Is Democracy All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

In the U.S., from an early age “democracy” is seemingly a sacred word, carrying with it feelings of pride, valor, and a slight inherent American exceptionalism. As you get older, it’s common to get more critical, and somewhat jaded, but democratic principles are still heralded, even though actual participation in democracy is relatively low in the U.S. compared to other developed countries. On that note, I would be interested to see U.S. citizens responses to how they feel about the word “democracy” as compared to “politics”, as one is a seemingly sacred word which we believe should be spread around the world, and the other is something that should never be discussed at the dinner table and conjures up images of used-car salesmen in Washington suits. But politics is the messy part of what makes democratic ideals and institutions work. I’ve always remembered the saying that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others”.

If I’ve learned anything from this class, it’s the validity in that statement. That is not meant to be a condemnation of democracy, it truly is the best of the worst systems, and can carry with it important norms and contributions, and of course freedoms and rights. What I’ve learned is that there is no ‘Democracy’ with a capital “D” so to speak, meaning that it is maddeningly relative through time and space, especially in today’s forms. Furthermore, It is a messy and conflict prone process, often with little guarantee of succeeding, and no absolute guarantee of a continued existence. Even more so, it is very rarely a “movement of the people, by the people, for the people” and is more often a strategic political advancement via elite power consolidation. That’s seemingly just the game we’re playing in. I’m left wondering that if democracy is so fragile, and prone to manipulation (hybrid regimes) and inequality as well as apathy (issues in developed democracies) is the process to achieve it, and its consequences, something truly to be heralded? I still think for many reasons it should be, but in no sacred or guaranteed sense. It is a fragile system heavily dependent upon societal norms and engagement, and accountability of elites and institutions towards those who they claim to serve. However, it may seem that both engagement and accountability are left by the wayside in many democracies today, with apathetic and disinterested citizens, and an elitist mentality of “if I can get away with it, I will”. I’ve realized how truly idealistic and naive it is to perceive democratic leaders as “civil servants”, at least on a national and aggregate level. I appreciate the opportunities given to me, and the guarantees of my rights and freedoms and institutional support. But I will continue to believe in what I have always believed in – communities and local change. National democracy of course grants that privilege, but this is where I believe real interaction, engagement, change, mobilization, and therefor democracy occurs. I have little faith in national movements and sweeping regime changes, but I will still cling to my idealistic and likely naive notion of grassroots impact and communal civic society.

2 thoughts on “Is Democracy All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

  1. Seth, you bring up a lot of great points: the difference in the way American conceptualize democracy vs. politics; the fact that most politicians, regardless of the system in which they operate, are only out there for themselves and the power involved; how impossible it is to label a democracy with a capital D. I also think your point about broad, sweeping, nationalist change is a very astute one: change truly does happen at the grass roots level more so than the national one. Which begs the question: is it really only at the local level that our democracy functions “of, by, and for” the people? Are there still redeeming features of the impossibly huge bureaucratic political system at the national level? Or is it just necessary for the grass roots freedom to function?

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