What we mean by democracy

When election season is upon us, there’s a lot of talk about democracy, but more specifically, there’s a lot of talk about voting: Voting as the way that people direct the government’s actions. The elevation of a person or party to power as the way in which the goals and priorities of a society are set. Voting as the most basic and critical political participation.

But people who see voting as the most important way that society is directed, think of voting as the primary duty of a citizen, or think that it’s the best (maybe the only!) way to change the world are wrong. Voting is easy to understand and that makes it easy to prioritize and focus on. Voting is the shiny, round, red cherry on top of the democratic cupcake. But it’s not the cupcake.

What we mean by democracy
The most common conception of democracy is that it is the system in which everyone votes to elect governing representatives, and those representatives are empowered by their election to put in place government-implemented programs and laws that will make the changes that we, as a society, have decided upon.

But people can take part more directly than through their representatives if votes are used to communicate decisions directly to the government, as in ballot initiatives or referenda. Elected representatives don’t always need to make decisions for the government to make changes.

Let’s take that further: Just as elected representatives aren’t required to make decisions for the government, voting and government aren’t necessary for us to make changes in society. Huge swaths of life are governed through everyday interpersonal interactions and the social norms that guide them. We govern ourselves as we debate one another, deal with strangers, and improve our norms and values.

Government for the people, by the people… and just the people
Recognizing how much of life is governed informally by interpersonal and social rules, and how those rules influence social values and actions, is important to understanding how individuals make decisions that affect society more widely. The rules and norms established through everyday social interactions put limits on not only individual actions, but on those that can be taken by the government.

In liberal democracies it’s been the rule, not the exception, that laws are passed to formalize norms that have already been accepted. For instance, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 in the United States is often credited with establishing the 40 hour work week and outlawing child labour, but by 1930 child labour had already fallen to 1.4% of the workforce (from a high of 6.5% in 1890) and the average work week had already dipped below 40 hours in 1934. In general, individual choice isn’t taken off the table until public opinion is more or less on board, and popular opposition can be enough to stop or overturn formal law.

How public opinion influences the law matters to how we should see our lives beyond election season: as interacting continuously with the rules and decisions put forth by governments. Elections aren’t the beginning and end of public decision making, just one stop along the way. Understanding the importance of our everyday lives to societal rules and the limits on government action could be key to understanding the problems plaguing formal democratic institutions.

Why democracy?
Democracy’s biggest upside is that it reduces violence. The ability to peacefully transfer government power, rather than relying on war or death for regime change, is an historically recent development that should not be taken for granted.

The interpersonal, societal process of developing and evolving public opinion is also a peaceful way to change the direction of society, which is why free exchange and expression are seen as dangerous by politically illiberal regimes. Formal democratic institutions allow elections to replace one government with another, but informal institutions, such as our desire to be and be seen as kind and reasonable and tolerance for political, moral, and social differences, can lead to changes just as transformative to the governance of society and are crucial to our peaceful coexistence.

Like the ability to vote governments in and out, the ability to talk and argue about what’s right and wrong takes things out of a violent sphere where decisions are made by a few and enforced by the police, military, or militia, and into the peaceful, persuasive sphere where decisions are made and enforced by each participant. The peaceful sphere can accommodate many different, coexisting positions, but when a decision becomes a law, it moves that topic into the sphere that depends on force – even when the government was democratically elected – to choose a single position.

Enforcement is a double-edged sword
Enforcement might be important to protect the peaceful processes of norm and social decision making. For example, let’s say a gay couple wants to meet and persuade people who might object to their relationship that their relationship is deserving of equal legal rights. Actually talking to those with opposing points of view makes holding false beliefs about them more difficult and encourages civility and understanding. It’s harder to be cruel to someone when they’re looking right at you.

The ability of the gay couple to make their case – that is, the peaceful process of norm and social decision making – is more secure because they are protected by law from those who would use physical violence to silence or punish them, a real concern for early LGBT activists.

But the same enforcement power that makes it possible for laws to help can be abused in order to bypass, rather than protect and foster, conversation and debate. That same gay couple was discouraged for years from political participation by laws that outlawed homosexuality, resulting in legal systems that looked the other way when people were attacked, or even imprisoned them if their relationship was discovered. The formal law that governs a liberal democratic society is a two-edged sword that can endanger the peaceful coexistence that it’s meant to support.

A plea for persuasion
Although historically laws have followed norms, there has long been a push to use the law to either rush, halt, or otherwise try to control social change. Once a decision is removed from the peaceful social sphere, empathy, cooperation, and persuasion can be replaced by the political acumen needed to cajole, logroll, and compromise to secure the majority (or plurality) needed to force a decision.

Because the outcome of a vote or the passage of a law results in a single, enforceable decision, it becomes easy to think of our favoured decision as the only right one. Tolerance for many points of view seems dangerous when something an individual doesn’t want might be forced upon them. It becomes easy to demonize the opponents of a law as opponents of a moral truth to which its supporters are committed.

Treating the ballot box like the only or even the best means for driving social change bypasses the social search for truth, and in doing so diminishes civility and encourages politicizing more and more of life. What’s more, it misdirects effort from the real battles that have to be fought to win hearts and minds. If we eliminate the process by which social norms are developed by relying too much on what should be a late stage of social decision making, we put a system robust to dissent, and with it, broadly-conceived democracy, in jeopardy.

If treating opposition to a law or candidate as opposition to moral truth, confusion of disagreement with being under attack, and increasingly politicized life sound familiar, perhaps it’s time to insist that we start moving contentious social issues back into the sphere in which it’s in our best interest to engage one another, build bridges, and leave more people to make their own decisions.

It’s time to go back to treating laws as an end product of the political process rather than the driving force, and voting as just one way of many to be engaged. Our ability to make decisions as a group peacefully, and a society that can tolerate diversity, might depend on it.

2 thoughts on “What we mean by democracy

  • October 25, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    I’m disappointed. Your essay on “our” meaning regarding democracy meanders through tautologies and equivalences to the grand conclusion that .. what? You have failed to address the single most important aspect of the democratic process as it exists today. That is, of course, activism. None of the important issues reach the electorate without passing through a sieve that rejects common sense and received wisdom while allowing propaganda from the gender-confused, eco-fascists, economic illiterates, crooks, and all other manner of ingrates and traitors to our heritage and prospects. Ideally, democracy is an opportunity for all citizens to have a say in how we are governed but the process founders for lack of trustworthy disseminators of information. All of your wished for “engaging”, “building bridges” and “mak(ing) .. own decisions” is corrupted by oppressive censoring of speech and imposition of “tolerance” toward the intolerable. No treatment of democracy is complete without reference to at least one of many wise cautions issued over the centuries, that government by the people succeeds or fails on the character of impressionable and corruptible people.

    • October 25, 2016 at 8:22 pm

      The whole purpose of engaging involves judging what’s right and what’s wrong, and is inimicable to moral relativism (which is, I feel I shouldn’t have to say, not the same thing as tolerance).

      And, of course, the purpose of engaging in activism is to change the minds of people and persuade them to make their own decision to agree with you, unless we want to become part of “oppressive censoring of speech and imposition of “tolerance” toward [what those who disagree with you believe is] the intolerable.”


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