What does democracy look like, anyway?

Call: “Show me what democracy looks like.”


If you’ve been to a protest—really, almost any protest, but especially an Occupy Wall Street protest—you’ve heard this chant.  No movement should be judged by its chants: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” may not capture a lot of nuance, but “Bring back the Glass-Steagall prohibition on the same financial institution both issuing securities and accepting deposits” just lacks pizzazz.  Still, I’ve always found the notion that a bunch of people in the street shouting is even remotely close to what democracy looks like to be problematic.  If anything, protest is the unfortunate but necessary responses to malfunctioning democracy—not democracy itself.

That said, Occupy Wall Street is teaching us some important lessons about democracy—it just isn’t doing it in the streets.  Indeed, I think even people unsympathetic to OWS’s particular message could benefit from reflecting on what the movement can teach us about the practice of democracy:

  • Democracy is slow.  We tend to judge political systems by the outcomes they produce: do they reach good decisions, and do they do so efficiently?  Judged by this metric, OWS performs only slightly better than Congress: general assemblies are time-consuming, messy, and not very productive affairs.  But democracy really isn’t just about outcomes; it is also about creating a process that meaningfully incorporates diverse values, opinions, and experiences.  Participation in these processes should be celebrated as an end in and of itself.  But doing this takes time.  True democracy will require the acceptance that politics demands more from us that a quick trip to the polls every two years, but constant—and at times, tedious—engagement with the community around us.
  • Democracy requires listening.  As embodied in the First Amendment, the right to speak out is, to most of us, a prerequisite for democracy.  In a sense, our means to exercise this right have expanded dramatically: we can now blast our opinions across the internet through twitter and comment trolling or even “speak out” through campaign donations.  What seems to have been lost is the recognition that expression has value for democracy only when someone else is willing to listen.  It is precisely for this reason that I love the much-maligned “People’s Mic” of OWS.  Repeating the words of another is not a form of brainwashing: it’s a way of slowing down communication, giving us time to consider and internalize other people’s opinions.
  • Democracy involves more than just “governing”.  Within Occupy encampments, the business of everyday life becomes a collective concern.  Even in the marches and protests in which I have participated, basic decisions about which way to turn at an intersection involve a debate followed by a vote.  Occupy recognizes that nearly all of the decisions we take as individuals have impacts on others, and that therefore these decisions should be considered as part of a broader democratic process.  This is different from saying that “government” should be extended into spheres of our lives where it isn’t already; instead, it’s about building respect for the needs of others into our quotidian thinking and personal actions.
  • Democracy requires that losers cooperate.  As became incredibly clear after Obama’s election in 2008, our political system has devolved to the point where the losing party no longer accepts the winner’s electoral mandate, but instead uses every procedural and substantive power to block them.  Occupy Wall Street would seem to take this obstructionism to the extreme by allowing a small number of individuals to “block” a proposal backed by the majority.  In practice, though, consensus decision-making works because many individuals realize that while they may disapprove of a course of action, they’re willing to defer to those who are going through with an action anyway.  Blocks are rarely used because the goal of the process is not to find perfect harmony, but precisely the kind of accommodation that our erstwhile politicians appear incapable of achieving.

Are Occupy Wall Street’s mass general assemblies, autonomous working groups, and arcane procedures of consensus decision-making a model for society as a whole?  Maybe not: my experiences in the last few months make me think that each of these would be a deeply flawed blueprint for a democratic society.  But the collective puzzling-out of what would be a truly democratic system requires, on a deeper level, that each of us build democratic values into our interactions, thoughts, and speech.  If it achieves nothing else, #OWS may at the very least create a generation that can figure out what democracy should look like after all.

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