You call this democracy?
With the beginning of the new year we look forward to a national legislature resembling nothing as much as a married couple about to enter a really ugly divorce. Cooperation has ceased a long time ago. The only kind of conversations consist of bickering, of trading insults, of making absurd accusations that blame the other for what they are clearly not responsible for. The analogy breaks down only because Democrats and Republicans cannot get divorced.
The history of this disastrous impasse is clearly complicated. It involves the fact that ours is a capitalist democracy where political parties act as if they were competing businesses, striving for power to make the other party ineffective. It involves the rapid development of different ways of communicating and the development of complex skills of manipulating information, misleading the public, making criminals appear to be benefactors of the public, and real heroes to be threats to public security. It involves the logic of representative democracy where common people are really sidelined and the country is run by a political class. Democracy is transformed into an oligarchy.
One element in this gradual decay of democratic institutions is our misunderstanding of what democracy should be. The most common account of our democracy asserts that ordinary citizens wield their political power by selecting representatives. If representatives do not promote the projects dear to the voters, they are punished by not being reelected. Central to democracy are elections. They are supposed to be the mechanisms through which common people express their opinions about policies they want the government to adopt. Democracy is about shared decision-making. Hence democracy works out to be a free-for-all between people who think differently about a wide range of issues from welfare, to gun control, to foreign wars, to the treatment of homosexuals. And on and on.
What has been lost in this focus on elections is a simple truth. Democracy does not consist of ordinary people running their country's affairs. It consists of ordinary people running their country's affair together. By focusing on elections, our idea of democracy is all about opinions and, more specifically, about differences of opinions. But differences of opinions are completely paralyzing unless the people who are different know how to cooperate in spite of their differences of opinion.
Only as cooperation is democracy a feasible project. As we see in our present experience and as, I fear, we will see much more clearly day in and day out for the next few years, where elections and different opinions are in the center of so-called democratic institutions, what you get is really an oligarchy. Where different parties fight for the power to impose their ideas on others, the project is a coercive one. The majority gathers its strength to coerce the minority. The democratic promise of allowing everybody to participate in governing – even if only minimally – is broken. Instead the conservatives dominate the progressives, or vice versa. The center of what we call democracy is domination.
A genuine democracy prizes cooperation. It values especially highly cooperation between those who disagree quite fiercely with each other. There are places where pro-life and pro-choice women manage to cooperate on sex education or adoption services projects even though they continue to disagree about the morality of abortion. These groups provide a small part of a foundation for real democracy. They trust each other, they work together. They thereby make it much more difficult to consider forcing the other into positions they find unacceptable.
Democracy is not primarily about voting. It is primarily about people working together in spite of serious differences, in spite of serious disagreements, in spite of the blatant inequities of everyday life in America today.
It takes more than goodwill to promote that sort of cooperation. It takes a good deal of hard work, of very difficult conversations, of joint projects which fail, of being hopeful in spite of real frustrations at the difficulties of overcoming the divisions in our society. The project begins with civility, with foreswearing insults of one's opponents, of voicing one's ugliest suspicions of the other as proven facts, of blaming one's opponents for all sorts of misdeeds. Democracy, as cooperation, begins with being respectful of one's opponents.
If that is not difficult enough – think of being respectful of Wall Street traders who invented subpar mortgages packaged as investment instruments – the next undertaking--having real cooperative projects with people you tend not to trust--is even more difficult. But it is clearly essential.
Until we put major efforts into such cooperations, we should stop bragging about our democracy and instead go to work trying to restore it.