April 29, 2018

Misnaming Democracy: Testing Democracy through Equality

Democracy is as slippery as the fish that got away, the unfulfilled campaign promise, and the check that is always in the mail.  When will democracy deliver equality as promised? When will the always-postponed payoff for those eternally patient democratic citizens become real? If democracy displaces the king or queen, the emperor or empress, and the autocrat and the oligarchs, then when will democracy produce power sharing and equal benefits for all?

Taking equality as the center of democracy shows that many modern political practices don’t carry out democracy. Before assuming that European and other modern electoral systems have captured democracy and perfected it, we may test that assumption by asking about equality.

            Those who are consistently blocked from full participation in democracy often already know that many who claim democracy do so at the expense of those at the bottom of the heap, on the sidelines of the game, at the margins of the electorate, and without a seat at the decision-making table: immigrants, the colonized, the uneducated, refugees and expatriates, the trafficked and the exiled, the imprisoned and the dead, the unemployed, and the unwelcome.

Those who never quite make it to the decision-making table are the Others of democracy as we know it, a specific form of democracy characterized by elections, constitutions, and modern forms of inequality. Rethinking this specific form of democracy as a misnaming allows us to reframe what democracy means and to open the question of equality as a measure of the “real.” What is “real” democracy is a question for investigation and debate, not assumption and complacency.

“Real” democracy is a political system where power is shared by all, not handed over to experts and elites pursuing narrow interests. “Real” democracy is a society where benefits from the productive forces of the day are shared by all, not the monopoly of the one percent. What is “real democracy” is a question for us to pursue in practice, not in abstract forms like equal rights that do not produce equal lived relations.

Calling anti-democratic practices and systems “democratic” is a misnaming. Only when we know how to recognize “real” democracy after careful thought and respectful debate will we know when we are confronted by misnaming that pretends to be democratic.

“Equality” is another question for investigation and discussion, not assumption and complicity. Do equal rights in a constitution guarantee equality in social relations? Does equality at the ballot box produce equal power in practice? What is “real” equality? The problem of the “real” is a ghost that I hope haunts your lives as it will haunt this blog.

Many who talk about democracy emphasize freedom and neglect equality. What does it take to avoid eclipsing equality when practicing freedom? How can these two honorable values be put into practice together?

If democracy is always in the future, forever postponed, then how might we determine whose democracy will be our democracy, whose democracy deserves to benefit from our efforts at producing equality? Many of those who claim democracy do so to benefit their own interests, and the narrow interests of those they serve. Many of our most trusted democratic leaders, even the founding fathers of major electoral democracies, did not believe that democracy was meant for all.

Over the coming months and years this series of posts will explore ways that those who call themselves democratic may be telling tall tales. Despite the persistent claims of many states to democratic practice, we can give careful attention to various slippages, postponements, oversights, exclusions, exceptions, appropriations, colonizations, invasions, persecutions, violent relations, and other verifiable events to see whether the egalitarian promise of democracy has been fulfilled.

There are ways to take democracy seriously as a practice that produces equality in the present. Attention to difference in democratic practice, rather than a homogenizing assumptions about equality, ironically may be one way to produce real-world equal outcomes. There are many ways to carry out democratic practice to produce equality. By testing claims to democracy, and critically examining their “real” outcomes by asking about equality, we will find many successful efforts at delivering equality.