Democracy’s Dilemma And/Or Its Dangerous Dream

[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]




There is a deep and persistent dilemma at the core of what most of us understand as democracy. On one hand, democracy takes a unique and radical approach to "sovereignty", that is, the right to supreme or final authority within a community. Every other political system assigns sovereignty to a particular elite sub-group or power-wielding institution: monarchy (royal family rules); aristocracy (lords and ladies rule); plutocracy (wealthy rule); theocracy (religious leaders rule); and so on. Only democracy rejects this pervasive and pernicious dichotomy between rulers and ruled, offering instead "popular sovereignty": the dangerous dream in which the whole public, the people undivided, exercises legitimate and final authority.


Democracy’s citizens have no rulers, no elites, no institutions above them; in a well-functioning democratic polity, they are self-governing and their collective will prevails. As examples, we can point to intentional and Quaker communities, smaller scale collectives, small Town Meetings, and Native American and other indigenous peoples’ councils. The shared heart of all these directly democratic social forms is that everyone in them, and even those outside but affected by them, has a voice to which others must listen and owe respect; group decisions and policies are then shaped as far as possible by all of these voices. It is this inclusive process that carries final authority: it is not subservient or merely advisory to any individual, privileged group, or power-wielding authority.


But whatever else, "democracy" is still a political system: enter now, the "State" or "Government". Whatever their differences, these entities typically represent themselves – and are widely seen – as having exclusive, supreme, or at least final authority. They, and not the people they rule, are sovereign. And this holds no less in a "democracy" than in any other political or governmental system.


Citizens may gather and demonstrate against a widely unpopular leader, war, or Patriot Act. But the government, from its own standpoint and most of ours as well, can always legitimately overrule them. The law of the land is not established nor is it to be officially and authoritatively interpreted by citizens, but by legislators, courts, and enforcement agencies. A dilemma thus arises: democracy both requires and is incompatible with government. Or, restated: democracy both requires and rejects popular sovereignty.


Democracy’s dilemma is well illustrated by a mystifying statement in the US Constitution (from Article IV, section 4; the so-called &quo

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