What democracy actually does

Opinions about the best way forward can fracture a country in countless ways. Democracy, at its most fundamental level, is about creating a structure that can absorb those disagreements without violence or tyranny.

R. Norman Matheny/The Christian Science Monitor/File
The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

We’re all inspired by the highest ideals of democracy. Abraham Lincoln’s vow that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” kindles no small spark of pride. After all, the best of democracy often points to the best of us – the commitment to freedom, to justice, to responsibility, all wielded to form a sense of unity across race, class, and creed.

But how do we think about our governments when they fall short of this ideal? The higher ideal encourages us upward. But can it also feed our frustrations – making us feel that things are broken beyond repair or, perhaps, much worse than they actually are?

Not too long ago, the Monitor’s Jessica Mendoza analyzed the way Americans were talking about their government. And it wasn’t good. Increasingly, they were talking with a palpable sense of doom. To listen to much of the rhetoric, elections are not about setting a new course for the country, but saving it from imminent ruin. “What we’ve seen since the turn of the century is the mainstreaming of apocalyptic rhetoric,” one political scientist told Jessica.

The rhetoric has had an effect. Polls show that American politics is characterized by two voting groups that increasingly see the other as an existential threat. But that rhetoric is built on false views of what democracy really does. Politicians are essentially saying: “Thank goodness for democracy! You can vote for me, and I’ll make sure we get everything we want and the other half of the country which disagrees with us will get nothing.”

Democracies are actually really bad at that. When a country is divided, a democracy will be messy, by design. Democracies encourage common purpose and are healthier when it is present, yet they have no ability to enforce it. Quite the opposite. The purpose of a democracy is to maintain law and order while the people themselves figure out how to get along.

And that, in many ways, is the most underappreciated quality of a democracy. Opinions about the best way forward can fracture a country in countless ways. Democracy, at its most fundamental level, is about creating a structure that can absorb those disagreements without violence or tyranny. 

So the essential purpose of a democracy, argues political scientist John Mueller, is giving people the freedom to complain. When people have the freedom to complain – to agitate, to protest – even the most imperfect democratic governments almost always correct course to some degree, he notes. 

Put in somewhat loftier language, we can say that the government that works best is the government that best defends individual freedom of conscience. That gives us a very different measuring stick for democracy, notes Steven Pinker in this book “Enlightenment Now.” Democracy really has only two core tasks: protect people from chaotic violence and protect people’s right to complain. 

In a world made up of millions of hopes and opinions, you might say, the highest ideal of government is creating the conditions to best help all its people strive for their highest ideals.

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