January 03, 2008

Rediscovering Democracy

These days it seems that when we hear about democracy, the very concept has been so stripped of value that we no longer understand what it means. Too often when people talk about democracy, they focus on elections and votes and never on the process or the structures that allow groups of people to set a course and the policies for their shared future. Yet, the truth is: democracy is a process, not an event. Unfortunately, even in this country we forget this essential fact.

This week the news is full of elections -- the election recently held in Kenya and the election about to be held in Pakistan as well as the primary caucuses in Iowa. The whole focus is on the elections, never mind what comes after that.

So in Kenya we hear of riots and massacres because the basic tenets of democracy -- that one can lose but your voice and your needs will still be considered -- have been discarded. What does a democratic election mean when all the processes and policies after that election suppress and ignore those who did not win? When an election means winner takes all, that is not a sign of democracy - that is a sign of tyranny. It doesn't matter if the elections are free and fair, if the result is a tyranny when the voting is done.

Democracy requires trust. Trust that your party can lose, yet you can still have a voice in the process and your needs will still be considered. Trust that citizens have something to add to the discussion. Trust that people are rational beings with considered opinions and wisdom which can be tapped to set the proper course for a group, for a state and for a country.

And note: trusting doesn't mean that you give unquestioning and unlimited faith to someone else. Our forefathers certainly understood the frailties of human nature, because they put in place many checks and limits on how much power individuals or groups could acquire because they knew that granting unfettered power to anyone would lead to people betraying the trust of those who they professed to represent. The checks and balances that our forefathers put in place are required for true democracy to flourish. Limiting the power that one person or one faction has is necessary to guarantee that we don't have a tyranny, and where basic rights for people are accorded to even those who do not control the government.

Trust needed for democracy must come on two levels: 1) that everyone's opinions and needs are considered because those in power are charged with creating policies that work for everyone, not just their faction (and remember, they are held accountable and in check by how much power they can accumulate); and 2) that everyone has the capacity and the rationality to participate and shape the policies that govern their lives.

Democracy is an incredibly powerful mechanism for creating good policy and making good decisions, but only if one recognizes that it is the process - a careful discussion which includes the wisdom and knowledge of all participants - which is used to devise the best path and policies for the future. As I've written before, democracy is a most effective way of coming up with good decisions for extremely complex and dangerous problems.

This means we have to start using and trusting democracy to find the best solutions and come up with the best decisions on each step of the way. None of us, not even the smartest, can do this alone. This means we are all responsible for finding solutions to our problems. It is not enough to wait for our leaders to set the course they might not even see the right path. No one will have enough information to solve the problems on their own, but working together, pooling our knowledge and our insights, we can find a path through the thicket of catastrophes waiting to debilitate and damage our world and our futures. Today, we are all leaders in this together and we are all responsible for contributing to solutions for our problems.

We really need to start taking advantage of it.

One other enormous benefit of making decisions in an democratic fashion is that people who feel that they have been heard are highly motivated to buy into the decision even if it is not the one they would have chosen on their own. We need people to feel like they are vested in the hard decisions we have to make if we are to navigate the perilous rapids in our future.

Posted by Mary at January 3, 2008 06:55 AM | Philosophy | Technorati links |