Letter to the Editor: Democracy and the Blending of Views

In the book Political Culture and Democracy in Developing Countries, edited by Larry Diamond, the authors explain that democracy is more than elections and voting and more than free speech and civil liberties. Democracy is first of all a blending of views that partially satisfies everyone.

To picture the operation of a single-party nation, imagine if the U.S. had only the Democratic party or only the Republican party–and the other was outlawed. Within single-party nations, a single party controls governmental plans and actions and might either jail opponents or end their professional career. Democratic nations have multiple parties and interest groups who propose policies and then conduct debate and compromise until a consensus is constructed. In this way, the views, priorities, and agenda of no single person or group can monopolize the goals and actions of the government. Much of daily politicking, including public statements and television ads, consists of the attempt to persuade a sufficient number of others that a specific action should be taken by the nation. This is often done by spreading a certain perception. It is said that in politics, perception is an important and powerful reality. The political process in the U.S. has become the science of getting one’s way. In recent decades, the majority party in the U.S. House and Senate have tried to limit the participation of the minority party in the legislative process. The majority hopes to get its way by taking us toward single party rule between elections.

Power within the federal government of the U.S. is spread among five hundred legislators and numerous judges along with the president. We learned the hard way through previous centuries that this blending of views and spreading of power was needed to avoid having a single person dictate policy and actions for his or her own benefit.

In The Power Game, Hedrick Smith explains that in the U.S. today, we vote for president as if we are voting for the person who can dictate all laws, policies, and actions, but the president has to convince the legislatures to agree. He recommends that we ask presidential candidates not only to state their goals but to also explain how the legislatures will be convinced to go along. The president can set the agenda and tone of the nation.
With each of the following statements about democratic culture, decide how well it describes the people of your nation. Citizens of a democratic culture have a tolerance for different views and lifestyles and believe in the right of dissent. Undemocratic citizens might instead accuse dissenters of being unpatriotic. Citizens of a monarchy have confidence in benevolent kings and queens and say “I don’t worry about unemployment figures or the price of food because the king and queen take care of those things for me.” In contrast, the members of a democracy distrust power and instead trust in the motives and intelligence of fellow citizens. Democratic citizens have an ever-watchful attitude toward authority rather than blind submission or a fatalistic acceptance of the actions of the leaders and the rules of the state. Citizens have an intelligent distrust of leadership but they are not hostile toward it. Authority must be questioned and challenged so that it does not become dictatorial, but it must also be supported or it will dissolve.

Democracy is most appropriate and durable in a nation whose citizens have a working knowledge of politics, participate in political affairs, form political opinions and then express them through participation in public debates and organizations, and have political beliefs and attitudes rather than apathy toward everything political. If 90% of citizens pay no attention to politics for fifty years then they might wake up and find themselves in a dictatorship. Citizens of a stable democracy have a belief in the legitimacy of the state rather than say “that person is not my leader.” Citizens of a stable democracy consider education for all to be beneficial to the nation as a whole, desire economic development, have interpersonal trust for the other members, do not view government as a caring and trusted parent or as an institution that has the divine right to rule, have goals for the nation, reject revolutionary change and instead use the existing system to make changes, want to cooperate and compromise rather than suffer civil war, and have trust in their mutually beneficial system and gain enough personal satisfaction from its existence to support it while it is temporarily performing poorly–for example, during an economic recession.

Restraining one’s ideology allows results to occur; otherwise, there is nothing but deadlock. It is undemocratic behavior for citizens to be uncompromising and demand that their own view be imposed on everyone else. When too many citizens believe that “only my way is right and I won’t compromise” then civil war might occur. Such extremes are being grown by TV and internet personalities that sensationalize stories to reap their own profit. Civil war ends when everyone becomes so tired of daily death and suffering that compromise is seen to be not so bad after all. Democracy limits not only the pace of change but its magnitude, too. Compromise makes all parties partial winners rather than having clear winners and clear losers.

Democratic citizens believe that the state is responsive to their requests, but they must participate in the debate before they can measure the responsiveness of their system. The more involved are the citizens, the stronger will be their democracy.

Citizens are their own bosses and critics. Citizen-critics loudly judge the performance of bureaucratic government in socialization, education, economic growth, social reform, the maintenance of law and order, its respect for the rules of the game, and its ability to govern invisibly and to achieve legitimacy.

The only form of government that seems natural to people is that in which they grew, whether it is a kingdom, dictatorship, theocracy, or democracy. For this reason, it takes one or two generations for a people to believe in a new type of government–force never works. Democracy can not be forced on to a people by simply telling them that today, you will have elections and free speech. Instead, democracy’s blending of views has to be part of the life and culture of a group of people.

How well do you rate the level of performance of your fellow citizens and government today? Our political leaders can explain to citizens that compromise makes democracy function but instead they take advice from political marketers who tell them to appear “committed and uncompromising.” This is actually undemocratic behavior.

Robert Dalling, Ph.D.

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