Democracy is an experiment

Democracy is an experiment. It doesn't just happen. It isn't a natural state of affairs. Natural states of affairs tend towards hierarchy -- the idea that some people automatically have more power than others. Sometimes those natural states of affairs are nice places in which to live. Some dictators are benevolent and think about the common good. But more often than not, those natural states thrive on exclusion, tyranny, and oppression.Democracy is the radical idea that all the members of a polity are equal players in the social and political world. That isn't to say that everyone is of necessity equally endowed with material or social goods, or that everyone must be exactly the same. Democracy doesn't function superficially, looking at what people have as the final criterion. It doesn't replicate the child's obsession with fairness at the level of the state, and spend long minutes pouring and repouring out the can of coke to make sure that no one gets more than anybody else. Rather, it operates at the level of principle. It doesn't require everyone to be the same. What it does guarantee -- or ought to, anyway -- is that everyone has equal opportunity, equal rights.Democracy isn't a lazy man's -- or woman's -- ideal. This is because democracy cannot exist in a vacuum. It must be created and re created. It must be nourished and born again. It isn't the property of a state or an organization. It is, in the words of Jean Jacques Rousseau , a compact, an agreement among citizens that this is how we want to live. And to make sure it works, to ensure its persistence, each individual citizen must claim both the rights and the responsibilities that come with living in a democracy. If one or the other is neglected, the experiment fails.Where citizens refuse to exercise their rights, democracy fades. In true-true democracies, principles are more important than expediency. Nothing, no perk, no imbalance, no convenience is more important than the principle of equality and right. But no one gives up benefits without a struggle. Even in those societies that we look to as beacons of democracy, the equalities guaranteed by their institutions were rarely, if ever, automatically conferred. Complacency is the enemy of democracy, and when citizens choose the safe over the risky, the practical over the possible, the easy profit over the principled right, they put their citizenship in jeopardy; by choosing to be safe or practical or complacent we erode our democratic foundation. We are acting in limited self-interest rather than in the common good. We put our individual comfort before the collective advancement, and the end result is all too often a reduction in the rights we are afforded rather than their multiplication.On the other hand, where citizens refuse to exercise their responsibility democracy dies. The democratic process is a difficult one, requiring constant vigilance and review. We must be students of democracy in order to make our societies work. We must know ourselves, our histories, our strengths and our flaws. We must demand the changes that we need at every level of the society, and we must not stop making those demands when our material comforts are served. There are injustices everywhere we look around us. There are flaws and faults at every level of our society, and the vast majority of these are addressable not by politicians and civil servants but by each one of us. They range from tiny annoyances to complex ethical dilemmas, and they face us every day. The fact that our state is unwilling or unable to punish our minor transgressions should not, in a democracy, matter in the end; our duty as citizens is to demonstrate our individual and personal commitment to the democratic project and behave as we ought to whether we are being observed or not. When we do not, the democratic experiment fails.For democracy is an experiment, an ideal. It is the belief that human beings can come together and create the societies they want to live in by according one another equal rights before the law and by behaving as though they believe in those rights. For the experiment to work, as Rousseau says, we must be willing to curb our individual freedoms in the interest of serving the common good. Democracy is voluntary, and that is the burden and the glory of being a citizen. We must do it ourselves; no one else can guarantee it for us. It is a collective enterprise, and it requires negotiating this delicate tension between sacrificing some individual personal freedom to guarantee equal freedom for all.

--Opening remarks delivered at the first anniversary of We the People, November 16 2011