Ranking at or near the top of any list of definitions of democracy is this one from Abraham Lincoln: …government of the people, by the people, for the people.
The phrase was part of his dedicatory remarks at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863, when twenty-five states of the Union were locked in a great civil war against eleven states that had seceded to form the Confederacy. It was a short speech, ten sentences in length, forever after regarded as a plea for true equality for all people of the American nation.
One problem with the definition, however, is that it also aptly described the government of the enemy, which was elected in 1861—presumably of the people, by the people, and for the people of the Confederate states.
And complicating the case further, under both governments, almost without exception, only white males were deemed citizens with full voting rights. Where was equality for all?
The lesson I take from this is that any definition of democracy is only as legitimate as the people who profess it.
No one anywhere ever said that democracy is a form of government imposed upon a people whose traditions run to the autocratic, totalitarian model, for that would betray the very notion espoused by Lincoln, that democracy is of the people—that is, arrived at through the exercise of their own free will.
Nevertheless, many nations have tried over hundreds of years to do that very thing, and many still do so today. It rarely takes. Until those under the yoke of oppression decide of their own volition to rise up, to throw off that yoke, and to determine their own form of self-government—as it was with the signing of the Magna Carta—there will be no democracy for them.
Look at it this way. If you tell me that your objective is to help me learn how to think for myself, and if together we are successful, what will happen when you realize that my independent thinking leads me to a different end-point than yours leads you on substantive issues? Will you applaud, despite our contrarian viewpoints? Or will you seek to correct me, to bring my thinking in line with yours?
If the latter, you will likely succeed if you are more powerful than I. But by forcing me back into your own thinking, will you not have failed in your original objective?
Democracy is like that. If it is truly of the people, it almost certainly will not look the same in every society claiming to embrace it—because people, despite our biological similarities, are shaped by our environment, our experiences, our learning, and our culture. And those are distinct from place to place to place.
Even within one democracy—our own, for example, or that of the great republic of Lincoln—there are differences among the governed people. Because majority rules in democratic elections, there will always be those happy with their government, and those in opposition.
Joseph de Maistre, a nineteenth-century writer and diplomat, wrote that, in every democracy, people get the government they deserve. I suspect that is true, even more so today, given the woefully-low voter turnout in our elections.
He also wrote, …false opinions are like false money, struck first of all by guilty men and thereafter circulated by honest people who perpetuate the crime without knowing what they are doing. In our democracy, we can choose what we want to believe, and we are free to espouse it. Many of us, alas, have no idea of the origin or veracity of the so-called truths we champion. We simply echo them, as if truth can be created through the repetition of a lie.
Being intellectually lazy, many of us choose to accept, with no critical reflection, what we are told by our democratically-elected leaders. Or, if we don’t like the sound of that, we opt for what we are told by those who democratically oppose our leaders. A few of us choose neither, opting instead to believe what we hear from demagogues and the lunatic fringe.
And so, we find ourselves in a metaphorical darkness—facing each other in a circle of sorts, hunkered around the fire of our democracy—chanting our respective mantras back and forth, as if in a ritual war-dance, none of us listening to the other. To those lurking in the dark, beyond the flickering light cast by the fire, our chants must sound like caterwauling—loud, nonsensical, and pointless. And if those lurkers mean us harm, our brayings must also sound welcome.
In 1944, Winston Churchill said, …[the people] together decide what government, or…what form of government, they wish to have in their country. When the people of any democracy, including our own, decide through their actions—through the exercise of their civic responsibilities, one of which is to become informed—the majority will rightfully have its way.
But we can also decide not to act, thereby abrogating our democratic opportunity to choose the government we prefer. And when we do that, we leave the right to choose in the hands of others—others whose opinions and beliefs we may not agree with. In that case, we have no right to bewail the government we end up with.
In the end, I suppose, it comes down to one simple truth. If we are to get the government we deserve, we had better be sure we represent the sort of people we want to be choosing it.