Editor’s note: This commentary is by Tim Kipp, a retired history and political science teacher of 39 years and a political activist since the 1960s.
The United States is in a crisis of two nations. Economic calamity, racial reckoning, a widening pandemic and rising authoritarianism divide Americans by a gulf not experienced since the Civil War.
Our future may well be charted by how we conceptualize democracy itself. Understanding, expanding and sustaining democracy can perhaps lead to a bridging of this grand canyon of national divide.
Writing in the early 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville in his “Democracy in America” observed that only the “surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint.”
Perhaps a more expansive and inclusive definition that challenges the orthodoxy will lead to a more comprehensive understanding of what a truly democratic society can be.
This definition demands higher standards for the role of government in the lives of citizens.
Democracy is not just voting and law-making.
It’s not just political.
It’s not a noun, it’s a verb acting like a noun.
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Real democracy is a continuum, a never-ending process that must perpetually be defended and nurtured.
Real democracy happens in legislative bodies, in voting booths and in the economic lives of us all.
Economic power is an essential component to democracy because our economic lives actually supersede our political lives.
Real democracy is the equal access of all people to the power that influences our economic and political lives (gender, class, sexual orientation, color).
Real democracy happens at work — when workers have a fair share of the fruits of their labors and control over the work process.
Real democracy recognizes that private property does not give license to exploit workers for higher profits.
Real democracy recognizes that where you find political power you also find economic power. And vice versa.
Real democracy does not conflate democracy with capitalism. It does not confuse a meaningless abundance of material goods with freedom.
Real democracy enables all people fair access to the security of housing, employment, health, education and leisure.
Real democracy happens when there is no poverty, hunger and racial and class inequality.
The forces that threaten democracy are constantly at work; they are embodied in the nature and process of our economic system.
These threats can come not only from corrupt and greedy people but from the political and economic institutions themselves.
Structural weaknesses can undermine democracy regardless of whether the leaders are good or bad.
Real democracy recognizes the fundamental threats of the systems of privilege — white, caste/class, and corporate privilege.
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Real democracy supports a comprehensive public education system that advances critical thinking and media literacy to distinguish facts from propaganda.
So what is real democracy?
Real democracy is a perpetually evolving system, where the people have relatively equal access to economic and political power.
We will bridge this country’s divide with more democracy.