?  “For” suggests purpose, what the whole thing is about; the government of the people and by the people is instituted for a purpose; it should benefit “the people”.  But --- each person?  Every person?  Society as a whole?   

It seems that you could have a government of the people and by the people, but for the purpose of exalting Jehovah, or Allah, or insuring that the flora and the fauna of the region flourish.  So this idea, of for the people, seems like a further and important step.  But what does it amount to?

At least in the case of the U.S., we’ve got the preamble of the constitution to go on, which I happen to still know by heart from third grade:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It really does say, “promote the general welfare”!  Sounds like socialism.  The Founding Father’s were already feeling the Bern, perhaps.  The general welfare part even comes before securing the blessings of liberty. 

But what is the general welfare, and how much do we expect a democratic government to do about it?

Does democracy, as envisaged by the Founding Fathers, require that we aim at the material equality?  At eliminating poverty, and grotesque wealth?  Or is it consistent with the idea that as long as the GNP stays up there, the rich can get richer while the middle class gets poorer?  Where does democracy end, and socialism and the welfare state begin?


Comments (6)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, June 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Was Cameron a complete idiot

Was Cameron a complete idiot or the most diabolical schemer since Thatcher? He fends-off a vote of no-confidence by arranging Brexit, which can only get him caught between the right of his own party and the opposition party, and so of course he would lose. But in the process he divides Labor. Chillingly cynical, or even dumber than Dumb and Dumber. But the other shoe seems to be dropping. Labor should demand an early election and make staying in the EU the central issue.
IBM and AT&T were broken up, and now we have such competitive services as Microsoft and Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Economics is a social tension between investors and labor, between the quantifier and the qualifier. When all labor is replaced by cyborgs, who will set price and wage scales? What economic system is possible where time is pure quantifier and suffers no resistance from the qualifier humanity is of it?
Democracy as we know it today has its origins in the Open Field System of the English Villein, not in ancient Athens. It was a system of consensus, not adversarial vote counts.
Democracy is a dynamic in which human intimacy always entails the erection of prejudicial external edifices. But it begins and ends in the erosion and retrenchment of that edifice. Ultimately that edifice becomes the world as we know it. But the dynamic of its generation is the intimating moment in which that edifice is effaced in the recognition we share of the barrier it is to our knowing ourselves and each other. We chip away and make a chink through which a little is shared. But then time extends retrenched the quantifier. But we chip away and little by little know each other better than the world can impede. The edifice of the quantifier is not the heart of democracy, it is the pathology of it. The purpose of government, then, must be to assure enough scope in the drama of life so that the intimating moment of our chipping away at the edifice of our numbers reveals the quality of time that edifice of the quantifier can't count. That is, it is the job of democratic systems to open some venue by which the meekest can be seen to be justly critical of the strongest.  

MJA's picture


Thursday, June 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

A True Patriot

A True Patriot
It was the sound of chains rattling
That caused me to stop, to turn, to see,
An American flag struggling to be free.
It was the sound of chains rattling
That caused me to stop, to turn, to see,
Another true patriot just like me.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, July 1, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Democracy in the USA is not

Democracy in the USA is not what it once was. One notable "recovering politician" (Al Gore) thinks he knows why. In his 2013 book, The Future, he makes a persuasive argument concerning the effects of corporate lobbying upon a government which has lost its compass and ability to govern. The venerable Lou Dobbs, you may remember, said years ago that we are getting "the best government money can buy". But, then again, the uniquely American form of democracy that has all but disappeared was uniquely American. Democracy in almost any other country is not the same sort of animal. So, I suppose we should not feel so disquieted by all of this. As long as those with the biggest money control the political process, we can thank our capitalistic freedom for a governance "of, by and for corporations". The Historionic Effect. We get pretty much what we deserve.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, July 1, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Politicians spend most of

Politicians spend most of their 'free' time on the phone to rich donors. Even if the money doesn't corrupt them, all that time in absorbing th 'concerns' must take its toll on their ability to respond to the interests of their constituents that they do not have time to for. (Paraphrasing Barnie Frank)
Maybe, as intimated in the Constitution, a petition should be required, listing the signatures of constituents, to get the right to discuss politically related matters, with members of Congress, off the record. Otherwise, the conversation should be put into the record.

tomscribe's picture


Saturday, July 2, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Every time that Prof. Kumar

Every time that Prof. Kumar began to answer a question, one of the hosts interrupted him and prevented him from completing the answer.  What a terribly frustrating show.

Shaman_ko's picture


Monday, April 1, 2019 -- 3:53 PM

In a democracy, the people

In a democracy, the people get to choose. What if the people want socialism? Is socialism that bad? What does it even mean? I know of a couple ideas that seem socialistic:
1. the police force- we wouldn't want that to be privatized would we?
2. Firefighters- good thing we have them, and not choosing which fires to put out based on cost
3. Interstate highway system- very costly to create with no money coming in, unless you want tolls every 100 yards.

You know what grinds my gears? Shareholders. Getting profits without contribution. Who owns the most profitable shares? Is that a form of 'entitlement`?

Citizens should be considered shareholders of the US economy and should get a rebate that reflects the wealth the nation has. That way we all do well together. (UBI maybe)

*jeff bezos walks into a bar with 100 broke folks. On average, everyone in the bar is now a billionaire*