Is This What Democracy Looks Like?


Words can be used to communicate ideas between people, to describe things we can't point to.  Words can also be used to separate and manipulate.  This happens in our media all the time.  Remember when the prior administration talked about "spreading democracy"?  

This was a divisive choice of words - some of us think - hooray! spreading democracy! pass the popcorn!  to others, sounds a little like cultural imperialism.

Implicit in this phrase is the assumption that we own democracy.  in a way, in a global sense, we do - the US has the ability to more or less define who has it, who does it, what does it mean.  

In remembrance of independence day, We the People questions our right to use this term - by co-opting it, molding it, dissecting it, refining it, perhaps obliterating it.

Why? because one use for mass media is to help us understand our world.  And some think that an informed populace required for a functioning democracy.  So if you and I can't even agree on the terms, how are we supposed to build this thing together? and maybe when we look at "mob rule" "one man one vote"  who knows, maybe we won't even want it.

We are inviting listeners to write a two paragraph mini-essay answering the following questions:  

What is the definition of democracy?

Does the US measure up?  

We'll read them on the air, and discuss it with our listeners on June 25th for We the People's Independence Day show.







For me democracy is the possibility to have an influence, even if maybe a small one, to what happens in politics, in my country and with my country. Even if that means for some people that they don’t cast their votes, ever.
Still I think it’s a really good thing, a really good feeling to know that here in Switzerland I could start collecting signatures if I wanted something changed, for example (that happened about 15 years ago (and it was not me)) getting rid of the army. And if I got enough signatures together then the Swiss people would eventually be able to say yes or no to the army with their vote. They said yes, but I remember enjoying the discussions, the pros and cons, partly because I’m a firm believer that a process like this one makes you listen to the other side (even if you don’t change your opinion, I think you may change your attitude towards the opposing opinion. And sometimes, just sometimes that process made me change my mind. And it’s the same process everywhere, in my city, in my canton (your States), in my country (with its only 7.5 million inhabitants of course that is much easier than in the US)

So, yes, there are democracies without free and independent elections, all men and women are equal. And i even think it would be a good thing that even people without a Swiss passport are allowed to vote – if they pay taxes, if they have been living here for a few years.

I think that a lot of US citizens think Europe is socialist country. Yes, maybe so, if that means that everybody should have access to hospitals if necessary, even if they have no money, and that people should get some money from the State if they lose their jobs, and so on and so forth, that’s because in my opinion that holds together society, and you have to have a sense of society to have a real democracy.

So is evertything perfect here? No way, because a lot of politicians try to get their lobbied thoughts and laws passed, trying to avoid a vote on it. And of course: Who has time or energy to collect signatures all the time? Exactly, no one.
I guess to keep democracy you will again and again have to fight for it, because otherwise politicians would take it away from you, not because they are mean monsters (or at least not to start with ...), but because the public can be a pain in the neck for them, it definitely would be easier to govern without one. In other words democracy is an ongoing and hurtful process. It has to be.

What always surprise me about the US ist he power that the government possesses, that those who have the majority (even if only a slight one) can do as thay please, at least more or less. (But on the other hand California is probably a whole lot different that, let’s say Texas). What I sometimes miss from the US ist hat for a lot of the people only the winners count, but I think democracy should also take care of the losers in our society, there can’t be only millionaires ...

That’s what comes to mind ... and: what was the question again?

Transparency and Accountability

Servaas Van Den Bosch - Zimbabwe:
“I think transparency and accountability are important factors for a healthy democracy. And closely linked to this is press freedom, because the media are arguably the most active and powerful agents to enforce these two things.”

“In many countries in the sub-Saharan region transparency and accountability - and a free press for that matter - are largely absent and designed to be so. The postcolonial elite circulates power amongst itself in a perpetual effort to stay in control of resources, be it minerals, oil, policy instruments or donor funds. Commitments to strengthening democratic institutions or fighting corruption are more often than not cosmetic and do not impact essentially on the status quo.

“This is obvious in countries Kenya and Zimbabwe, where the self-interest of the powers that be and the accompanying paranoia, governs the democratic process. But the same tendencies are present in countries like Namibia, Zambia and many others and can come to the surface at any time – and in fact often do.

“It is for instance obscene that in Namibia a new spy bill is being introduced that gives far-reaching powers to monitor e-mail and telephone conversations, while at the same time the government keeps refusing to consider a Freedom of Information Act, allowing citizens to monitor what is going on in the apparatuses of the State.

“Without accountable leaders the political domain will remain an area where civil service is mixed with business interest and where public institutions and funding are abused for personal gain.

“Ultimately this leads to a society that experiences a widening divide between the elite and the impoverished masses which is a recipe for instability. The farm invasions of 2000 in Zimbabwe or the xenophobic attacks in South Africa last year are examples of this. As long as this does not change democracy in our region will be in feeble balance at best, constantly competing with other interests.”

Never Heard a Good Definition

Per Kristian Lomsdalen: Oslo, Norway:
“I think I never heard a really good definition on democracy. Democracy should mean that every person in a society has equal rights and participates in the decision making. Also:

Free and independent elections, easy access to political engagement (for any group of people no matter what cultural or social minority, freedom of speech (independent press), freedom of organizing (eg unions) People must have equal rights to education and health care to be participants in decision making. When it comes to elections, people should have access to a wide variety of alternatives.

If we believe that these factors are present in our society it does not mean we have democracy. It only means that we have a society that still needs to work hard to achieve democracy.

I think democracy used as a word to describe our societies can be quite dangerous, all the while we do not experience that the democracy works.

We should never sit back and enjoy democracy but continue to fight for the human rights that ensure that we live in a society that can ultimately achieve democracy.

In the US I think there is a big difference in the societys participants. A small group of the people have lots of power and resources with great opportunities for their own human rights and participation in decision making. There is also a big group of people being denied there human rights and some of then might not even know about their rights. This is not specific for the US, but is something we will see even more of in a world were the difference between people is getting bigger every day.

I think in the US as in every other so called democratic countries must give people, through human rights, the opportunity to participate in the decision making.”


Julie Davis Turner, West Virginia
“Democracy, in my "left-leaning, right-brained trained" thought pattern is self-reliance. It is an organizational pattern where informed people have truth upon which to base their free will and, therefore, their choices. Of course we pigeonhole this into the political realm, but I view it as a moment-by-moment choice of life: openness, honesty, integrity. Freedom in a vacuum is not democracy, rather true and lasting freedom is autonomy where self-directed choices benefit the world in which we live to promote open dialog and joint development.”

Wikipedia Definition of Democracy

I mean, if you just read this part, don't you just want to qualify almost every single sentence? ======= Democracy is a form of government in which the right to govern or sovereignty is held by the majority of citizens within a country or a state. It is derived from the Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratía (info)), "popular government", which was coined from δῆμος (dêmos), "people" and κράτος (krátos), "rule, strength" in the middle of the fifth-fourth century BC to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens following a popular uprising in 508 BC. In political theory, democracy describes a small number of related forms of government and also a political philosophy. Even though there is no universally accepted definition of 'democracy', there are two principles that any definition of democracy includes. The first principle is that all members of the society (citizens) have equal access to power and the second that all members (citizens) enjoy universally recognized freedoms and liberties.

Democracy response

I have to start by noting that the first question is "what is democracy" not "what is a democracy." There is a difference!

The former, I would say, refers to a concept, whereas the latter refers to a form of government. "Democracy" the concept combines direct representation (one person, one vote) with majority rule. As with all concepts, democracy is implemented to varying degrees in different societies, often with different admixtures of other concepts. "A democracy", the bare, unqualified term, is to me a form of government which relies solely on the concept of democracy.

The U.S. form of government was never intended to be "a democracy." As I remember from high school classes, anyway, the founders were in various parts afraid of being ruled by the working class and concerned at the possible injustice that unconstrained majority rule can bring (e.g. angry mobs). "A democratic republic" is the term I remember the U.S. being described as, and that still seems much more accurate to me than "a democracy."

The concept of democracy is a core part of our form of government, but it is mixed with other concepts — notably that of "republic" (Article IV of the Constitution provides a "guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government"), but also "that all members (citizens) enjoy universally recognized freedoms and liberties" (from the Wikipedia article on Democracy). In that sense, you could describe the U.S. as "a free democratic republic."

I can imagine a society which enjoys few of the freedoms commonly valued in the U.S. but which does allow one vote to every person and makes decisions by majority rule.

Regarding the election results in Iran and their aftermath, the key is whether you believe the results were valid, or the product of manipulation. If the results were invalid, then the concept of democracy is not truly incorporated into Iran's governance. If the results were valid, then the protests are more likely over the lack of freedoms and liberties reflected in the government's response to the protests.

Democracy - Beyond Elections

In the United States, pundits, elected officials, everyday folks and even journalists use the word "democracy" as an excuse to de-legitimize extremely democratic groups and governments. They say, "Venezuela is threatening democracy in the region", and yet depending on your definition, Venezuela is perhaps the most democratic country in the region – much more so than the United States. But these realities are very subtle, and if you have never been to Venezuela, or Brazil or Bolivia or Ecuador (or if you go and only stay at the resorts and the upper-class part of town), then you’re never going to know what to believe because the mainstream media is quick to repeat the manipulations.

There are some mainstream media that actually call Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a dictator, despite the fact that during his ten years in office there have been more than a dozen free and fair elections in Venezuela legitimately-recognized by international observers from around the world, and that he has always respected the Venezuelan Constitution and the laws. He may be a very charismatic, domineering, and powerful figure, but he’s not a dictator.

Then the real question is, "What is democracy?" That is why this radio program is so important, and that’s what we wanted to focus our attention on in our documentary film, Beyond Elections, which we released last fall, which gave people across the hemisphere the space to tell their stories and show their “democracy”.

Ask your average North American for his or her definition of democracy, and the answer is usually free and fair elections. But that is just the beginning; it’s not the end.

Latin Americans have been developing concepts of participatory democracy over the last few decades, and working with these themes in transformative ways from Venezuela's Communal Councils, to Brazil's Participatory Budgeting; from Constitutional Assemblies to grassroots movements, recuperated factories to cooperatives across the hemisphere.

Democracy is a work in progress. It is a process. As the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos says, “Democracy without End.” Elections are great, but they are only the first step. Democracy can and should built far beyond the political realm, in the home, in the workplace, in the community. And we can start right now.



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