More Perfect Unions

DEMOCRACY IS EVERYBODY’S FAVORITE WORD NOWADAYS, even that of George W. Bush, who claims to bring it to Iraq by means of an occupying army, preaches it to more democratic nations than ours, and does his best to prevent it at home. But the democracy we’ve got here is already a very limited version of the idea. I’ve started mulling it over again because we’re in an even year, and every adult citizen in the U.S. is supposed to duck into a polling place this November to cast a ballot. For many, voting is the one true rite of democracy, never mind who you get to vote for, or whether your vote gets counted.

Quite a lot of us would like to be represented by someone who would work for universal health care, adequately radical environmental measures, the stripping away of most corporate privileges, and a massive repeal of our crippling defense budget and foreign adventures — which is to say that our hopes and views are not likely to ever be represented in this representative democracy. More often, voters are grateful that their representative isn’t wildly enthusiastic about executing minors or clearcutting the entire West.

Voting is itself a limited and maybe even stunted form of public participation. It matters: the women’s suffrage movement and the heroic, bloody struggle of the civil rights era (in part for the right to vote) were critical to developing a more just society. And voting sometimes even shifts things for the better. But much of the pressure for change today comes from outside a system that is itself inadequately democratic.

Democracy literally means the rule (or kratos) of the crowd (or demos, from which we also derive demagogue, since demos had a faint taint of “mob” to the Greeks). But it seldom means that the rule is by all the people, the whole demos. Most voting systems give the victory to whoever wins the bare majority or the plurality, which means that 49.9 percent of the people can get exactly what they most dread. This seems to be in part why half the American public is bitter at any one time (though Republicans have managed to remain strangely resentful, underdogs in their own eyes, during the several years of the Bush regime).

After all, you can’t really argue that a super-slim majority of votes means that much. In 2004, Bush got 60,693,281 votes, 1 percent more than half the votes cast (overlooking all the electoral anomalies in Ohio and elsewhere). The U.S. Census reports that 42.5 percent of the U.S. population voted in that election, meaning that Bush was actually the choice of slightly more than a fifth of the people. You could argue that he represents the choice of a bare majority of the electorate who voted, but you can’t make the case that he was chosen by the demos.

As it turns out, the new millennium ushered in many razor-slim majorities and dubious outcomes in presidential and parliamentary elections around the world, and similar microscopic margins keep cropping up. Germany, Italy, and Mexico have all had recent elections for national leaders stalemated by nearly even results (though in Mexico’s case, there seems to have been considerable fraud). It’s as though in an era of unsatisfying choices, the electorate refuses to choose. Perhaps electoral democracy is crumbling before our eyes.

Honestly, I don’t know how democratic a system is even possible on the scale of 300 million. I can imagine minimizing the septic influence of money, which might lead to an electorate more interested in exercising their franchise. But how on the scale of the nation-state do you find common ground rather than majority rule? Literally find it through open, participatory discussions so that you reach a synthesis, rather than end up with one or another predetermined result, and one or another side ends up estranged? How, on a national scale, could we have a participatory debate that requires people to test the case for war or discrimination in marriage rights in public discourse?

Real democracy, not representative or misrepresentative democracy, is much more possible on the smaller scale of a functioning community. And maybe only possible on that scale.

These days, the word community is attached to almost anything — the online community, the gay community, the environmental community — but in reality a community is a group of people who can actually function as a group in conversation, support, and decision making, and only a true community can be truly democratic. Democratic in allowing the conversations that might actually change somebody’s mind about a war or an economy, democratic in coming to terms with the differences that exist within individuals and communities in everyday life. Here I might claim that I am an anarchist, except that word is almost as deeply sunk in the semantic tar pits as democracy and community, so please distinguish those who believe in life without rulers from those fomenting chaos or advocating violence. (If only there were anarchy — collective self-rule — in Iraq!)

Direct democracy is another term for it: the desire for the purest, truest form of rule by all and over none. Direct democracy has often been achieved at the scale of the worker’s co-op and collective. Much modern political organizing outside the system works by consensus process, the practical means toward the end of direct democracy: decisions are made by all, with all concerns taken into consideration — an unwieldy process but one that obliges full participation and eradicates hierarchies. On a larger scale, groups can send a spokesperson to speak for them at a spokescouncil, and consensus-based decisions have often been made by and for many thousands on this scale. This was the self-governmental means of the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, the ones defeated by fascism in 1939. Countless tribal and traditional societies have also embodied some form of collective decision making and universal participation, before and outside the limits of the nineteenth-century word anarchy. But like bodies, this form of self-government might have a maximum size beyond which it collapses.

A better word for our time might be the Argentinian horizontalidad — horizontality or perhaps horizontalism. It means a system in which all are equal participants, and it flowered as the official political order of that country foundered five years ago. Argentina, as you probably already know, was supposed to be the poster child for neoliberalism, until its neoliberal policies caused the national economy to collapse, the government to fall, and a new era of poverty — and popular insurgency — to arise. People took to the streets, the middle-class in unprecedented solidarity with the poor, and they eventually voted in a reasonably left-wing president, Nestor Kirchner. But electoral democracy isn’t the best expression of Argentina’s transformation; the neighborhood councils running soup kitchens and making collective decisions are, and so are the worker-run co-ops that reopened and still operate factories shuttered by the collapse. These glimpses of direct democracy, of horizontalism, of truly cooperative self-government are visible in many parts of the world, part of a new era in democratization that may leave the electoral democracies and maybe even the nation-states behind.

I’ll go vote on November 7, in my polling station in the Pentecostal church or the laundromat, say hi to the elderly church ladies who run it, and cast a ballot. Meeting a lot of the neighbors and hanging out with the old people thumbing through the ballot books for our names and addresses has always felt more democratic than having to pick among the choices on the ballot. So I’ll be looking beyond the names and boxes, toward the experiments that could raise all our expectations, standards, hopes, and level of influence to new heights.