Written for Political Science 101 last term at the University of Waterloo. Node your homework they said...

Democracy is more than an election every few years, a familiar process removed from the daily grind until it comes time to tick a small box on a larger piece of paper. It is instead more about people than protocol, more magical and less mechanical. We should see it in terms of an ideal to which our institutions and practices strive towards, rather than the view that these infrastructures come about as a result of this intangible juggernaut of democracy. Democracy is not a construct of man, it is instead a set of ideals and values we seek.

The typical citizen of a liberal democratic society does not have much to say about democracy except when confronted by “man on the street” interviews or whenever your particular national holiday rolls around. This apathy is not a result of genuine malice, but more a testament to the fact that our particular implementation of the idea of democracy works so well it is almost transparent. No mobs run loose through his streets at night, no men dressed in black come to “talk” to him in the early hours of the morning. His roads, sewer, electricity and television hum day and night without losing a beat. In a more direct sense, his government functions properly and does not become a burden to him. The pleasant life he leads is a direct result of a democratic society functioning properly, and it is his very right as a citizen of this society to ignore it on a daily basis.

This individualistic view of democracy cannot hold in all situations. It works for general day to day circumstances, however even the most right-wing of individualist thinkers holds a belief that under certain circumstances, citizens have a duty to perform certain tasks for the state. These duties may be mundane, such as paying taxes or voting, or extreme, such as defending one’s nation. All have a common thread, that which citizens as a member of a state have certain natural duties. Democracy cannot exist without its members participating in it, this is a fundamental requirement. These natural duties may vary from time to time but the constant is that they always exist in some capacity or another. Democracy is based upon many citizens performing small duties, instead of a small group of citizens controlling many responsibilities.

The concept of working together is one that democracy builds itself upon. Democracy is the rule of the people, not a person. It fulfills the innate human need to guide one’s destiny, through even such a small part as filling out a ballot. The fact that democracy is based on such emotionally appealing ideas should give you some conception as to the reasons for its success. Hobbes may have argued that we need someone to control us, but in the end, what we all really want is to control ourselves. The fact that democracy is able to take a selfish desire, such as the want to control the state, and turn it into a government which acts for the good of all is further evidence as to the robustness of the democratic ideal.

Democracy is an enduring dream, contrary to the doomed wunderkinds of communism and other governments based on theory not practice. While superior in their vision of a utopia on paper, they come against one fundamental flaw, namely people tend to run toward the jerk side of the personality scale. Communism without greed would indeed be utopia but the real world runs up against tangible problems with this. You cannot remove greed from a man by political posturing no more than you can paint stripes on a horse and call it a zebra. It may pass on first inspection, but when it comes down to the most basic of things, you tend to run into a few problems. The reason democracy works in the physical realm is it engages in political judo, in that it takes men’s selfishness and desires, parries them into another direction unpredicted by the man, all with the full momentum of his swing still behind him. It has survived from the ancient Greeks to this present day for this very reason.

The initial view of democracy as we know it was conceived by the Greeks, however the practical application of democracy we have today is drastically different from their view. Initially it was the concept that every citizen (citizens being of course aristocratic males) would have a say in the management of the state. Today however we have a different conception of this democratic ideal. Pure practicality dictates that we cannot have the entire community attempt to come to a conclusion on issues addressed by the state. This was practical in the Greek age where a manageable number would discuss the issues of the day, but this is not feasible in this day and age where our world population is measured in billions. The fundamental thing to remember however is that the ideal of democracy survives between this gulf of years and culture.

This romanticism of democracy is the root of its power. The society we live in values the ideals held by the democratic system, and as such we accept it as a ruling influence in our lives. An example of this is the Prime Minister being a “public servant”. Only in the strictest most idealistic sense is he a genuine servant of the people; however we call him such without a hint of irony as we value the democratic ideal so highly. All politicians are crooks we tell each other, yet we keep on voting. Why, when we so enthusiastically hate the dictators and Marcos of the world who embezzle funds? The answer lies in that we see democracy as striving toward an ideal. No man is perfect, but they’re working on it. This contradiction between reality and the psyche is at the heart of any power, and in Western countries it is what tells us that democracy is the cure for all that ills a state.

Contradiction is fundamental to democracy. Democracy brings us together we are told, it is the great equalizer. All men are born equal, none shall be held in higher esteem than another. One citizen shall have one vote. All say that the members of a democratic state are inherently equal. On the other hand we have Canada, a liberal democratic society, in which multiculturalism is not only encouraged but has an official policy to address it. Differences are encouraged, and any attempt to insinuate that we should all become equal is dismissed as right-wing xenophobia. Where then is the balance? Democracy gives us equality, but it also gives us the right to be different. It is the fine line between the two, a tightrope act of titanic proportions. The balance must not swing too far one way or the other, lest the acrobat be unset and come crashing down. The democratic ideal allows us to weigh multiculturalism and its variants against solidarity and never find a clear winner. It allows us to value them equally, as this is the ultimate measure of equality.

Equality can lead to problems however, if democracy becomes the rule of the “most equal”. A tyranny of the majority is completely democratic in the most literal sense of the word in that the majority chooses for it to be so, however it is unpalatable to many in our society. This is due to the fact that we see democracy in more than just the literal sense, we see it as a shining ideal. This ideal would not allow trampling of minority rights, and as discussed before, the ideal of democracy is the fine balance between differences and solidarity. As such we cannot allow this tyranny, permitted as it is in a literal interpretation of a democratic society. The democratic ideal implies compassion and empathy, more than just cold cruel statistics of fifty percent plus one.

The democratic ideal hinges on this idea of not allowing technicalities and numbers to become the ruling force instead of a vision of participation by all. Common occurrences such as majority governments being elected by a minority as seen as undemocratic, even though in the strictest sense they follow literal democracy. If your system is built upon the philosophy that a leader is elected indirectly through grouping voters into regions, this is particularly apparent. The recent Florida fiasco in the American elections is a particularly apt example of this. Counting non-participating voters and the popular vote, a leader was elected who received far less support from his citizens than a majority. While seen as undemocratic and a travesty, at the same time it is completely by the book.

Unfortunately, there is no book of democracy. We instead view democracy as an ideal not a construct. It is not a point by point leaflet we can airdrop over dictatorships, but instead an attitude that results from culture and history. It is a result of directing people’s desires toward solidarity, and at the same time respecting differences. While at time contradictory and awkward, it endures. It endures due to the fact that democracy is a dream not a document, and dreams are not easily lost.