Baltimore IMC :
Baltimore IMC

LOCAL Commentary :: Civil & Human Rights

The Ehrlich Report

A monthly column of political commentary. This month: democracy
This is what democracy looks like?

I have been worrying more and more about democracy these days. As corporate crimes proliferate, as ballot frauds are practiced openly, as state managers have become the agents of repression, as police and military have become the instruments of social policy, and as sadistic torture and near genocidal wars become commonplace, I realize that in my view of democracy, formulated during the war in Vietnam, I never could have anticipated what we face today. There is a latent pessimism that pervades the peace and social justice movements currently. Howard Zinn, in his Baltimore visit, expressed it, I think unwittingly, “I am totally confident,” he declared, “ not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played.”

Let’s look at some of those cards and see how they are stacked. Firstly, for some people, there is a fear of genuine democracy. Why should some people fear a process that presumably empowers everyone? For many, it is a process they don’t fully understand. This misunderstanding is a part of the political-cultural mythology of the society in which democracy is conceptualized as “majority rule,” and as such, is uncontrollable. This variation views the best form of democracy as one controlled by an informed elite. Some political scientists have had the chutzpah to label this the “realist theory” of democracy.

More authoritarian “democrats” worry about the citizenry engaged in lengthy, exhausting debates and making bad decisions. Of course, making bad decisions and doing so after protracted discussion is a property of all bureaucracies, and certainly all governments. No system of government can guarantee correct decisions. Then there are those who do recognize the virtues of a democratic process, but nevertheless still fear it. Their fears are complex. There is the fear of self-confrontation. Many think that they do not have the knowledge or skills to participate in a political decision-making process. Their ignorance, they fear, would be exposed in such situations, and so they leave the participation to others. And there are those who are anxious about dissenting publically either because of their bad experiences in settings they grew up in that demanded conformity or because they fear the unknown—“at least we know what we have.”

Another problem of democratic process is the confusion of being an authority and being in authority. It is an important distinction with serious implications. There are those who have expert knowledge of a subject. They are an authority. There are those who occupy positions of power. They are in authority. Those in political authority are frequently engaged in a struggle to co-opt the authority of expertness. The Bush administration’s assault on environmental scientists is a case in point: facts have become subservient to opinion and ideology. Much of American social policies have been decided on the basis of power with the decision-making process often staged to present the appearance of authoritative discussion.

Participation in the political process not only requires some knowledge, it requires discretionary time. Not much time is available to most people whose lives are consumed by working (maybe two jobs), commuting, obligations of family and friends, housekeeping, personal maintenance, and, of course, sleep. Typically for them only some traumatic event will wrench them from their routine.

Then there are the “free riders.” These are often people who understand the political process, but they do not want to accept the responsibility of political participation. They cope as free riders on the political currents, drifting sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. They are the genuinely politically alienated.

Finally, some people think that the US is already a democracy—“and.” The statement continues: “and it is the best form of government there is.” Note that in this rationalization democracy is limited exclusively and erroneously to government. Therein is its central failure. For democracy to work, it must be practiced in school, at the workplace, and even in the family. If we limit democracy to government, then it will fail. It will become nothing more than a system to develop political consent.


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