February 2006


What does Democracy mean to you? It seems to mean quite a bit less than it used to. At least many more people seem to have lower and lower expectations about it.

Democracy means many different things to many different people. Politically it's meaning gets stretched and prodded into so many different shapes that its meaning is very difficult to define. If you listened to politicians you'd have to conclude that democracy was something like a state of common consensus, because they always accuse anyone with whom they disagree with threatening democracy.

When I was a kid growing up, I had a very simple understanding of what democracy was: democracy was fair. Democracy was the condition where nobody got to tell everybody what to do and everybody got listened to. Democracy was when it didn't matter if you were big and strong or small and weak, you got the same fair shake. Democracy didn't care if you were black or white or spoke English or Spanish, it was like Lincoln said, all are equal in a democracy. Democracy was what America was, what America was about. Sometimes we messed up and what America did wasn't very American or democratic, but that's just because we're people, too, and everybody occasionally makes mistakes. By and large, we all tried to work together to fix those mistakes and to prevent new ones.

I still think that this is a fine definition of democracy. It embodies all the worthwhile aspects of a real democracy, the ideals that people want to achieve through democracy.

The biggest problem with America actually achieving those fine ideals we were all taught about in school is that America was and is many things that are at odds with democracy. Many people in this country have much more than they need and they have almost never wanted to share with those who had too little. Many people hate other people because of various pretexts, principally race and religion. Many people, especially those who lead the nation -- either in government or in industry -- may give lip service to democratic notions but have always acted as though they were better and more deserving than most of their fellows.

America is often called the cradle of democracy, but it is also the cradle of modern corporate capitalism -- that is, a system that has institutionalized capitalizing and taken it out of the hands of individual men and placed it into vast inhuman confederacies. In my own lifetime, I have watched the almost total domination of the world by these institutions of capitalism. At the same time, and from the same cause, I have seen a continuous degradation of democratic principles and institutions. The reason for this is very simple: capitalism is elitist and intrinsically opposed to democracy.

Just think things through from first principles: in democracy all people are equal and all have an equal amount of political influence. In economics the equivalent state of affairs, where everyone's economic interest is common and the economic influence of everyone is equal, is called communism.

Real human systems are compromises between ideal systems -- they seldom come anywhere near their ideals. The United States is called a Democracy because it views democracy as the correct ideal to be striven toward, not because its real institutions function according to strict democratic ideals. Sometimes it strives a lot harder than at other times. Communist China or the old USSR did not function as practical expressions of Communist ideals, but each viewed economic equality as the correct ideal to be striven toward, at least that was what their leaders usually claimed.

Communists and Capitalists are natural enemies because communism aims at economic equality, while capitalism operates to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the many. Unfortunately, Democracy and capitalism are natural enemies for precisely the same reasons. The natural compromise position between extreme democratic communism and extreme elitist capitalism is socialism, which is why practically all modern democracies are socialist in configuration, if not in name. Most moderate people are functional socialists, too, regardless of how they label themselves politically and for exactly the same reasons that most people prefer democracy to tyranny: fairness.

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