How can you have a democracy if you do not know even who your neighbor is?

There is a lot of discussion about how to enrich and restore democracy, whether in Korea or in the United States. Little of that discussion spends much time considering what exactly “democracy” means. The failure to address the nature of democracy makes us blind to the implications of the systems we employ to pursue “democracy.”

Let me put it this way. If we elect dictators every four years and then have the right to dismiss them if they do not do what we thought they would do, is that a democracy? I would say it is not. We are in effect treating politicians like products, like Tide, which we assume will get out stains. And if Tide does not get the stains out, well we can buy another product. We assume of course that we have other choices in shopping, or in elections, to pick something else. Whether we have alternative products, or just the same products with slightly different packaging, remains a serious question.

Which leads us back to an essential question about democracy. Is democracy just participation in an election every few years, or should it involve constant interaction in the political process and with government officials?  Well, right now there is no way to participate in government except through voting. No other form of input is available. Political parties do not want you involved in the decision making process. Even so-called “liberal” groups like MOVEON.ORG have essentially totalitarian structures that allow you to follow their orders, but not to participate in the drafting of policy, let alone the election of their leaders. Take a look at the “contact” link for MOVEON.ORG for yourself. I would say it is worse than most corporations. And the Mormon Church is far more accessible and far more willing to talk to, and work with, ordinary people.

But I would argue that there could be many other forms of input.

There is a saying,

“People do not want leaders; they want magicians”

I am not  sure of the origin of the quote, but its significance is obvious. Leaders are people who would lead us inspire us to be something better than what we are. Leaders would be responsible to us, but only in that we are working with them constantly to support them. That is not how we look at our political leaders at all. We are mad at them because they did not do what we elected them to do. But in fact we did not do anything to help them either. We expected them to be magicians, to transform the world through miracles and tricks. Perhaps we thought they were so smart they could come up with an ingenious solution. But many of the challenges we face cannot be solved through ingenious solutions.

The only way to solve the problems in the  United States would be to have leaders. But the two figures running for president now could not be leaders even if they tried to. I have of late felt great sadness when I look at Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Here are two men, who clearly must understand how wrong many of the things they advocate are, but who are forced to go through these rituals to please the interest groups that support them. They  could not be leaders if they wanted to be leaders. I think that perhaps both of them could have been leaders in the right environment.

Let us also consider the process of democracy. So if we had elections that worked and the process of selecting candidates was relatively transparent, we would make some process in achieving democracy. But elections are just a tiny part of democracy.

How about running your neighborhood, working together to make decisions about where trees are planted or water runs? We almost never do so, and for most of us there is no community we are involved in. So we do not know the names of our neighbors and in a real sense there can be no democracy.

Let us also consider the nature of government. I can testify on the basis of my experience with government that is it not a democracy internally. Government employees do not have any way of conveying their opinions or influencing government policy. There are not  mechanisms to permit all government employees to participate in the decision-making process. But this is exactly where democracy should start. Nor can NGOs work closely with government officials for better government. But why not?

Then, for that matter, corporations and many other organizations also are not even slightly democratic in their make up. If we talk only about elections every two years and consider that democracy, we are deluding ourselves about democracy.

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