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No Politician Alive Can 'Save Democracy.' That Job Is Exclusively for 'We the People.'
Joe-Mathews
By Joe Mathews
Published 2 months ago on
March 8, 2024

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Democracy is not something you save. It’s something you do.

Most democracy exists at the local level and is best understood as “everyday people governing themselves.”

Democracy is not about voting for one powerful person, it’s about decentralizing decision-making power.


Please don’t save democracy.

Photo of Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews

Opinion

If you’re a politician — stop promising to save it.

Just stop trying.

Because you can’t. Democracy isn’t something you save. The sooner we stop talking about saving democracy, the better off democracy will be.

Our mindless recitation of “saving democracy”— everyone from President Biden to Sascha Baron Cohen has pledged its rescue — demonstrates how little we understand about the governing systems that organize our lives.

To start, the words “democracy” and “save” don’t fit together.

Democracy is not a penalty shot saved by a goalkeeper. Democracy is not a dollar saved in the bank. Democracy is not a file saved in Microsoft Word.

Democracy is not even the migrant saved from drowning in the Rio Grande.

Democracy Can Be Confusing

It’s easy to get confused about democracy’s meaning because we use the word “democracy” promiscuously. We use it to refer to things in politics or government with which we agree. We use it to describe the status quo in countries that think of themselves as democracies.

We also use “democracy” to refer to our post-World War II liberal order, supposedly superior to all other systems, even though that order often protects military and corporate powers that undermine democracy. We use “democracy” to mean elections, even though many countries with autocracies stage elections.

After 18 years of convening conversations about democracy around the world, I have found a more useful definition of democracy. Democracy is best understood as four words: Everyday people governing themselves.

When you think about democracy this way, you realize that democracy isn’t something you save. It’s something you do — with other people. When people in your neighborhood or city or nation are governing themselves — deliberating, making decisions, implementing policies — you are in a democracy.

Thus, democracy is a do-it-yourself enterprise. The philosopher G.K. Chesterton observed in Orthodoxy that democracy is like blowing one’s nose or writing love letters—something “we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.”

So, when you judge whether a particular place counts as democratic, consider democracy as a spectrum, with “everyday people governing themselves” as its most democratic pole.

Local Is Where It’s At for Real Democracy

Soon, you’ll recognize that most democracy exists at the local level, in the smaller entities where it’s easier for everyday people to get together and govern. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “True democracy cannot be worked by 20 men sitting at the center. It has to be worked from below, by the people of every village.”

Unfortunately, when asked whether they live in a democracy, people today don’t think of their city, but of their nation-state. They usually answer the question based on whether their national leaders are fairly elected and respect constitutional norms.

The word “democracy” has become a synonym for a safe destination, the political-economic equivalent of a comfortable sofa where we can lie down and relax. From this sofa conception flows the idea that democracy can be “saved” — from authoritarians or foreign powers or misinformation that might tear us from our sofas.

But real democracy is not a sofa. It’s not cushy. Democracy, at least democracy on the spectrum of “everyday people governing themselves,” is not about voting for one powerful person. It’s about decentralizing decision-making power and handing it to regular people.

For this reason, President Biden’s pledges to protect democracy — coming from an officeholder who can govern by executive order and take military action without public deliberation — will never be credible.

Get Off Your Couches

Democracy requires us to get off our couches. It also involves faith and competition, which is why it resembles religions or sports more than a system of government. Democracy is maintained through practice. If people stop going to Mass or listening to the Pope, Catholicism dies. If people stop throwing balls at rounded bats, there is no baseball.

So, if you value democracy, do it—wherever you can. Let the kids in your local sports league vote for the all-stars, instead of the coaches or parents. Let workers and customers make big decisions at your company. Create assemblies of everyday citizens to write your city’s ordinances.

And don’t waste another moment hoping your leaders will save democracy. Get out there and do it yourself.

About the Author

Joe Mathews is columnist and democracy editor at Zócalo Public Square, and publisher and founder of the planetary publication Democracy Local.

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