Search Site
 
 
 
 Main Menu  
 Home
 Mission and Purpose
 Glossary
 Links
 Newsletters
 Subscribe
 Discussion
 New Entry Log
 Legal Notes

The Triumph of Form Over Content When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

You Are Here: Home -> Glossary -> Democracy

Democracy

Democracy is a social and cultural convention, rather than some intrinsic human value. Beset on all sides by forces that would concentrate power, democracy must be actively cultivated and pursued by its practitioners and recipients, the public. Democracy at its best is dynamic, actively encouraging the interplay of a wide variety of diverse ideas. Democracy is not efficient. It is slow, contemplative, and at times hesitant. It is also capable of novel and unorthodox solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Democracy does not inhere in specific structures or mechanisms, but in the feeling of citizens that they are self directed, individually and collectively. The mechanisms of democracy (elections, referenda, etc.) are just abstractions of or proxies for the democratic public spirit. If the spirit is alive and active, then the mechanisms will more or less translate the public will into democratic governance. If, however, people lose this democratic sense, then there is no democracy, even if the democratic abstractions remain. This democratic sense is in constant danger of evaporating, challenged by expertise, self-interest, passivity, and atomization.

The first danger, expertise, is simply the idea that some people are more qualified than others to decide what government policy should be. This is based on two misapprehensions: that knowing the likely outcome of a given policy is the same as knowing whether or not that outcome is desirable, and that people aren't capable of making informed decisions. This attitude is informed by the elitism of someone like Jose Ortega y Gasset, who sees the "mass" as an undifferentiated mob of rubes who love all things banal and have no deeper aim than to be entertained. Of course, it makes sense that someone who has devoted her life to a topic will be more qualified to speak knowledgeably about it than a lay person, but this just means that the qualified person has a democratic duty to try and explain the topic to others, so that they understand what is at stake and what options are available.

Unfortunately, in our society most experts work for interested organizations. This is the second threat to democracy. Let's say our expert is a specialist on nuclear power, and she understands the risks associated with producing electricity from uranium fission. Chances are that she works for a nuclear utility, and chances are that she was forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement on being hired. If she goes public about the risks of nuclear fission, then she is acting against the business interests of her employer and, what's more, is probably breaking the law or at the very least her employment contract, in spite of the fact that the public needs to understand these risks. She risks her career and possible liability by speaking out. Meanwhile, the company is paying other experts large sums of money to "inform" the public that nuclear power is really safe.

Since we live in a heavily mediated and consumer oriented society, people are constantly receiving messages that encourage participation in the market in order to solve most problems and become happy. This diverts us away from the political arena, and so we are in danger of becoming passive in the face of the constant barrage of feel good propaganda. We also see evidence that the governments we elect are too subject to interested parties, but instead of becoming more involved, which would make our governments more compatible, we grow disgusted, then cynical, and then we lose all faith in the integrity of the political system.

The market is very atomizing for consumers. Besides shopping in pairs and small groups, we tend to buy individually. For example, it is unlikely that I would be successful in convincing everyone in my apartment building to agree to buying, say, toilet paper in bulk and then negotiating for a better price. That atomization tends to spill over into other areas. We are less likely to join organizations of all sorts in a heavily marketized society, because our interaction with the market is on an individual level. I make a consumer choice; you make a consumer choice; and the sum of all the consumer choices drives how investments are allocated. (There's even a theory of governance, called consumer sovereignty, which holds that the sum of consumers making choices in the marketplace is all the democracy we need.) And, of course, to a large extent, advertising drives how consumers choose.

If people, when asked to participate, cry "why bother? It doesn't work for me," then such fatalism becomes self-fulfilling. It is the sort of thinking which sweeps dictatorships into power and allows elected officials to deliver power into the hands of unelected entities. If I am apolitical, then I am an unwitting supporter of people who are anti-political. For example, international bodies like the World Trade Organization drastically constrain governments from taking measures to uphold the public interest, but it is the willingness of citizens to sit back and allow this which makes the constraints stick.

Valid HTML 4.01! Valid CSS!
This page fully complies with the W3C standard for HTML 4.01 Transitional and uses Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

Copyright © 2000, 2002 by Ryan McGreal