by Roy Herndon Smith
In this article, in response to three questions, I define democracy, describe the major current threats to democracy in the United States, and discuss how to respond to these threats.
What is my definition of democracy?
I use the word democracy in three ways.
- I use democracy without an article to designate governance by the governed. Democracy, in this sense, is the manifestation in governance—communal decision making, ordering, and sustaining life together—of the interdependence and co-creativity that constitute us as a social species. All beings continually co-create, depend on, and thus govern each other.
The clearest expression I have found of this understanding of democracy is the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address or Words That Come Before All Else, with which the Haudenosaunee people open all their meetings. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Braiding Sweetgrass, describes this address as a statement of how human beings live as members of “the democracy of species.” We only grasp the depth and breadth of understanding expressed in the address if we remember that, for the Haudenosaunee people, everything is alive; “the democracy of species” includes not just humans, animals, plants, and fungi, but waters, air, the stars, land, and spirits—all beings. The address constructs a foundational culture of, to use Kimmerer’s word, ”reciprocity,” built on the recognition that each being has a particular gift, needed by other beings and for which we give thanks, and all gifts, including the particular gifts we human beings have, also constitute “responsibilities” to give the gifts to other beings. While this statement thus articulates an ethical vision—of how people should live—it also articulates, as Kimmerer observes, a scientific understanding of how all beings actually do live—as mutually responsive gifts to each other. The statement fosters the openness to and basic trust in reality that Erik Erikson, among others, observes is the foundation of sentient existence.
- I also use democracy, usually with an article, to refer to “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state” or “a state governed by a democracy.” A state is “a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government.”Government is the noun form of the verb “to govern”—to “conduct the policy, actions, and affairs of (a state, organization, or people.” (Apple Dictionary 2.3.0)
This sense of “democracy” is limited, ambiguous, and, in practice, contradictory. It is limited in that it applies not to all beings, but to the “whole population,” usually assumed to be only the human citizens, “of a state,” or, in an even more limited sense, to “all the eligible members of a state.” In all existing and historical “democracies,” the ambiguity between “whole population” and “eligible members” becomes a contradiction: those formally or informally deemed “eligible” undemocratically govern those deemed “not eligible.”
- I use the adjectival and adverbial forms, democratic and democratically, to designate practices, communities, groups, institutions, and governments that explicitly or implicitly affirm and facilitate the participation of the governed in governing.
A particular practice, activity, institution, community, or statement can be more or less democratic. For instance, the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address is wholly democratic in that it attunes those who speak and listen to it to the actual participation of all beings in governing and to our responsibility, as speaking and listening beings, to nurture the full and explicit participation of all beings in governing. On the other hand, the original U. S. Constitution is only partly democratic; for instance, it did not recognize a citizen’s right to vote and therefore to participate in governance, but left the determination of who should vote up to the states; many states limited the vote to property-holding white males.
What are the current primary threats or obstacles to democracy in the U.S.?
At this time, democracy, in all three senses, faces extreme global and domestic threats. The climate and extinction catastrophes are destroying the interdependent “meshes,” to use Timothy Morton’s (The Ecological Thought) word, of human and nonhuman beings that constitute and sustain implicitly and explicitly democratic societies. Antidemocratic imperial, colonial, settler colonial, capitalistic, totalitarian, and patriarchal institutions, traditions, and practices have fractured and are fracturing communities and families in which people value each other and take responsibility for sustaining and caring for each other; such communities and families compose the soil of a democratic society. The breaking of such communal and familial networks creates a reign of terror, in which individuals face isolation, devaluation, abuse, deprivation, radical suffering, and lonely deaths. Chronic and systemic other- and self-destructive violence, cruelty, indifference, and neglect result.
Globally and in the U.S., antidemocratic forces have replaced or are working to replace democratic governments, institutions, norms, and practices with antidemocratic ones. Antidemocratic states and movements have often resorted to violence, including war crimes and genocide (as in Syria and Ukraine), to destroy democratic states and movements. In states that are partly democratic (such as the U.S., at least for the moment), antidemocratic institutions, groups, and movements exclude large minorities and, sometimes, majorities of the human populations from governance and unjustly burden these excluded people with poverty, oppression, violence, and vulnerability to environmental disasters. Many historians and scholars studying how autocracies and oligarchies supplant democracies judge the U.S. to be well on its way to being governed by an almost entirely anti-democratic authoritarian state.
In the U. S., the attack on democratic institutions is the latest and most threatening manifestation since the Civil War of what the historian Jane Mansbridge names as “antidemocratic” elements that have shaped U.S. history. These systemically oligarchic, white supremacist, sexist, classist, and settler colonial elements are internal to the political, economic, social, and cultural institutions, practices, ideologies, and documents that constitute U.S democracy. For example, as Mansbridge writes, “U.S. democracy came about through a great deal of compromise, in which the Southerners got slaves counted as three-fifths of a person, and also got the Electoral College, which gave them more votes than their numerical proportion. American democracy may not necessarily be unique, but close to unique, in having this anti-democratic element built into its constitution.” (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/09/the-evolution-of-political-scientist-jane-mansbridges-life-and-career/).
As Amitav Ghosh (in The Great Derangement) and others have observed, the current global climate, extinction, and democratic crises result from three interlocking manifestations—imperialism, corporate capitalism, and self-idealization—of the “Western civilization” that has come to dominate the earth over the last five hundred years. David Graeber and David Wengrow (The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity) identify, using different words, the foundations of these three manifestations as the three types of antidemocratic governance that, over the last ten thousand years, have fused to form the authoritarian and totalitarian states that have come increasingly to dominate the earth. Imperialism is a manifestation of what Graeber and Wengrow call sovereignty, the organization of a society under a single person or group that monopolizes the use of violence to establish and enforce their rule over all others. Corporate capitalism is a manifestation of what Graeber and Wengrow call bureaucracy, the ordering, possession, control, use, procession, commodification, and distribution of material and immaterial resources—including food, shelter, protection, water, air, health, bodies, knowledge, meaning, love, power, and labor—by an elite group of owners and managers. Idealization is a manifestation of what Graeber and Wengrow call charisma, a single leader’s or group of leaders’ presentation of themselves as the sole source of being, meaning, truth, and goodness.
The institutionalization of any one of these antidemocratic forms of governance is destructive, but governments in which only one or even two forms dominate tend, inevitably, to be limited and highly unstable. Without sovereignty, an authoritarian government is unable to impose and enforce its rule over others. Without bureaucracy, such a government is unable to possess, organize, and control the resources necessary to maintain itself and its rule. Without charisma, such a government will face legitimation crises in which the population rejects, subverts, rebels against, and overturns its rule. Authoritarian and totalitarian states become more stable and more destructive to the extent that they unite sovereign power over violence, bureaucratic control of resources, and perceived charismatic possession of or exclusive access to the perceived singular source of being and meaning.
Another closely related way of understanding contemporary anti-democratic states and movements is that they present a vision of reality as united by:
- hierarchy, the explicitly or implicitly religious organization of reality around or under a single idealized source of truth, power, meaning, goodness, and love—for instance, an omniscient, all-powerful God or universal Reason;
- oppositional dualism, the political organization of reality as a war between us and them;
- and objectification, the economic organization of reality as composed of objects that transcendent agents control, own, use, and destroy.
A defining characteristic of our time is just how starkly this fusion of religious hierarchy, political dualism, and economic objectification has emerged as being undeniably and catastrophically destructive of not only democracy, but life itself. Three examples:
- As it has demonstrated in its war on Ukraine, the Putin regime claims and is attempting to exercise sovereignty—a monopoly on the use of violence to establish and enforce its absolute rule. It obtains and manages the resources necessary to support itself through military, corporate, and oligarchic bureaucracies that construct everything—material goods, people, knowledge, “the truth,” and land—as commodified resources to be used to support the sovereign regime or to be destroyed and discarded. It justifies its brutality by claiming, with Russian Orthodox Church leaders’ explicit support, that it is the embodiment and agent of the divinely constituted Russian spirit—the ultimate source of all goodness, truth, and power—and that any person, group, movement, country, or society that resists or opposes its rule is the enemy of this divine source of everything.
- Throughout the history of the United States, antidemocratic forces have fused: Christian absolutism that claims exclusive access to divine truth, goodness, and meaning; imperialist and colonialist white supremacy that claims the sole right to exercise violence to enforce white rule over the world; and an oligarchic corporatocracy that seeks to commodify, possess, and control everything. During the last sixty years, right-wing antidemocrats have systematically expelled from the Republican Party almost all the leaders who, in any way, oppose or even question this antidemocratic fusion. The fascistic Trumpism that has taken over the party during the past five years is the natural outcome of this fusion.
- During the past five hundred years, the fusion of imperialism (and absolute sovereignty), corporate capitalism (and bureaucratic objectification of everything), and self-idealization (and charismatic devaluation of “others”) that has characterized Western civilization has resulted not only in literal and cultural genocides, but also the climate and extinction catastrophes.
How do I address the current primary threat or obstacle to democracy in the U.S.?
While the crisis of democracy is complex and global in two senses—it covers not just the U.S., but the whole world, and it is integral to all dimensions—moral, political, economic, social, cultural, religious, psychological, biological, ecological, and physical—of reality—it also currently manifests, in this country, as a clearly defined opposition between relatively democratic and wholly anti-democratic forces. As during the period leading up to and including the Civil War, the only realistic and ethical choice is to support the democratic forces and to oppose the anti-democratic ones. Right now, in this country, given the enduring two-party system of governance and because anti-democratic ideologues and oligarchs wholly control the Republican Party, but do not wholly control the Democratic Party, supporting democracy means strengthening—pressuring with mass movements and activism from the outside and supporting from the inside—the democratic elements of the Democratic Party that work to:
- mitigate the destructive effects of the climate and extinction catastrophes;
- insure all people have access to material and nonmaterial necessities—food, shelter, clothing, health care, respect, dignity, community and family recognition and support, participation in governance, and protection against violence;
- defend, strengthen, and expand democratic institutions, norms, practices, and states.
Because democracy is the manifestation in governance of the interdependence and co-creativity that constitute us as a social species, any human society, even those in which an explicitly antidemocratic regime governs, is implicitly democratic; it continues to exist because it is and it depends upon interdependent, co-creative, and co-governing meshes of beings. An implication of this recognition of inherent democracy is that work to defend, strengthen, and expand democracy begins by enacting a variation of the principle that has guided community organizing in the U.S. for over eighty years: effective community organizing identifies, affirms, supports, strengthens, and builds upon the particular already-existing manifestations of democracy in a community or society. Manifestations of democracy are:
- communities and practices that affirm the mutual co-creative and interdependent relations of all beings;
- extended families, communities, groups, neighborhoods, villages, and societies that implicitly or explicitly practice the mutual responsibility of all beings to value, sustain, and care for each other;
- communities, groups, and institutions that facilitate the, when possible, direct or, when not possible, indirect (most commonly, through representation), effective participation of all governed and affected beings in governing;
- communities and institutions that are welcoming of—that receive as gifts, learn from, and accept the participation in governing by—others with different ways of being democratic.
As has been true throughout U.S. history, those whom the antidemocratic forces have attempted to exclude from full democratic participation—People of Color, indigenous peoples, poor and working-class people, women and LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, people with disabilities, the young, and those (often indigenous peoples, but also some scientists and others) who recognize nonhuman beings as co-creators, with humans, of reality—have often been the ones who have most persistently, skillfully, and effectively worked to establish and expand democracy. As a relatively financially secure and healthy older while heterosexual cisgender male—in other words, a person who has not thus far had to face systemic exclusion from democracy—my job is to learn from, support with my skills, knowledge, time, material resources, and gifts, and join with the members of these groups who work to gain full formal and informal access to participation in democratic governance for themselves and all other beings.