Can democracy work?
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - July 23, 2020 - 12:00am

Today, democracy is the world’s most broadly accepted system, at least in name. But the word has become synonymous with disappointment and crisis.

Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World by James Miller (2018) is a lively history of the democratic idea from its first stirrings in Athens in Ancient Greece to today’s world where even the US, under Trump is struggling.

It  is also the story of human beings struggling to govern themselves. The story of democracy has always been filled with tensions and contradictions. In ancient Athens, citizens preferred to choose leaders by lottery and regarded elections as undemocratic. Most residents were actually excluded from political power.  The French revolutionaries sought to incarnate the popular and destroy the aristocratic class. After a period of bloodshed in the streets, many of the original revolutionaries came to see the people as the enemy.  In the US, upon its declaration of independence, the right to vote was actually limited to a minority of the population as women and Blacks were not given the right to vote.

Miller points out that amid the wars and revolution of the 20th century, communists, liberals and nationalists all sought to claim the ideals of democracy as part of their ideology even though they manifestly failed to realize them.

The great 19th century social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 in the aftermath of the American and French Revolutions: “A great democratic revolution is going amongst us.”

Tocqueville expected democracy to produce greater equality – yet democratic states conjoined with market societies have recurrently produced greater inequality. At the same time as nations have grown larger and new transnational institutions have changed the everyday life of millions, those who govern have become increasingly remote.

But democracy amazingly has survived. As Miller wrote: “If we take the number of people who claim to endorse democracy at face value, no regime type in the history of mankind has held such universal and global appeal as democracy does today.” Virtually every existing political regime today claims to embody some form of democracy. Vladimir Putin and his supporters have declared Russia to be a “sovereign democracy”. Even North Korea calls itself a “Democratic People’s Republic”.

One reason for this confusion is that people are confused between democracy and liberalism. This has been described in the same breath in the works of many Western scholars and advocates. Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed and equality before the law. The philosopher John Locke is often credited with the founding of liberalism as a distinct tradition, based on the social contract arguing that each man has a natural right to life, liberty and property and governments must not violate these rights.

The two values – democracy and liberalism – are separate values. There are, for example, socialist states that have a democratic form of government.

What is a democracy? Robert Dahl considered a formidable scholar of democracy, wrote in 1970 that a political regime must meet eight institutional requirements to be considered a democracy:

• Almost all adult citizens have a right to vote;

• Almost all adult citizens are eligible to hold office;

• Political leaders have the right to compete for votes;

• Elections are free and fair;

• All citizens may form and join political parties and other kinds of political associations;

• All citizens can freely express their political opinions;

• Diverse sources of information about politics and public policies exist and are legally protected;

• Government policies depend on votes, or other expressions of public opinion.

The book is actually composed of five historical essays and at the end, a Coda. The first essay is “A Closed Community of Self-Governing Citizens.” It focuses on the beginnings of democracy in ancient Athens. Here is the story of how the Greek hero Cleistheness extended political power to ordinary citizens and Plato’s critique of democracy: knowledge vs. opinion.  It was in Athens that we first read about a new term “demokratia.”

The second essay “A Revolutionary Assertion of Popular Sovereignty” is about the French Revolution in the 18th century. It narrates it from the fall of Bastille to the fall of the monarchy to the drafting of the world’s first democratic constitution. It also talks about a new idea, “representative democracy” in place of direct democracy and the retreat of democratic ideals in France.

The third essay “A Commercial Republic of Free Individuals” is about the American Revolution, its  Declaration of Independence and Andrew Jackson, America’s first demagogue. It ends with Walt Whitman’s poetry about the future of democracy: “It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....”

The fourth essay “A Struggle for Political and Social Equality”  talks of democracy in the 19th century until the dawn of the 20th century. There is the rise of Marxism and mass political parties like the German Social Democratic Party and, disenchantment with democracy.

The fifth essay “Hall of Mirrors” begins with Woodrow Wilson, the Great War to propagate liberal democracy, then “the cruel game of modern politics: sham democracies vs. democracy as a universal ideal.”

Finally, “The Coda” talks of the challenges to democracy today as an ideology and ideal, ending with Lincoln’s hope that it “will not perish from this earth”

An invitation for young writers, ages 8-15:

Young Writers’ Hangout is back with Neni SR Cruz!  Zoom with us on July 25, 2-3 pm. For details, contact writethingsph@gmail.com.  0945.2273216

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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