Democracy is an extraordinary experiment where the citizens, without relying on the divine rights, wisdom or munificence of Kings, Queens, Oligarchs, Dictators, Prophets or Priests, take on the responsibility of governing themselves. It is worth reminding ourselves that this has been rare in human history and even when it exists has almost always been an exception. The golden age of democracy was in the decades immediately after WW2 and then, most recently, after the coming down of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Over the years there have been many approaches and innovations giving rise to as many variations to democracy as there interest groups and ideologies in human society; including direct, representative, religious or participative democratic systems. The most popular of these being representative democracy. Most consider the holding of free and fair elections, where people can elect leaders who will represent their interests, to be the very essence of a democracy.
However, a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” would be meaningless or unsustainable if the people do not have the will or ability to govern themselves, and if their society and its’ culture did not encourage them to develop such capabilities.
A healthy democracy requires the development of a Culture of Democracy. Such a culture seeks to build citizen leaders who have the ability to make intelligent choices for themselves as well as take difficult decisions on behalf of others, if need be. Such a culture eschews the normal and passive route of relying on the wisdom of the past, the gods or the most powerful; which mostly creates docile and unthinking citizenry who can be used to further the goals of the religion, state or civilization. It seeks to, instead, empower the people to deliberately and consciously develop their own thinking and answers to complex personal and societal questions and problems. It is, by necessity, a radical one in that it develops the attitudes and dispositions necessary for cooperation by encouraging critical thinking, skepticism, active civic engagement, and public cooperation and collaboration. It is, by definition and in practice, a free society. One where citizens have a high level of autonomy and are able to make personal choices about what they can read, listen, discuss or learn; where they will live; what work, if any, they will do; or who they will marry or cohabit with.
Democracy is a complex and tenuous arrangement between diverse and competing stakeholders in a society who, even as they are skilled in advocating for their own rights, needs and interests, are also cognizant and respectful of the needs of others. They are aware that no one group or party can meet all their needs at the cost of other groups and hence requires an appetite for patient and deliberate negotiation. They know that a mindset that divides up the spoils, or respects the needs of only the largest group, results in the system itself being weakened. They understand that they must cooperate with those who think differently from them if they are to maintain their democracy and with it their own freedoms.
Most citizens in a democratic state seem unaware of what goes into maintaining a democracy, presuming that once they have a parliament or senate and elections with universal suffrage to fillit with representatives, a democracy is in place. They are, in the main, oblivious of the personal sacrifices that previous generations made during the cultural and political revolutions that first gave the society a democratic government. They also tend to be mostly ignorant of the multiple social and political assumptions and mechanisms that allow them to live in relative freedom and function as autonomous individuals. This is a dangerous and eminently untenable situation for the following reasons:
1. When we assume that the holding of elections is sufficient for a democracy, we restrict the role and function of a citizen to merely rubber stamping, and at best, selecting their leaders.
2. When we take for granted the freedoms and independence that we have today, not realizing the effort and sacrifices we need to make in order to maintain, sustain and grow them, we can be manipulated by professional politicians, oligarchies and despots of all stripes; who do not value these freedoms and are willing to diminish or even discard them.
3. When we do not invest in an education that can foster the values and culture of democracy (instead reducing all education to what needs to be acquired to meet the needs of whatever skills are marketable at any given point in time), we trade in our citizenship for becoming members of a work force that are unwitting and passive pawns of capitalists and industrialists.
4. When we forget (or future generations do not even know) what it takes to create an intelligent, mature, generous and collaborative (democratic) society, we make of democracy itself a parody. We go through the motions of elections unaware of the fact that nothing has changed except that instead of a monarch for life, we now have limited- term monarchs who still continue to call the shots reducing the rest of us to a disempowered citizenry.
5. When the most that we demand of our representatives and leaders is that they meet our material (jobs, civic services, physical safety) and emotional (national identity, group pride, sense of belongingness, cohesion against common enemy) needs, we become passive recipients whose only role is to demand of, and be catered to and appeased by our rulers.