OPINION: Democracy Is Messy

Glenn Mangurian

August 4, 2022 Submitted by Glenn Mangurian

“Democracy is messy, and it’s hard. It’s never easy.” — Robert F. Kennedy

Let me be clear from the start: I am a strong believer and supporter of American democracy. Our democracy is both simple and complicated at the same time. It is predicated on the belief of self-governance – that its people are capable and deserving of the right to govern themselves. That is the simple part. The complicated part is living with the consequences of self-governance.

A System with Many Checks and Balances
Our system has been designed with many checks and balances. Power and authority are spread across three branches of government that operate independent of (and also interdependent with) each other. We complain of gridlock, filibuster and the challenges of getting anything done. Could it be there is something fundamentally wrong with our system of governance or is it working as it was intended - to prevent too much power held by one individual or group of individuals?

Freedom to be Different
We live in a pluralistic society in which many different groups and political parties are allowed to exist. Our heritage is one of immigrants from different lands and norms. We all have different life experiences so it is a given that we will develop different ideologies of what is right. The binding value is freedom. We value our many freedoms and often take them for granted. It’s hard to imagine life without freedom of thought, belief, speech, religion, movement and association to name a few. We also have the freedom to lie, dislike, complain, protest and hate (as long as hate doesn’t involve breaking the law.) Many of us believe that our truth is THE truth. Think about it. How wonderful and messy all the freedoms are.

Inherent Tensions
Isn’t there an inherent tension between my opinion of what is right and your differing opinion? Add to that, the tension between the common good and self-interest - between public safety/health and individual liberty. Wow! We are constantly dealing with tensions. Democracy means permitting variety and criticism. It requires people to be tolerant of fellow citizens who hold different views. In short, it requires that we tolerate the messiness. That’s easier said than done. Someone once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

“Fight” for Me; Not for Them
We elect fellow citizens who say they will fight for us and where compromise is a sign of weakness. But which of us are they fighting for since my views are likely different from the person’s opinions living down the street. Our democracy gives voters the final say in the voting booth and locally at their town meeting. When voting results or decisions are made that match our ideologies, we say the officials are doing their jobs and the system works. When decisions don’t match our ideologies, we get angry and complain that the system is broken or too political.

“Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” - George Bernard Shaw

Recognize and Resist the Drift toward Edicts
We live in an ideologically divided country right now and it feels disheartening. On right and left alike, there is a growing impulse to set public policy through executive directive. Jeff Jacoby, columnist for the Boston Globe, recently wrote, “When it comes to masking, border control, climate change or almost any other significant public concern, the authoritarian impulse — a preference for achieving policy goals through coercion rather than the untidy give-and-take of democratic negotiation — now seems to be the default.” Advocates of democracy argue that without the people deciding laws, chaos ensues. Autocrats and dictators might say it is the other way around. They will argue that one person making the decisions and setting the rules is more efficient and avoids chaos. It is simpler to be told how to conform to one person’s rules rather than live in continuous disagreement, argument and conflict. I wonder with both the rise of apathy and polarization, is time on the side of autocrats?

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” - John Adams

A “Beacon of Hope” in a Messy World
In spite of its messiness, America’s democracy has endured for over two centuries. John Winthrop told his fellow Puritans that they would have to work hard, sacrificing their own personal desires for the good of the community: “We must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Since then, the City upon a Hill metaphor has frequently been used in United States politics as a declaration of American exceptionalism, to refer to America acting as a "beacon of hope" for the world. What’s interesting is no matter how ill-informed or ignorant a person, they have the same right to speak and vote as the most knowledgeable citizen. How messy, yet still wonderful!

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