Originally published by The Conversation, February 2, 2018.
[This short essay is my contribution to a collection of 20 responses that I curated in late 2017. I was driven to do this because of the frustratingly over-simplified narrative being repeated by the mass media that “democracy is dying” or “is dead”. Such statements make no sense, as “democracy” requires its definiens to make sense (something most media outlets do not give). Some insight was needed and so the collection, in three parts, came to be. Click here for: part 1, part 2, part 3.]
When someone says “democracy is dead” they aren’t critiquing democracy itself. They’re critiquing a specific expression of it, usually the representative kind. To conflate democracy with but one of its expressions is dangerous because this dismisses more than 2,000 of its other expressions.
Some, like deliberative democracy, are normative projects in part destined to improve the representative institutions that most of us are familiar with.
Others, like Waldorf democracy, where “waiters and financiers, telephone girls and captains of industry, coatroom clerks and merchant princes [sit] side by side” at dinner, are historical expressions that can help us find new purchase on some of today’s more enduring problems such as class division.
There are also expressions of democracy in action: kabuki democracy and karaoke democracy are used to explain modern Japanese politics; garbage democracy captures Fidel Castro’s opinion of representation in the US; and somnolent democracy is used to describe countries with docile citizens.
These expressions help us make sense of the democracies we live in – think in particular of unwieldy democracy, green democracy and corrupt democracy.
So, it doesn’t make sense to say “democracy is dead”, because democracy doesn’t mean just one thing. As we come to know each of democracy’s expressions better, and make sense of them collectively, it’s my wager that this will lead to more inclusion, equality, self-rule, autonomy, fairness and non-violence within our states, between our states, and in our lives.
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