Does Democracy Play Well With Others?

Part Six in a series on democracy.

“Bayonet Charge” by Winslow Homer

At some point, during the passage of time, the concept of democracy ascended to the position of first principle in the minds of many Americans. It became an alpha belief …… the prime driver of our society.

Does democracy deserve to hold this exalted place?

Democracy was initiated by our country’s founders, but it wasn’t necessarily championed by them. Instead, they ranked it behind other ideals. For example, Ben Franklin asserted that liberty was of greater importance. (“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what they are going to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote”) Likewise, Thomas Jefferson elevated the concepts of “rights” and “equality” in his independence declaration. Democracy wasn’t mentioned.

Liberty, rights, and equality weren’t the only beliefs to bid against democracy for the founders’ loyalty. Nor are they the only ideas that compete for ours. Other timeless concepts, like justice and freedom, also demand our attention when new conflicts arise.

The elevation of one concept above others has created a dangerous imbalance that remains unacknowledged. Our nation’s “love of democracy” is rarely calibrated against other important beliefs. Unfortunately, democracy can be used to remove our liberties. One vote can create inequality. Only a delicate balancing act can prevent such overreach.

Above all, a crucial distinction escapes us: Democracy is a process. The other beliefs are principles. We fail to distinguish that the process exists to uphold the principles. The system doesn’t work in reverse.

Democracy is often fraught with errors, and therefore cannot be regarded as superior to the principles it was designed to uphold. One example is found in America’s winding path toward universal suffrage. While that noble achievement is commonly championed as a “victory for democracy”, it’s more accurately described as a victory for “rights,” “liberty,” or “equality.”

In truth, democracy often failed during efforts to acknowledge the right of all citizens to vote …… especially in the case of African Americans. Initial steps toward black suffrage were made only after a bloody war: a conflict between two democracies that had previously been one democracy. Later efforts stalled for almost a century before Jim Crow was overturned. Those malicious laws were also erected in the name of democracy.

A more nuanced set of priorities must be established: while the processes of democracy can help to further entrench important principles within the nation’s governance, they have also, at times, stood in the way of those ideals.

Democracy is indispensable. There’s no realistic alternative to its role in supporting concepts like rights, equality, and freedom. But it is not an end in itself: merely the best available means to an end. When this role is misunderstood, democracy can be wielded against the principles it was designed to uphold.

By placing one belief on an idealistic and purist pedestal – at the apex of importance – Americans are neglecting other foundational beliefs. The process is overrunning the principles it was meant to sustain.

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