What Is Democracy?

Democracy – the worst form of government…

With Tuesday’s colossally surprising upset now behind us, I am musing about how to conceptualize democracy. I began to write this post on Monday the 7th, when the political landscape appeared much different from where many of us sat, perched at the edge of our screens. Indeed, with Trump’s camp appearing more on the defensive at that point, I was intrigued by the interesting and varied elements of anti-democratic speech that emanated from him and his supporters.

We are all familiar with the most public example of this, wherein Donald Trump pledged weeks ago to disavow the election results as non-democratic if they did not turn out as he wished. Yet consider how this same move has also happened among various religious groups that reassured their followers that god/Jesus/deity is in control of everything (including the election), and thus no matter what happens, the will of the people is not theirs, but the extension of the will of some god.

Apart from party politics, let’s reflect further, still, on the fact that when most of us vote, we do not do so based on some notion of what is good for “the people,” but good for us individually. While voting with someone else in mind is certainly not a prerequisite of democracy, that is certainly how we discuss it, for when it does not turn out as we wish, we label our fellow voters high ranking members of the idiocracy. And then we discuss how idiocy will destroy democracy (even though the latter is often a popular site of the former’s expression).

In these post-election hours, wherein I and my non-white, non-straight, non-Christian students, friends, and colleagues grapple with how to understand one of the most blatantly racist, sexist, and xenophobic candidates to have recently run for office, it seems quite obvious that democracy is very ordinary. This does not dispute the fact that democracy is a vital institution that makes possible free societies, but it acknowledges that it is the very same institution that also permits the instantiation of oppressive structures by those who are often too blinded by their privilege to see them.  In other words, if we can acknowledge that what comes of democracy is merely the solidification of cultural patterns that are, themselves, extensions of power structures, then we should never be surprised when democracy fails many more than it helps. As Durkheim would doubtlessly remind us, the fact that we constantly feel the need to reify democracy is not because of its self-evident goodness, but because it is an effective trope under which to unify otherwise disparate groups whose agendas cannot all be met within a single society.

photo credit: http://www.africablogging.org/democracy-the-worst-form-of-government/

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