The True Democracy

Author: Dom Rottman

“We live in a republic, not a democracy,” is a claim usually cited in America, though it applies to most other western countries as well. It is a claim said with approval by some, happy that the dangers of mobocracy are curbed, while other times it is used as a clarifying reminder of the limited influence and power individuals actually have when it comes to governance. Others still, myself included, say it begrudgingly, that despite all of the rhetoric about democracy and everything that implies we might actually live in one, we cannot truly say that we live in a democracy.

Why then, is the term “democracy” thrown around so frequently and sometimes carelessly if we aren’t actually living in a democratic society? I don’t think the answer is one of pure ignorance. It might be more apt to say that we have rather lost what democracy really is and means. But even if we haven’t understood it in the first place, it makes no difference, as democracy is worth pursuing regardless.

In light of this, what I want to do here is to begin to sketch a theory of politics and democracy that I will likely continue developing until my dying day–for I believe we will never live in what we might call a “post-political world.” It is a theory that I treat not as a product to be finished but of a kind of organism which changes, evolves, and adapts as it is developed. It is also a theory which is not necessarily original, for it synthesizes, incorporates, and echoes the words and ideas of political philosophers and thinkers past and present, whose chorus I will join so that more ears might hear the music of true politics and democracy.

Without further ado, then, what is true democracy? If we go by the Greek demokratía, from demos meaning “people” and -kratia meaning “rule” or “power,” it literally means “rule of the people.” That, unfortunatley but appropriately, is as far as objectivity extends with regard to democracy, beyond here is what one interprets it as.

But if we return to our adage stated at the beginning, can a republic–a government in which representatives elected by the people govern, legislate, and exercise power–therefore technically fit under “democracy” since, ultimately, the power of who rules is vested in the people? This is an important point of divergence. Some people who have a broad interpretation of democracy might agree, hence we get the term “representative democracy” to refer to American or other western governments.

I, however, do not think a republic or a so-called “representative democracy” is true democracy. The reason for this is because while representatives are elected by the people, it is only the representatives themselves who are doing the actual ruling. The people are, at minimum, voting–if that–, and if they want to do more perhaps donating, writing their representatives, working on a campaign, or are even campaigning to be a representative themselves. But when it comes down to actually legislating and ruling, the only individuals able to wield such power are those who win elections.

Some people are okay with this. I am not, especially if democracy is indeed something worth pursuing. To live in a democracy means not simply that the people have the ability to rule or to vest ruling power into someone else, but that they themselves are actually ruling.

This brings me to my first central point, a necessary condition for the possibility of democracy: democracy requires the political participation of all individuals in a community. It is worth emphasizing that voting and other activities listed earlier that might be considered “political” does not count as “political participation” per se. By political participation I mean doing the actual business of ruling and politics. The questions only multiply from here.

Firstly: What is political participation or action? For this I turn to the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who in turn looks at Aristotle’s concept of the bios politikos, or political life. The human traits which constitute and are essential to the political life are speech and action, lexis and praxis. While Aristotle separates them, Arendt stresses that action and speech are two sides of the same coin of being a political actor. It is perhaps best understood that action is the political “thing” or object, while speech is its driving force. Without speech, action is an inert object that takes up space, and without action, speech is a release of energy into a vacuum. For to live in a political realm, according to Arendt, means that the deciding force is words and persuasion, and action is hidden and without agency if speech does not motivate it.

One might consider that this is the spirit behind western political systems; congressmen discuss and debate on laws and policy –lexis–, then once a decision is made, legislation is passed then executed–praxis.

There are some things worth noting. Firstly, this conception of political participation is intentionally broad at the risk of being vague. This provides an important benefit that I wish to emphasize: that the political realm is one of nearly infinite possibilities, so long as they have the traits of lexis and praxis. Lexis, I think, is much easier to comprehend, while action or praxis is a bit more muddled. Again, Arendt is, perhaps appropriately, vague on action’s precise nature, beyond that it is distinct from both labor and work–which she discusses at length in her book The Human Condition–and has a character of natality. That is, to act means to begin something new, and with it carry a degree of unpredictability. We might say, then, that action is inherently experimental, and so the political actor must not only recognize possibilities but dare to explore them.

Therefore, current western governments are but one permutation of politics, obviously, since they are not and have not been the only forms of government in history. But the political realm is not only changed by who is acting politically but also how people act politically. Political praxis, with its broad definition, is not necessarily the passing and executing of laws. Again, the possibilities are practically infinite.

Having said this, while democracy therefore does not describe a particular praxis, I would argue that because in a democracy all individuals in a political community are participating and are thus the political actors, democracy has the greatest potential for different types of praxis and is the ideal political environment for different types of praxis to be tried, realized, and experimented with, in the true spirit of action, of beginning something new.

It is also worth noting that while many modern western political systems appear to be manifestations of a political realm –if not necessarily democratic ones–, they arguably are not so because speech is not actually the driving force behind what we consider as political action in government. Rather, the success of legislation is driven by the state’s monopoly on violence as opposed to the consensus of citizens being convinced by the lexis of lawmakers on the house or senate floor (and how could they be convinced; they were not even there!). This is an argument which I will unpack another time, but it is worth noting for this discussion.

The reader will have by now likely guessed where we are going from here. “This is all well and good, but how am I supposed to actually act politically? Did you not say earlier that the only individuals able to wield political power are those who win elections? What, then, is the point of talking about political action if we cannot do it or if it will make no difference?” To put it directly: how democracy?

This second question is perhaps the most important political question to ask if we want to live in true democracy. It is also one of the most difficult to answer. Some might simply say that we can’t and return to square one. I’m not going to say that if for no other reason than I just don’t want to. So if we are going to continue believing that we can live in a true democracy and that another world is possible, we must explore how it is that such a world can be constructed.

I will close and answer this therefore with what I believe to be a, if not the, first step to living in a truly democratic society. The –re–Creation of a Public Sphere. What is the Public Sphere? The term “public sphere” does not necessarily refer to government itself nor what we might call the “public sector.” The Public Sphere, simply put, is the part of our lives in which individuals freely associate and physically appear before each other in a shared space, and is therefore the location of political life and activity. For Arendt, this was manifested most authentically in the ancient Greek polis, wherein “everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence.”

That said, recreating the public sphere does not mean reverting to the ancient polis–as Arendt points out, there are several problems with that, mainly that it was made possible due to slaves and women taking care of everything else– It means that democracy must be adopted as an individual way of life in the most basic sense–after all, where else are we going to begin–and in perpetuity. American Philosopher John Dewey puts it best: “the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute,” an unending task which continues for all human experience.

The public sphere is generated whenever individuals physically appear before each other engaging in the political deeds of speech and action. This is what Arendt calls the “space of appearance,” a phenomenon which predates all formal government or construction of a public realm, and is therefore politics in the most basic sense. Without these spaces of appearance, democracy is not possible and does not exist. Yet it is also fragile; it demands perpetual motion and continued praxis on the part of participating individuals, for it “disappears not only with the dispersal of men…but with the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves.” It is for this reason why democracy is not merely a political system constructed and set up to run, democracy means adopting politics as a way of life, democracy a function of living.

The space of appearance is necessarily reborn constantly as a condition of individuals living amongst each other, but its potential for political activity and life must be intentionally and actively seized by individuals. The successful construction of a public sphere is dependent on bottom up, individual action, and cannot be done through the state or any top-down mechanism. The public sphere is not built by ticking a box in November. It can begin whenever and wherever there is a space of appearance, and therefore can begin anywhere at any time, and there is no time like the present. It is a project of reclaiming political power that has, in part, yes, been seized from individuals, but is more so neglected. It is easy to trivialize the free and open associations, gatherings, and conversations between individuals wherever they might find themselves, but such spaces are the essence, the spirit, and the sine qua non of democracy.

And yet, we are so hesitant to discuss politics at the dinner table, family gatherings, parties, etc. This is unfortunate because in refusing such discussion we deny ourselves the political potential of the space of appearance and our ability to imagine and discuss new possibilities for living and how to implement or go toward them. We make a grave mistake by making politics a personal affair when true politics is a public activity. As a consequence of this mistake the political realm in our minds is perceived as far too closed and small; the things that we imagine will be done, can be done, or should be done in Washington is far too narrow–by design–but we imagine the possibilities for ourselves to be dramatically narrower than even that, when in reality the public sphere offers an expanse of possibilities limited only by the laws of nature.

To be political is to dare to imagine, dare to think, dare to wonder the possibilities of a community, society, and humanity at large, and offer these possibilities before others in speech and action. There is a world of potential out there, obstacles though there may be. If we want to live in a democracy, it’s time to seek and imagine what could be, and realize those dreams and possibilities for ourselves–for we must. It’s time to build a new world in the shell of the old.