Which Democracy?

Which #Democracy? There are so many to choose from: Rhetorical Democracy (R.D.), Civic Democracy (C.D.), Economic Democracy (E.D.), Political Democracy (P.D.), Social Democracy (S.D.). Let’s start with rhetorical democracy.

It was only after the drafting of the U.S. Constitution that the word “democracy” entered the political dialogue. Once it came, it would not leave. For two centuries since, anyone who wishes to be elected to higher office in America must proclaim himself a friend of democracy. And so Rhetorical Democracy (R.D.) was born, the form of democracy that prevails in the United States as of this writing.

This particular kind of democracy has no form, has no program, has no content. It stands for nothing. It is a sentiment, akin to a belief in God. It is like a potion or incantation that when uttered will magically cure what is ill.

Rhetorical democracy came into play around 1800, when politicians belonging to the “Quid” party were seeking to promote a program of economic development but could not do so without winning over those who were agitating in favor of democracy. Their sleight of hand was to make it appear as if the words “republic” and “democracy” were one and the same and that a “republican” form of government, in which a relative handful of men determine economic policy on the state and national level, is, in fact, democratic.

The Quids established a political tradition in which personal appearance and manner are all that matters, in which discussion of specific issues and policies that might be of concern to voters is explicitly eliminated from the debate, and in which attacks on one’s opponent are the most efficient way of making oneself visible and electable. What the Quids were “offering” was “equal opportunity” to succeed economically, which is about as good an offer as saying that anyone in the United States has an “equal opportunity” to run a four-minute mile—true but meaningless, since most of us lack the means for doing so.

Democracy became a “cultural style.” A “true” democratic leader will talk and act in a folksy, anti-elitist way, creating an atmosphere of well-being but standing for nothing in particular that he is willing to openly advocate that is truly democratic. He will speak of “prosperity” and “liberty” but will offer no concrete proposals. This is what rhetorical democracy is all about—appearance, sleight of hand, empty promises. It is one of the reasons democracy —“a form of government whose citizens have complete freedom to choose which candidate they prefer to mess things up for them,” “a form of government in which the people often vote for someone different but seldom get something different” — has such bad standing and is so often the object of ridicule.

Sometime in the eighteenth century, in reaction to the abuses of power exercised by the church and hereditary monarchs, democracy took on another meaning. It became equated with freedom—freedom from arbitrary constraint. Citizens wished to be able to move about without fear of being imprisoned for expressing their opposition to their government. They wanted to be able to choose their own religion without fear of prosecution for their beliefs. They wanted to be able to publish their thoughts, free of censorship. They wanted to own property without having to worry about its being confiscated.

These and like concerns have imbued the word “democracy” with a great deal of passion and allegiance for many different people from around the world over the past two hundred years. But this version is not the meaning of the word in its origins. This kind of democracy is not a form of government. It is a negative concept in that it incorporates the wish to be free from something, to be left alone, to not be bothered. I refer to such democracy as civic democracy (C.D.). Though civic democracy is not a form of government, it might well be argued that political democracy without civic democracy will not long endure.

In the nineteenth century, largely as a consequence of the exploitation and economic inequalities brought on by the Industrial Revolution, the word “democracy” took on yet another meaning. If we are, all of us, to be free from want, to be able to lead comfortable and fulfilling lives, we need to live in a society where there is a relatively equal distribution of wealth, a society that for the most part does not know the meaning of the word “class.” Such concerns usually fall under the heading of social democracy (S.D.). Social democracy concerns itself with the distribution of wealth, political democracy with the distribution of power.

Social democracy has various shades of meaning depending on the context. In America, it means “equality” in a very general, social sense. “You are no better than I. You are not my superior. I am as good as you. We are all equals.” This kind of sentiment is in direct response to the European tradition of class differences, which Americans were determined to eliminate from their culture. In fact, there were economic and social differences in many sections of early America, differences that have become only more pronounced with the passing of the years. However, the belief, not the fact, of social equality prevails as a founding and sustaining myth and in many ways is a key belief in holding American society together.

In Europe, social democracy has more a explicit meaning. It means some form of government, not necessarily democratic, in which the government makes fundamental economic decisions and has direct control of some of the primary resources, with the ultimate purpose of establishing, in fact, the very social and economic equality that exists only as belief in the United States. This meaning of the word “democracy” is inconsistent with the original meaning of the word for two reasons.

In its original meaning, democracy pertains to a form of government in which the citizens govern themselves, not an economic program. And, secondly, any form of government in which a small number of governors dictate economic and social policy is clearly not a democracy.

There are those who would argue that political democracy (P.D.) is impossible without social democracy (S.D.). I would argue the contrary—that, based on examples drawn from history and from political theory, political democracy (P.D.) cannot exist with social democracy (S.D.), where there is an oligarchic elite determining what is best for everyone else.

When local communities succeed in gaining control of local resources, establishing economic priorities and determining the way monies are spent, this is economic democracy (E.D.). Participatory budgeting is an excellent example. It began in Porto Allegre, Brazil and has since found its way to communities around the world. Monies are passed along to the community by city government. The citizenry themselves decide how that money is going to be allocated. Such procedures have been in place in Chicago and in New York City for the past several years. Millions of dollars have been spent in accordance with the wishes of those who will share in the benefits.

As people become empowered and educated on the subject of government, self-governance is liable to spread to higher levels and become more all encompassing. However, as long as it remains only a local phenomenon, as long as it is dependent on the reigning oligarchy for its source of funds, it will not alter the existing power dynamics. Nor will it mitigate the horrors and waste of wars of aggression.

Political democracy (P.D.) establishes political equality. Power is distributed evenly throughout the body politic. Everyone has equal say as to how monies are spent on the national level, as to whether or not the country should go to war. Issues are debated in thousands of local assemblies. Votes are taken and counted nationally. Legislation is passed. Policy is set. Budget priorities are established. Everyone has an equal say.

Such self-governance is synonymous with self-development. We are emotional adults only once we have the opportunity for genuine political participation. We become whole as human beings. We no longer live under the shadow of the government, a government that is beyond our control, a government that is indifferent to our welfare. In a citizen-state, individual and collective needs merge.

As the current oligarchic form of government unravels, as local communities start taking the initiative where national government is found wanting, political democracy is the next logical step. It is not sudden. Nor is it violent. It takes its time. It includes all of us. We all lead and we all follow. Such a government is not one and the same for all time. It is constantly changing in response to changing conditions. But its primary purpose remains the same: to serve the common good.

Arthur D. Robbins is the author of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained: The True Meaning of Democracy, referred to by Ralph Nader as “An eye-opening, earth-shaking book… a fresh, torrential shower of revealing insights and vibrant lessons…” Read other articles by Arthur.