How democracy works

by Carl Dyke

Sometimes you lose. When you lose, people who disagree with you about stuff get to do things their way for a while. When you win, you get to do things your way for a while, to the dismay of people who disagree with you. You would like them to be good losers, and they’d like the same from you.

If you always lose, there are two basic possibilities. It’s not really a democracy, or you’ve defined your citizenship very narrowly. If you always win, there are also two basic possibilities. It’s not really a democracy, or you’ve defined your citizenship very broadly.

When Republicans win, they try to rig things so that when Democrats win later they’ll be forced to act like Republicans. When Democrats win, they try to rig things so that when Republicans win later they’ll be forced to act like Democrats. To do this, they each use laws, staffing, and faits accomplis, among other strategies. This is why politics are worth the effort.

Some of the authors of the Constitution knew all of this very well. That’s why they made it so damn hard and slow for the government to get anything much done. We only want government to be effective and efficient when we all agree on what it should be doing, which is rare, or when we are on the winning side, which is not always. Democracy is not an efficient way to get things done. The model of efficiency in government is fascism. The great thing about fascists is that they get stuff done. The bad thing about fascists is the stuff they get done.

Conservatives are people who think there’s only one right way to do things. There are Republican conservatives and Democratic conservatives. Liberals are people who think there are various acceptable or at least understandable ways to do things. There are Democratic liberals and Republican liberals.

Conservatives of any sort may be many good things, but they’re damn lousy democratic citizens. In this they are joined by a third group, the folks with daddy issues. No matter who wins, they’re agin’ ’em.

All of this should be common sense. Why isn’t it?

6 Responses to “How democracy works”

  1. Most people do think it is common sense, sir. The question is why you think you are so different, that only you know this is common sense. Of course this is also common; I mean that people think other people are not as smart as them. It keeps everybody talking.

    I like to put one of your distinctions this way: “Democrats are people who know there will always be Republicans in the world.” (This works for the Liberal/Conservative dichotomy, and many other things.)

  2. Lol, Lloyd, I’m pretty sure I don’t know a single thing that lots of other people don’t also know. But based on the sorts of disillusioned ranting I see and hear, I’m less confident than you that most people know this stuff. I’m especially struck by the commonly-expressed illusion that if the other party wins the election, the nation will be lost, history itself will be diverted onto a track straight to hell, frogs will rain down and locusts will swarm, etc. Just take a peek at the fretting over Berlusconi’s victory in Italy for a less-familiar example.

    I really like your formulation but prefer the second wording. Liberals are people who know there will always be conservatives in the world. There are plenty of Democrats who are not liberals in this important sense and who are consequently amongst the loudest wailers about the doom that awaits us all if their opponents are ever allowed to get their way about anything.

  3. Is democracy supposed to be “self-evident,” or something? Always thought it was historically situated.

  4. Well that’s a great point. I actually struggled with the wording of this post because I never made a firm decision whether I was talking about democracy-in-general, whatever the heck that might be outside the brains of political philosophers, and the specific case of the United States. So I settled on treating the U.S. as an example, or perhaps an ideal type. Which is just dumb. I ended up deciding it didn’t matter much since I needed a common-sensy scaffolding for the really basic point about elementary democratic culture I wanted to make, so waving my hands at the context worked out fine for this particular purpose. I guess that kind of thinking is what gets us to political philosophy in the end though, so you caught me.

    I wrote a much longer conference piece on the installation of democracy in Iraq (!) based on my dissertation chapter on Machiavelli and Gramsci that I think you’d like better. But it’s, like, much longer. And I actually seem to have lost the file somewhere between computers, otherwise it would be a stuffy vole.


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