Deconstructing Democracy


Democracy Deconstructed


Let’s turn to something more serious. I’ve been thinking about democracy a lot lately because (along with “freedom”) promoting this concept has been driving our foreign policy over the last decade.

Seems to me, though, the word can use some deconstruction.


Dude! The People Rule, Man!

The concept is simple: democracy is the system of government in which the people rule themselves.

Too simple, because ruling means governing, and governing means making decisions every minute of the day. And “the people” can’t do that; they’re busy. Besides, the people can’t make spontaneous mutual decisions because they’re not in telepathic communication. In practice, the people have to pick someone to make decisions for them. Democracy really comes down to people picking their own leaders.

That cat has whiskers, however, which have to be trimmed before it can catch mice. First, “the people” are not some single entity, and they don’t want some single leader. Even if they do, that leader can’t just spontaneously emerge. A process is required, some mechanism for discovering who the leader is. And that mechanism, of course, is voting.


The Trouble with Voting

So we’re back to a simple proposition: democracy is a system in which everyone votes for who they think would make the best leader, and whoever gets the most votes becomes the leader.

Ah, but that cat has whiskers too. It works okay if the group is small enough to fit in one room. It works there because people have a biological urge to fit in, to be part of the group. When they’re physically interacting, people have their antennae out, trying to gauge how the group is feeling, so they can feel the same way. A biochemical process moves people toward consensus. Not always, of course, but when it happens, that’s how. I’ve seen it in small groups all my life.

But it can’t happen in groups so large, they have to break up into separate smaller assemblies to meet physically. In a country of millions, if everyone voted for whoever they really wanted as their leader, countless thousands of people would get one or two votes apiece. In any real election, people have choose among some smaller number of candidates.

And that is where the rubber meets the road. Who decides who are in that smaller group?


Moving into Contention

What mechanisms reduce the number of possible candidates from the entire legally permissible population to two or three, or even four or five? That’s the question. If there is a democracy, that’s where the democracy is located: in the process that lets any old person move into contention for a leadership position.

Every true democracy has such a process. It’s not formally defined and it mostly goes unnoticed. In the United States (and Europe, I guess) people get into politics at some low rung and then move up. They eager-beaver volunteer to work on somebody else’s campaign. They rally their neighborhood to stop a box-store from going in. They present the grievances of the old people in a senior citizen’s home to the board that manages the home.

Or they join a political party, become a precinct worker, trundle bumper stickers around, and get to know people who know people. Or they get a teaching job, join the union, then represent their fellow teachers in a negotiation. Or they go to a hearing about parking meter rates and complain loudly and publicly.

Or they buy used shoes for a dollar, sell ‘em for two, pile up enough capital to create a start-up company, get some venture capital pouring in, sell the company for a billion dollars without having made a single product, then go into real estate and thus become a story the media loves to hate and therefore won’t stop publicizing.

All these things are part of democracy, if there is a democracy. Elections are important, but they’re only the last piece of the puzzle, not the first. 


Bicycle Rider and Cab

Last year, during the presidential campaigns in Afghanistan, I was called for jury duty in San Francisco. I didn’t end up on the jury, but I might have. I did make it into the pool of fifty or so prospective jurors, and we were told what the case was about.

It involved a bicycle rider hit by a cab. The head of the cab company was the defendant, and the guy who’d been hit was suing him. The plaintiff was in the courtroom. He looked fine, but maybe he deserved compensation for his pain and suffering. Who knows? That’s would be decided at the trial. That’s what trials are for.

This was a minor episode amongst the thousands of conflicts that break out every day in a big city, but there we all were in a courtroom. Guided by a judge and driven along by the arguments of lawyers, a whole bunch of us were going to put a lot of time and attention into deciding who was right in this case, and who owed what, if anything, to whom. the whole process cost money. The judge was getting a salary, the building maintenance crew were being paid, the lights, the sound system, the heat—and all this money came from taxes paid by “the people,” after further intricacies of procedure.


Kidnapped Girl

During those same several days, when I went home each day, I was reading the news about Afghanistan where an election was under way. In that period, a girl escaped from the house of a man who had an important government position. His name was Fahim, and he was one of several vice presidents. More importantly, he’d been one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of “commanders” (known to outsiders as “warlords”) who had torn the country apart during the 25 years of war between 1978 and 2002. The girl who escaped his house claimed that soldiers in this man’s private militia kidnapped her off the streets, brought her to his house, and brutalized her. She was lucky to have gotten out alive. Maybe she was lying. Who knows? A trial would have to decide.

The police went to Fahim’s compound and told him to come to the courthouse to answer the charges. Fahim’s compound was bristling with his private militia. He, or his spokesperson, told the police officers he was not coming to no stinkin’ courthouse and no one could make him. In that assessment he was correct—no one could make him come to the courthouse. So no trial happened. The matter was forgotten.


Yawn. Boring.

In the courtroom where we were going to hear the case of the bicycle rider and the cab driver, many of the potential jurors were scheming to get off the jury because they didn’t want to waste their time.

An enormous infrastructure of social apparatus makes an interaction like that case possible but it’s so thoroughly in place we don’t actively value it much. We take it for granted.

  • There is, first of all, the assumption that when police officers come to door, one can’t tell them to go away, no matter who one is.
  • Then, there is the routine expectation that bunches of ordinary citizens like me can get notes in the mail telling us we have to come to a certain building and hear the argument between two people we don’t know.
  • Then there’s all the volumes of law and precedent that exist to frame this matter.
  • Then too, there are lawyers and judges who know this case law.
  • And there are the schools that have taught these lawyers and judges the law.
  • And there are the rules that prevent discrimination, so that no one is barred from attending these schools just because they’re not from the ruling elite.
  • And there’s a public education system open to every single child in the society, so that everyone has at least a shot, if they want it, to learn what they need to learn … in order to go to one those law schools to learn what they need to learn … to become lawyers, so that they will have a chance to prove themselves enough to become judges…
  • And of course, there’s the assumption, accepted by us all, that whatever the judge and jury decide about the case, the people involved have to accept it.

In short, it strikes me that in a true democracy, the elections that decide who will run the government and write the laws are only the final element. Below the surface there is a vast, largely unnoticed infrastructure of assumptions, roles, rules, traditions, systems, and institutions—schools, libraries, media, professional associations, labor unions, clubs, parties, and so on and so on and so on—that make elections possible and meaningful.

Secret Ballot

In the last decade or so, the policies of the United States government have aimed at turning non-democratic countries such as Afghanistan into democracies. Largely this is done by adding elections to whatever’s already there. Everyone seems to assume that countries are by definition democracies if they hold elections. The caveats come only when someone buys votes or uses intimidation to gain votes. As long as the elections are honest and fair, the country holding them is a democracy.

I dispute this. I say it’s not a democracy unless that vast, underlying infrastructure of social assumptions and institutions are also in place. In countries like Afghanistan and Iraq (and Somalia and Zimbabwe, and on and on) elections settle on top of a whole other system already in progress.

I was interested to learn that in the Afghan parliamentary elections, many voters are at pains to ensure that their votes be publicly known. They don’t want a secret ballot. The whole point of voting is to declare your affiliation with someone who, if elected will be in a position to distribute spoils to his loyal followers.

 Getting to the Trough

Elections are a process the Americans brought to the country. Winning an election means you get to be at the trough where American largesse is flowing. Voting means you get connected to that guy. If he gets to the trough, you want him to know you helped get him there.

But real power is vested in networks of personal connections, tribal connections, marriage alliances, systems of mutual obligation set by custom and in how these are invoked and played. Another whole political system quite unrelated to voting determines who gets into actual leadership positions among Afghans. Guns are a factor, ethnicity plays into it, and deeds count too—those that create obligations, those that frighten people, those that demonstrate resolve, courage, ferocity, cunning, and whatever. The streets are full of events. People hear about them and tell each other. Rumor is the newspaper.

Do not for a moment think that Vice President Fahim lost some clout when he told the police he wasn’t going to come to no stinkin’ courtroom to answer no stinkin’ charges. That was a political move, not just the petulant gesture of a rascal. It was meant to be understood in a certain way. A guy like that, if the world starts crumbling, wouldn’t you want to be on his team?

What exactly do elections mean in an environment like that?

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