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No Manifest Equality? No Democracy.

October 31, 2010

Hobbes and Locke, in their theories of the social contract and of liberalism, presumed that all citizens were equal. Unlike the theorists, I don’t think that average US citizens and even political activists should presume equality.  The labels of democracy or republic here hinge on the fact that all citizens have manifest equality and can equally participate in the government system. Robert A. Dahl of Yale University came up with a label that I think is more fitting for our nation – a polycracy. We are pretty close to equality, and most of our people can participate. But in the end, the governing is done by “many people”, not by all of the people. I don’t think the United States is a democracy and I think that by calling ourselves a democracy, we are doing ourselves a disservice.

In the United States, citizens do not have equal access to the floors of meaningful deliberation. According to the US Census Bureau, more than four million U.S. citizens residing in the US territories are excluded from participating in the election of any voting-member of Congress, which is the political body that holds ultimate sovereignty over them. The unrepresentative face of government biases against the interests of women, minorities, and the young, less educated, and less wealthy.  Our nation’s social order ensures that not every person has equal opportunity to voice their opinion with equal weight. Manifest equality does not exist. Additionally, there are over 300 million people in the United States. In the modern nation-state, people disappear, and are reduced to “we, the people”. The average voter fails to achieve the concrete identity needed to enjoy radical plurality. 300 million people can never all be heard in one conversation about any national issue. We are not all heard in a system we all proudly call a democracy.

We aren’t a democracy. Most, not all, of the people have the ability to participate. But, by telling ourselves we are a democracy – a prized label among liberal states – we stop working towards a greater equality among citizens. By no means are we abusing the title like some countries (i.e. Democratic Republic of Congo). But, we should still acknowledge that we have further to go before we achieve the ideal. We need the motivation to progress as a society and the language we use to describe ourselves is one step towards furthering that goal. Do you agree?

4 Comments
  1. yequan permalink
    October 31, 2010 3:06 AM

    Yeah, the United Sates may not be the “ideal” democracy as citizens wish. Personally, I think it is really difficult, or even impossible, for most of people to have the ability to participate. Because the politics is kind of much more complicated, and the political philosopher’s theories can hardly be applied in real world, at least for now. I strongly agrees that “we should still acknowledge that we have further to go”. It is is a long way to achieve democracy.

  2. gustavusarborus permalink
    October 31, 2010 6:17 PM

    The concept of America being a democracy seems to have ground its way into the public consciousness despite mounds of evidence against it. While snappy, patriotic sound-bites about being a great democracy seem great, this is far from the truth. To the original framers of the Constitution, democracy and equality of all peoples, at least in practice of government, was mob rule to be avoided. Instead, they set up a republic, with certain persons (originally upper-class persons) of intelligence and consideration representing their interests.

    While these representatives nominally speak for the interests of their constituents, our elections do not actually work that way. There is probably no member of government who can claim to represent their constituents’ views with 100% accuracy. To do so would mean being a slave to poll numbers (though some would argue we’re already there). Instead, our elected officials are expected to use their beliefs and judgment in government. All the voters do is pick from two sets of personalities/beliefs/character for whom they think is most suited for the job. Particularly within the modern party system, this can lead to situations where people will vote for a candidate not because of their closeness of belief, but simply because they think they are a better alternative than their opponent.

  3. adamarcher permalink
    November 1, 2010 1:38 PM

    Dem0cracy is the opportunity for all people to participate in the political system. Apart from certain restrictions pertaining to age and born citizenship for certain offices, all US citizens have the opportunity to vote and to run for office. just because they don’t all get voted into office, or become voted into office on a representative basis according to US demographics does not make the US a false democracy. The truth is that some people are more qualified for a position and the public recognizes this and votes accordingly.

    All people have the right to try to be elected, not the right to be elected. That mistake would be kind of like calling the right to the “pursuit of happiness” the “right to happiness.”

  4. jptrue permalink
    November 1, 2010 6:35 PM

    Does a democracy exist anywhere in the world according to your interpretation? Further, is the problem with the idea of democracy that it is an issue of scales? For example, I would contest that there are many of legitimate democracies within the United States. At the local level many communities get high percentage of voters to turn out and get active participation. Thus, what does it mean for a nation to be Undemocratic? Does it imply that there is a lack of participation only at the highest levels? Further, I think its important to note that Locke and Hobbes stated that there was equality in a state of nature, and that governments and contracts must form to fight inequality that ensues when men move away from a state of nature. Thus, I don’t think it should be surprising to view the inequality that we see in the US.

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