What is democracy?

Recently, there has been a great deal of talk about ‚??bringing democracy to the Middle East‚?? or about ‚??the spread of democracy around the globe.‚?? But what does that mean? What is democracy? The Oxford English Dictionary stays that a democracy is a ‚??government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole,‚?? while one of the Encarta Dictionary‚??s definitions is of a ‚??free and equal right of every person to participate in a system of government‚?..‚??. Both of these are fine and sturdy definitions of the concept, but neither of them really gives us a picture of democracy. What does democracy look like? Is it merely lines of people at the voting booths or fund-raising dinners that cost thousands of dollars a plate? What does democracy sound like? Is it the ka-ching sound of tax-rebates and rising deficits, the hum of an uncritical media or the furious din of activists on the street? What does democracy smell like? Is it the bouquet of toxic waste after a factory buys a pollution waiver, the charred flesh of under-equipped soldiers fighting in a foreign land, or of freshly inked newspapers? What does democracy feel like? Is it that expansive glow of pride in the center of your chest that blows up like a happy balloon when you are part of something larger and better than you as an individual or is it the feeling that you are but a cog in the machine and really can‚??t change anything because, really, does anything ever change?

The problem with definitions is that they are trapped within words and we live in a world that is more than words. Of course, without words we would be lost. But without lived experience we would have no need for words in the first place. One of the problems with our talk about democracy is that it tends to be just that: talk. Americans have very few lived examples of democracy in our lives. Despite any number of definitions, what we don‚??t have are models of democracy, ways to live out democratic ideals in our daily lives. Take our schools for example. It has been eighty years since John Dewey demonstrated the necessity of connecting education with the necessity of experience and yet, most classrooms, schools and school systems do little to provide students a lived experience of democracy. From a young age, children are regimented, ordered by bells, tortured by cramped and uncomfortable desks. Really, primary and secondary school desks are the perfect metaphor for most of our educational system. If we don‚??t respect our children enough, if we don‚??t love them enough to take care of their bodies and instead force them to sit in row upon row of poorly fitting, sadistically designed furniture, they why should they believe that we care about their minds? How can a student take seriously any discussion of the freedom of democracy when they are offered none of the rights (or responsibilities)?

The Encarta Dictionary also defines democracy as ‚??the control of an organization by its members, who have a free and equal right to participate in decision-making processes.‚?? Do adults have any more of a lived experience with democracy than our children? What jobs demonstrate democratic principles? The United States holds itself to the world as a bastion of democracy but most employees are treated as serfs: toiling away in order to make the Lords (or CEOs) wealthy. Serfs were absolutely encouraged to produce enough so they can live meager but adequate lives. I do not mean to imply that this point is related only to low-wage or blue-collar workers. This is not a matter of income bracket. My point here is that we do not promote participatory democracy in our workplaces. There is no lived experience of democracy in either our schools or our workplaces, both of which are institutions in which all of us spend a considerable amount of time. How can we as a nation promote democracy in the Middle East when we don‚??t seem to promote it in our own fundamental and pervasive institutions?

But there is voting, you say, and politics in general. That is where democracy happens. If we as citizens spend much of our lives in anti-democratic environments, how effective are we going to be at making democracy happen? In a country where it is unthinkable to run for a national political office without having access to millions upon millions of dollars, is it any surprise that less than half the population votes? Obviously, the ability to vote does not insure a democracy. A democracy needs citizens who are allowed to speak and to shape the nation‚??s course; a democracy needs citizens who understand, in their bodies and their souls that the government is ‚??by the people.‚?? Yet, when we look at the laws passed every day that hurt actual individual people in order to protect the well-being of corporate interests, how can we seriously believe that the government is either for or by the people? At least with American Idol, people know that their vote counts. That is probably why there were more votes cast in that contest than for the President of the United States: the people had agency, their voting had measurable results. If a television show offers more of a lived experience of democracy than education, employment or our national politics, we are in trouble.

Democracy is demanding. Democracy requires effort and will-power and strength of character. Democracy also demands that we offer each and every citizen a place at the table, responsibility for the menu, and ownership of the restaurant. In order to have a truly democratic society, we need to begin building models of democracy into our lives and our surroundings. Only by learning the rights and responsibilities of participatory democracy through lived experience can we hope to promote democracy both inside and outside of the United States.

On this day..