The most recent issue of the Economist featured an article entitled “What’s gone wrong with democracy?” in which they explored how democracy has changed since its inception and what challenges we, as a world, still face in fostering true democracies.
Interestingly, a quick Google search brings up a variety of definitions of “democracy.” Dictionary.com lists quite a few, two of which are “government by the people” and “a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges.”1 Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines democracy as “a form of government in which people choose leaders by voting” and “an organization or situation in which everyone is treated equally or has equal rights.”2 Though these definitions are extremely simplistic, it’s the latter of each that is the most interesting–that democracy is a scenario in which everyone is afforded the same rights and privileges. Even the Economist article seems to imply that having a democracy equals freedom, using a chart to track which countries adopted a democracy and rating them on a “freedom scale.” Is this a fair comparison? Even more interesting, what does it really mean to be free?
The United States is technically classified as a representative democracy. This means that rather than a direct rule by the people, we elect representatives to act on our behalf. But how do we ensure that these representatives are truly acting in our interests? It’s true that we “pick” our representatives, but we don’t always know what goes on behind closed doors and often, from an outsider perspective, it seems as if things only get done through pork barreling and vote trading. The TV show House of Cards, though an extreme (and fictional) portrayal of Congress, shows a great example of this. In order to get Representative Blythe’s vote for an entitlement benefits bill, Vice President Frank Underwood offers to allocate funds to Alzheimer’s research, a disease from which Blythe’s wife suffers. While, in a rare moment of non-corruption on the show, Blythe refuses and is offended by the offer, this example shows how politicians are sometimes asked to compromise their beliefs and the best interests of their constituents in order to get other issues passed. Part of this is on us though. As citizens, it’s our responsibility to be engaged with what’s going on in government. We need to continue to develop an educated electorate and be sure that we are making our needs known to our representatives.
Though definitely flawed, as the Economist article is quick to point out, the United States is touted as a model democracy. But are we free? Are we truly democratic? If this means that everyone has a right to vote, then yes, in theory, we are free. In practice, it’s tougher to say. Voter registration can be overly complicated and some party officials have admitted to actively trying to prevent certain groups from voting.3 In addition to this, does the practice of one vote equals one voice mean that we are truly democratic? Again, in theory, yes. In reality though, does every voice really have the same weight? Because of our relatively lax campaign finance laws, it is often money that does the talking, giving wealthier individuals a louder voice than others. And obviously a louder voice means you’re more likely to be heard. As the Economist says, “All this creates the impression that American democracy is for sale and that the rich have more power than the poor […].”4
All this said, I do believe that we live in the best democracy in the world. But I also believe that our democracy isn’t perfect. A democracy needs constant attention from its officials and its citizens. Otherwise, it can start to erode. The burden is on all of us. With civic engagement and attentive representatives, we can make large strides towards embodying the full definition of democracy.
1democracy. 2014. In dictionary.reference.com. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/democracy
2democracy. 2014. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/democracy
3Seitz-Wald, A. (2012). Fla. Republican: We wanted to suppress black votes. Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2012/07/27/fla_republican_we_suppressed_black_votes/
4What’s gone wrong with democracy. (2014). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/essays/21596796-democracy-was-most-successful-political-idea-20th-century-why-has-it-run-trouble-and-what-can-be-do
Feature photo via http://www.vulture.com/2013/02/tv-review-house-of-cards-full-season.html