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What I Talk About When I Talk About Democracy
The state of our democracy is back in the news with concerns about foreign election interference. We need secure elections. But there's way more to our democratic needs than that.
"Democracy isn't just voting." It’s such a cliché. But it's true. The fact that proponents of deep democracy have to keep repeating it is a reminder of just how bad things are. So, when news about alleged Chinese interference in the 2021 election—and beyond—broke, I figured we’d be talking about that to the exclusion of everything else.
I’m working on a piece about foreign interference and how we ought to think about that. In short, in that piece, I’m going to argue we shouldn’t dismiss foreign interference: we should consider it broadly (hello America!). We should also be very careful not to stoke anti-Asian hate. We should not sleepwalk into a new Cold War. And we should shore up our democratic institutitons. I want to focus here on that last point.
I’ve been studying democracy for a long time. In high school, I became interested in how we govern ourselves—or not. During undergrad, I went all in on political theory. Then I did a master’s degree and a PhD focused on democracy and decision making. I wrote a book about it (which celebrates its fourth anniversary this month). I write about democracy as a journalist all the time. I worry about it constantly. It’s a bit exhausting and more than a little depressing, if I’m being honest. But the depressing bits are fodder for another post. This one is about how we might expand our understanding of democracy.
There are a few core elements of democracy that we generally accept. One tripartite element is procedural fairness, openness, and equality (at least in theory). That means core processes like elections are meant to be based on rules and procedures that fair, that information about them ought to be open to all, and that each person ought to be treated equally as a citizen (procedurally, that is, since this equality line breaks down in all sorts of ways).
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Most people tend to think of democracy as elections and voting. If citizens or residents have a chance to punish politicians or reward them, they call it a day. That’s democracy. They may also include rights as part of the bargain. You can have rights without democracy, of course. There is nothing inherent in rights that requires they come from a democratic body, though in practice democracies tend to produce more robust and lasting sets of rights for people, and for obvious reasons. In a democracy, the people are generally (very generally) in control. That said, we know people in democracies have a long history of willingly trading away their rights for one reason or another.
But there’s far more to democracy than voting. Moreover, rights and equality are thin and unfulfilled if they do not include substantive and material equality. That’s to say we need stuff, too. Resources. If people don’t have the capacity, time, money, or other resources to take part in democratic life and to shape discussion and debate, then they are not democratically equal to others. Some folks may choose to opt out of taking part in democratic life, but many never even get the chance to opt in. They are structurally marginalized from the get-go—told they are unwelcome in their democracy and met with a resource paucity that reinforces the point. So, democracy is also basic material equality. That’s also why you can’t talk about democracy without also talking about the economy!
Participation in public life beyond voting is essential to democracy. Building participatory institutions (citizens’ assemblies, participatory budgeting, open and deep legislative consultations, meaningful meetings with politicians and constituents, and so forth) is necessary for self-government. We don’t do this often because people in power prefer fewer checks on that power—and they tend to distrust those they govern. But we know that when we set up good processes (again, see citizens’ assemblies), we get good outcomes. People learn about issues. They give reasons for and against what they want and don’t want. They come to see one another as human beings rather than enemies. They come to trust the system more. They get more of what they want and less of what others want for them (for their own ends). Democracy, therefore, is also about participation. But, once again, that requires resources. It also requires a citizenry than demands more from government and a government willing to listen (or that is induced to listen by public pressure). See how it all hangs together?
Protest and civil disobedience are also part of democracy. Self-government is not just confined for formal or official institutions. And street power is democratic power. Often, it’s the last space in which a population ignored by elites can get their message across.
There’s far more to discuss. Of course, we can talk about our elections and voting, too. Our wretched nomination processes. The imbalance in riding population sizes, such that votes are not equal from one riding to the next. The even more wretched single-member plurality electoral system that often gives parties control of government with roughly 20 percent of eligible votes. The influence of money and consultants on the electoral and policy processes. The effect of social media on public discourse. Corporate influence on public life. Political parties using data and refined campaign techniques to target an “efficient” vote turnout for their side to the detrimant of broad-based appeals. Clickbait media. Grifters. The decline of Parliament and the role of its members. I could go on. You get the idea.
We ought to be concerned about the state of our democracy and the pernicious sorts who want to make it worse for their own ends. Indeed, we ought to take on a massive project of grassroots deep democratization. That work starts with understanding what we talk about when we talk about democracy—and knowing where the greatest threats to it are and have been for a very long time.