from the desk of H. Bowie...

desktop with typewriter



A vintage United States postage stamp commemorating Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
image credit: iStock/PictureLake

Democracy is a means of governance over a society that places the reins of power in the hands of the people being governed.

Direct democracy is possible for the smallest societies, but in our modern world – and at larger scales – representative democracies are generally more widely practiced.

Democracy as a core value is clearly and directly tied to the companion belief in equality. And democracy works best when accompanied by beliefs in the value of education, critical thinking, the rule of law, science and a systemic approach to solving society’s problems.

Less obviously, perhaps, democracy is strongly tied to the core principle of imperfection; this is why Winston Churchill once wryly observed:

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.

The imperfections of democracy are often painfully obvious. You wouldn’t want all the passengers on an aircraft to decide on the plane’s design through a democratic process – why leave it up to all of society’s passengers to collectively second-guess decisions about how to best run our large and complex modern governments? And if you were interested in quick and decisive decision-making, you wouldn’t want to turn such decisions over to large bodies of elected legislators.

But confessions of inevitable imperfection are even more deeply woven into the value of democracy, because such ideals depend entirely on a shared sense of humility: an acknowledgment that none of us has perfect knowledge, or perfect decision-making capabilities. What’s more, the principle of imperfection forces us to accept, however reluctantly, that the idea of a perfect government is a chimera whose apparent charms are to be avoided at all costs, because such fantasies are always promoted by charlatans who would like to convince us to permanently turn over all of our decision-making powers to certain individuals, or to a preferred political party, or to an anointed social class.

This is why all modern democracies depend on a balance of power between different branches of government, and different levels of government, and different political parties: because all of human history has taught us that when too much power is concentrated in too few hands, terrible things eventually happen.

And so our democracies continue to bumble along, steering various erratic courses between problematic extremes, first lurching to the left and then back to the right, often making mistakes, and yet – unlike all other forms of government that have been tried – generally managing to avoid running entirely into the ditch.

It should be noted, though, that a belief in the value of democracy is not necessarily accompanied by a similar valuation for all dimensions of diversity.

As the most obvious example, any democracy is dependent upon a common language that can be spoken and read by all of its citizens – how else can they hope to be informed, and to engage in civil discourse, and to be cognizant of applicable laws and regulations?

But going further, it may be hard for a democracy to accommodate other dimensions of diversity. For example, American political scientist Danielle Allen, as quoted by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their 2018 book, How Democracies Die, makes the following observation.

The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved.

A tolerance for, and appreciation of, ethnic, religious and other dimensions of diversity are admirable goals, but as we stretch our democracies to accommodate these, we must also strive to find other unifying factors that will help to promote enough social cohesion to make most citizens feel a sense of shared values and a shared destiny.

June 3, 2020