What Is Democracy?

by Brian Schrader

We use the word "democracy", but do we know what it means?

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Democracy is more than just how we vote. It's the mechanism by which we the people exercise power and shape our society. The project of democracy doesn't end after election day, and working to expand democracy doesn't just mean expanding access to the ballot box. Truly committing ourselves to democracy means we must ensure everyone is willing, able, and empowered to participate in the democratic process. Democracy is working to improve access to the vote. It is ensuring that people can afford to engage in civic life and reap its rewards, and it is enabling people to express their views and run for office.

Democracy is, at its core, a collective endeavor, and so expanding democracy requires that we work to improve all aspects of our society. Democracy requires an engaged and educated electorate, so we must work to strengthen our education systems to ensure that people are educated and that they can secure good paying jobs.

Democracy requires that people support each other and work together to solve problems, so we must strive to help those that have fallen down, and protect those who feel threatened.

Democracy requires a constant flow of new people and new ideas in order to evolve to meet the challenges of the future, so we must ensure newcomers feel welcome and encouraged to participate in the democratic process.

Democracy also means that everyone gets a say in how society is run and everyone's opinions can be heard. Democracies must work to confront the past and look towards the future, and so we must protect the rights of all people, not just those who have been historically privileged.

It's a lot, but it can be done.

The California Capitol

We've Fallen Short

Today in America, and in California specifically, workers are under-represented in the leadership of companies they empower, the wealth shared by a majority of normal people is decreasing and that wealth has coalesced into the hands of those already wealthy beyond measure, and hundreds of thousands of Californians are unable to keep a roof over their heads, put food on the table, or find good paying and fulfilling work. These obstacles, as well as a host of others, prevent many Californians from exercising their rights as citizens of our democracy. Luckily, these are problems that can be fixed.

Other problems are trickier to solve. Voters can't hold their government responsible without a strong, free, and independent press to inform them, and local journalism is dying. Those same voters need to be educated enough to read and understand the issues facing their society, and they must be able to discuss their views in good faith and develop solutions based on a shared foundation firmly grounded in reality.

Worse still the very institutions that we use to express and craft policy are bogged down by anti-democratic limitations that constrain our ability to improve our society. Our government has been paralyzed by overzealous veto-points and a love of overly technocratic solutions. These anti-democratic limitations ensure that voters of the past hold more sway than voters today, and those veto-points and love of technocracy exhaust the public and do little to convince everyday Californians that their government can actually solve their problems.

With all of this in mind, it's little surprise that faith in democracy is declining. Studies have found concerning evidence that a growing number of people all over the world and especially in the United States are disillusioned with democracy.

More and more young people think democracy is bad

In some respects this is to be expected. As our problems become more challenging, and our political systems more paralyzed, many people may begin to lose faith that their government can or will solve their problems. Instead of participating in democracy, they tune it out. That same study also finds, "[j]ust as younger generations are less committed to the importance of democracy, so too are they less likely to be politically engaged."

What Our Democracy Can Be

Democracy needs our help. By its very nature democracy is slow and deliberative and it requires more attention to understand, but this decades long downward trend in the trust for our institutions isn't due to the inherent flaws in our democracy. Instead it's partly due to how we've twisted and mangled our system of government into a system that is better at infighting than solving problems.

If we want to dig ourselves out of this rut, empower future generations, and better people's lives we need to focus our efforts on strengthening the power of our democracy. We need to ensure that people are able to vote and that strong institutions exist to help turn their voice into public policy. Voters need to be educated about the problems facing their society and about the solutions that are being proposed to fix them. Wealth needs to be distributed more equitably and wealth can't be a driver of political success. People need to know that they're not just allowed, but regularly able to vote and encouraged to do so.

We need our government to stand up for what we believe in and move to better people's lives in real and visible ways. And we need to ensure that people, from all demographics and backgrounds, see the promise of democracy. The democratic process isn't just a ritual to be performed out of reverence. It's a vehicle for everyone in society to improve their lives and the lives of others.

The project of democracy is enormous, unfinished, and ever-changing, so let's get started.


Filed under: essay, goalsetting