Democracy is a tricky word, as noted at the end of Hunt the Devil. Whether we’ve too little of it or too much depends on what we mean by it.
To Walt Whitman, democracy meant not accepting anything except what everyone else can have their “counterpart of on the same terms” (Leaves of Grass). He could never get his fill of this kind of democracy, which resonated with overtones of equality among differences and resistance to privilege.
The standard definition of democracy refers to rule of the people primarily through their representatives, free and fair elections, and decisions by majority vote. Fair enough, so far as it goes, but lifeless.
Whitman the poet understood that democracy is a richly symbolic word, a term inflected with cultural values, a spiritual “password primeval,” the rite of entry to our primal and intuitive soul, to our very identity as person and people. “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Whitman said of the democratic self.
The democratic ideal is not elitist, discriminatory, or otherwise alienated from community, nor does it homogenize people. People are connected to one another on egalitarian terms and in continuing contestation of their interdependent differences.
In this sense, democracy is a timeless myth that transcends the rule of radical individualism and capitalist opportunism, an emblem of virtue and a dream of salvation. It is a true sentiment, a national quest, a recurring wish to restore power to the people.
Yet, institutionalizing democracy corrupts the dream and tames the quest. Democracy’s fugitive dynamic is stilled by settled convention, its vitality lost, except in acts of dissent when it breaks out of containment. Democracy is counterpoint to elite rule.
Dissent gives voice to a people’s democratic soul. It is the spirit of the commons unbound—of equality and community, fairness and justice, inclusiveness and interdependence of differences. Dissent sustains democracy as a politics of contestation in which competing perspectives are held accountable to one another. It provokes deliberation to resist calcification of the singular, self-interested judgments of ruling elites.
Deliberative dissent transcends alienation from a community of several interests. The developed democratic self recognizes the humanity of its many faces and thus does not make enemies readily or attribute evil to otherness effortlessly. It is inclined against demonizing and doing violence to others.
Democracy by deliberative dissent—not to be confused with demagoguery—is a political corrective, a discourse that emanates from the margins, a diverse people’s voice of accountability. When understood as a curative practice for adding perspective, maintaining flexibility, and restoring balance, the problem of democracy is too little of it, not too much. We need more.