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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Opinion Column

Questions and thoughts about democracy

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH


If America sets the standard for democracy, it has certainly been an inconsistent standard and there is, by any objective standards, a lot of room for improvement.


"The tragedy of modern democracies is that they have not yet succeeded in effecting democracy."

ó Jacques Maritain (1940)


We hear a lot about "democracy" in the public arena. It seems to me we hear a lot less about democracy in private conversations, even politically charged ones, but that may or may not be more a reflection of the circles in which I move than a larger social indicator. We hear from the leaders of our nation that America sets the standard for democracy. If power is truth, this certainly is true. Some of these same leaders hold up democracy as a sort of template for shaping the affairs of the world; and, by God, if the good Lordís willing and the creeks donít rise and the rapture doesnít come first, they intend to cut the world into the shapes of democracy.

Or do they?

And can they?

And what do they (and you) (and I) mean by "democracy."

Is it the sort of democracy proposed for Iraq in which the majority of citizens will not be allowed to vote in the "democratic" elections?

Is it the sort of rigged democracy practiced by the state of Florida in the 2000 presidential elections?

To judge from the indignant, condescending comments our leaders have made recently about the practice of democracy in Spain after their last election, democracy in Spain isnít working too well, though the Spanish people seem satisfied with it.

Or is it the sort of democracy the U.S. imposed on Chile when the CIA, under the direction of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, engineered the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973, thus giving Chile its own 9/11, an act of American sponsored terrorism that murdered far more people than the 3,000 who died in the World Trade Center 28 years later?

If America sets the standard for democracy, it has certainly been an inconsistent standard and there is, by any objective standards, a lot of room for improvement.

Most people I know who have thought through the concept of democracy perceive it, more or less, as government of, for, and by the people who are affected by it. Democracy also guarantees equal rights for all the people. That seems simple enough. The original Greek meaning of democracy is "rule of the people." Thomas Jefferson, one of the fathers of American democracy, wrote, "Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are the only safe depositories." Fair enough and, I believe, accurate, but Jefferson owned slaves. That he was a benevolent slave owner does not change the inherent contradiction in his thoughts about democracy, but it does bring up a second question: Who are "the people?" And a third question follows: Are some of them (us) more equal than others?

These are not just cute, disingenuous questions. The first flourishing democracy in Greece was best exemplified in Athens, but the majority of the citizens of Athens at that time were slaves and noncitizens.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence states in plain, old fashioned, understandable English that "All men are created equal." More, it asserts this is a self evident truth. Yet, at the time and for nearly another hundred years, slavery was legal and practiced the America.

It wasnít until 1870 that the 15th Amendment to the Constitution granted black people the right to vote, and it wasnít until 1964 that the 24th Amendment outlawed poll taxes for national elections which had effectively denied blacks the right to vote. As we all know, and as the aforementioned 2000 elections in Florida illustrate, racial disenfranchisement is a still a part of American democracy. It wasnít until 1920 that women were considered part of the people and allowed to vote in America. It wasnít until 1924 that Native Americans were granted U.S. citizenship and given the right to vote. It is worth remembering that during all the time that blacks, Native Americans and women were not considered part of the people, America prided itself on its democracy.

However one defines democracy, it is, like anything living, clearly an evolving concept. Democracy is not some creationist fantasy that arrived on earth in situ, but rather, a living, growing, and, alas, imperfect organism. Even in America, the standard of democracy, it is a long way from the ideal practice of "rule of the people." However one decides who and how equal the people are, it is axiomatic that the depositories of democracy will never be safe so long as democracy serves some at the expense of those who are excluded.

The course of the evolution of democracy in the world will be determined by each personís answer to the questions: What do we mean by democracy? Who are the people? Are some of them (us) more equal than others?


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