'Democracy'

  • Posted on: 5 March 2018
  • By: benfell

The Human Science Institute conference is coming up in October this year and it looks like I might have something to present if, and this is a mighty big if right now, I can get it together in time. I do not know yet what the deadline will be for abstracts. I actually won't have to travel very far for this one, as it looks like it will be held in Berkeley, which makes it a lot easier, especially financially. According to the blurb I received,

Democracies and democratic initiatives are being challenged around the world. Where we once thought that commitment to democratic governance would continue to spread, it is actually in decline. Democracy is under stress as war, terrorism, mass migration, economic exploitation, and political corruption test the progress made in protecting human rights and the environment. In the United States, we are immersed in a daily barrage of news and social media messages focused on the latest assaults on our democracy from internal and external forces. At this year’s HSI conference we ask what can we do, whether in our personal or professional lives, or as engaged citizens in local, state, or national political arenas?

Democracy is a process, not a static condition. It is becoming, rather than being. It can be easily lost, but is never finally won.”
                                                                        Judge William H Hastie, 1937
In the U.S. it is “We the people” who are charged with securing our democracy through our participation in the democratic process, and, yet, millions of eligible voters are not participating. Democracy is nurtured through continuous engagement by coming together and debating the common good.1

Issues are immediately apparent. First, to refer to modern governance in terms of "democracy" is a stretch. The U.S. is governed by an oligarchy,2 at least bordering on a kleptocracy. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison took pains to distinguish between a democracy and a republic, trusting the rich to set aside their interests to govern in the interests of the country; protecting the minority rights not of any subaltern group, but the property rights of wealthy white men; distrusting the populace; and arguing that a democracy could not scale as the country grew larger.3 And the country was self-consciously a 'republic' until it became fashionable to call it a 'democracy.'4 But it is not a democracy.

Madison was wrong about much. But I am unpersuaded that democracy can scale to anything even approaching the present population size of the United States. Examples such as the anarcho-syndicalism of Mondragon are inadequate: Mondragon is strictly an economic enterprise; a country is much, much more, and a lot larger besides.

Second, to call "democracy" "becoming, rather than being," as Judge Hastie does in the passage above,5 does not alter the fact that the term 'democracy' has an actual definition. In a democracy, everyone votes on everything. Which is why its ability to scale is likely limited and why, in an actual democracy, it is likely that any attempt to grow a functioning democracy beyond some undetermined point would likely lead to cleavages as disaffected minorities chose to go their own way rather than continuing to be outvoted.

Which is to raise the enduring topic of secession. It's a topic that never goes away in this country. We see state-level secession movements that would create new states by dismembering existing states. We see national-level secession movements that would cleave new countries out of the United States. They never seem to get very far, but as one fades away, it seems another rises to take its place.

And we have to ask, Why? If the United States is indeed the wonderful land we were taught it is in school, why is secession such an enduring topic?

My answer to that question is that people no longer feel they have a voice in their government. A possibly instinctive response to a regime that persists in dismissing one's concerns is to try to find another, more responsive jurisdiction, or to found a jurisdiction of one's own. This is explicitly the case in California secession movements.6

So it seems fairly obvious that if one wants democracy, a start would be to break up large countries, including the United States.