By Wade Lee Hudson
A powerful tyranny of the majority might sustain itself over time, but pluralistic democracy requires perpetual reform. No constitution, set of institutions, legislation, or electoral victory can rigidly translate popular views into public policy while at the same time protecting the rule of law and guaranteeing individual rights. Preserving and improving pluralistic democracy requires steadily dissolving selfish power and updating outmoded institutions.
Established political actors tend to isolate themselves from their constituents. They act in their own self-interest and the self-interest of wealthy benefactors. Political institutions are inherently based on power imbalances. Certain individuals play roles that others do not, which gives them greater power. Bureaucracies emerge. Experts and elites rule. Institutions become captured by powerful interests. Constitutions, with their focus on elections, limit how people can have a voice in the shaping of public policy. This dynamic calls for popular action not limited to elections.
These realities lead some uncompromising populists to argue that democracy is not possible within any institutionalized system. They say democracy is possible only when the disenfranchised rise up, transgress the system, bring down established forms, and exercise power directly, if only temporarily. Then, as time passes, those structures become bureaucratized, or their failings become clear, and new rebels demand new institutions and reconstruct democracy. These rebellions, the uncompromising populists say, constitute democracy, “the rule of the people.”
But these advocates confuse the issue by giving the word democracy an idiosyncratic definition. Democracy is a system of government, not spontaneous direct action. Rebellions that violate established norms can help make institutions more democratic. Those who are excluded can demand new institutions that provide greater access to decision-making. Democracy requires continuous development and redesign. Some reforms can move society in a democratic direction. We can preserve democratic aspects of our society while correcting undemocratic aspects. Disruptions of existing institutions with direct action can help with this effort, but no particular fixed set of institutions will ever fully realize democracy. Incompletion is unavoidable.
This constant reconstruction requires de facto coordination and mutual respect between those who work “inside” established institutions, and those who work “outside” to confront those institutions. Good-hearted insiders may be a minority who need help from outside pressure, or they may be self-interested actors who merely respond to pressure. Analyzing motives is secondary. Regardless, outsiders need help from the inside to negotiate compromises and burning bridges by hurling personal attacks makes that more difficult. Rarely can outsiders impose their will by force, and even when they can, winning with brute force can easily boomerang. A focus on winnable objectives and some degree of reconciliation is more likely to be longer lasting.
As the United States becomes more polarized and suffers more gridlock, fewer people believe that it is “essential” to live in a democracy, and support for the notion of a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress or elections is increasing. Our cultural environment threatens freedom of speech, worship, press, and association (including ethnic and religious minorities). Uncompromising populism is spreading, as more people become angrier, convinced that the elite who administer our institutions are self-serving and don’t really listen to or care about ordinary Americans.
Republican and Democratic extremists are taking unyielding positions that don’t have majority support or any realistic prospect for gaining majority support. Their goal seems to be to mobilize enough hard-core supporters to eek out a narrow victory in the next election. This strategy neglects the potential to restructure existing institutions and build new institutions to give the majority a voice in shaping public policy — in addition to voting.
If insiders don’t listen, they miss valuable new ideas. If outsiders don’t understand the predicaments faced by potential inside allies, they can undermine the ability of those potential allies to get re-elected, which can lead to victories by opponents. Unfortunately, lack of mutual understanding is common in our increasingly fragmented society.
Democracy is a means, not the goal. The goal of pluralistic democracy is justice, liberty, and equality. Justice resolves conflicting claims in a way that gives everyone a fair settlement. Liberty allows the individual to be free and to participate in community while respecting the rights of others. Equality doesn’t mean everyone is equal in every way, but rather affirms treating everyone as equal under the law, giving everyone a voice in matters that affect them, and maximizing equality of opportunity.
The proper institutional form of democracy depends on the situation, which evolves over time as conditions and cultures change. When rebels perceive injustice and revolt, and demand a more just democracy, they may be a minority voice. Or they may have majority support and be blocked by key decision-makers. Regardless, they may rightly act outside the established decision-making mechanism and use force, such as a strike, boycott, or sit-in. In doing so, they may try to persuade the majority to shift their opinion and support them. Or they may simply try to compel the decision-makers to comply with their demands or seek to negotiate a compromise. If they’re successful, they may modify existing decision-making structures to give previously excluded people more voice in political decision-making.
But these minority voices must be careful. They need enough support from the general public to sustain the cause and enable them to gain more support over time. They need to retain enough humility to listen and avoid severely disrespecting potential allies. They can’t just assume they have all the answers. Otherwise, they can provoke a reaction that will crush their rebellion for decades or generations.
To overcome divisions, build effective popular movements, and make our government more democratic, supermajorities could unite to establish new, deomocratic community-based institutions. Four possibilities include:
Randomly selected Citizen Assemblies to develop policy recommendations.
Community dialogues with elected officials to enable randomly selected constituents to offer input and ask questions.
A network of peer-to-peer spiritual-support groups whose members provide mutual support for self-improvement.
A democratic, grassroots “Purple Alliance” that mobilizes millions of Americans to push Congress to enact compassionate legislation that has super-majority support.
These options, which are discussed more fully here, could establish new structures that would give ordinary people more voice in the affairs of government. Elected officials could use their office as a tool to help organize these mechanisms. With concerted effort, we can dedicate ourselves to serve humanity, the environment, and life itself, advance peer-to-peer partnerships, make our society more democratic, and contribute to the personal, social, cultural, economic, and political transformation of our social system.
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