Making democracy work

Making democracy work requires work, deeply thoughtful work, work undertaken in the spirit of democracy.

Democracy does not emerge and work naturally—it is not the natural order of things. What is natural to humankind is a culture of contention, a striving for primacy and control. Making democracy work requires a culture of cooperation, even during vigorous competition, an undergirding and overarching striving for unity and the common good.

That means making democracy work is more about culture than politics. Democracy only works well and is enduring in a culture in which most governance is internal rather than external, in which most people most of the time voluntarily govern themselves and engage in good behavior toward and on behalf of others without the need for constant external monitoring and coercive control.

Democracy building, therefore, involves more than building democratic institutions of government. It also involves building those social and cultural institutions that most effectively and enduringly instill in people the internal standards of self-control and behavior necessary for viable government "of the people, by the people, for the people" (quoting Abraham Lincoln). 

Democracy is far more than the free and fair election of leaders, more than majority rule. Majoritarianism—the winner-takes-all rule of majorities over minorities—is a form of autocracy. Democracy protects the rights and interests of all, including minorities.

Democracy is not so much about harnessing the power of human nature as it is about harnessing the power of humanity. A common sense of humanity, of the good of the one being inextricably linked to the good of all, is the foundation upon which democracy is built. 

Making democracy work requires a culture of commitment to the core principles and objectives of democracy. The core principles are summed up in the opening lines of the second paragraph of the U.S. Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ....

The core objectives to be served by democratic government are summed up in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

No country striving for good democratic governance gets it all right all the time. Democracies are always a work in progress. Democracy is not so much a system of government as it is a governing philosophy, and democratic government in a pluralistic society is the product of an ongoing dialogue and give and take between groups and interests. 

Other forms of government may be more efficient in accomplishing short-term tasks, but none are more effective in achieving long-term stability or unleashing the ingenuity and productive potential of a people. None are more consistent with humanity's highest yearnings and strivings.

Forming a more perfect union

Positions divide, but interests unite.

Tribal politics (figuratively speaking) is an enemy of democracy. By tribal politics, I mean politics in which members of political parties or other groups develop such a profound perception bias that they in effect view their group and the positions they advocate as the good and all competing groups and contrary positions as evil, thereby precluding the potential for compromise.

Without creative compromise, democracy cannot function. By creative compromise, I do not mean compromise of core principles or the sacrifice of fundamental interests, assuming they are consistent with democratic values. What I mean is a process of problem-solving and conflict resolution in which the focus is on interests, not positions, and in which the parties work together in good faith to first identify and build upon common interests, and to then find solutions that strike a creative balance between competing interests.

Winner-takes-all governance is not democracy, even if the political winners are chosen through free and fair elections. Democracy is not a zero-sum game in which there are only winners and losers, and no one wins unless everyone else loses. Winner-takes-all politics is majoritarianism, the autocracy of majorities over minorities. 

In a democracy, the rights and interests of minorities are valued and protected, even when they lose elections or other votes. Protecting the rights of minorities—including their rights to free speech and political participation—is absolutely essential for achieving long-term social, political, and economic order and stability.

the judiciary as a central pillar of democracy

In a democracy, political leaders are selected and legislative decisions are made on the basis of majority vote. Consequently, by nature the political branches of government are strongly inclined toward majoritarianism. Only the judicial branch of government has the role of protecting the fundamental rights of all the people, including minorities.

The judiciary is the primary mediating institution not only between people in conflict, but between the people and their government. The judicial branch wields the political power to legitimize or delegitimize government actions, and even the government itself. In the struggle for primacy between competing social currents and political interests, judges not only referee the contest, the judiciary ultimately determines the legal rules of engagement. Consequently, the judiciary is the key institution with both the role and power to moderate the worst impulses of the other branches of government and enforce democratic rules of governance.

Strengthen the judiciary, strengthen democracy

In any country, especially in a country with a history and political culture of autocratic government, the greater the independence and professionalism of the judiciary, the greater the prospects for democracy. Justice and the rule of law are the bedrock upon which a democracy is built, and the judiciary is the guardian of justice and the rule of law.

One of the surest and most cost-effective means of building democracy is to elevate the professional capacities and performance of a country's judiciary. The power of law, justly and impartially administered, to elevate a country's social and political culture is enormous.

From a strategic perspective, judicial development is key—perhaps even the key—to building a stable and enduring democracy—or any form of government.

For more on the topic of building democracy by building the judiciary, see my essay posted on my Egypt Justice Project website at this link.