In the wealthy Western countries, a generation has come of age thinking of ineffectual government as normal. I’m thirty-three, and all my life, the systems supporting democracy have been attacked: governments have amputated their own revenues, trade agreements have deliberately transferred power from public to private hands, and the revolving-door effect has normalized conflicts of interest in my leaders.

When the inevitable resulted, and government struggled to promote the public good, leaders presented low taxes and deregulation not as the causes of our trouble, but the solutions. They convinced us to think of market freedom as the natural economic policy of a democracy, even though all it really means is letting the unelected write the rules. Employment became ever more precarious while public services starved. And every time our leaders told us it was all done in the public interest, peddling handsome statistics that didn’t reflect our felt reality, democracy itself looked a little worse.

The 2008 financial crisis finally ended the strained ideological marriage of free markets and democracy, but the idea of democracy came away damaged. We now speak of public institutions in the language of business; we feel instinctively dirty about public spending; we’re allergic to taxation. When we mention democracy now, we normally invoke only fragments of its full meaning: fairness, anti-authoritarianism, majority rule, inefficiency. Meanwhile, the clear-eyed oligarchs of the world take full advantage of our disorientation.

Most politicians getting popular attention are now the double-downers. Some double down on the free-market ideology, shouting about jobs, privatization, and taxpayers’ rights. Others double down on some idea of democracy, trying to rouse tired hopes of fairness, public investment, and citizens’ rights. Still others take the opportunity to drive their preferred evils toward the hole at the centre of politics. The remaining bastions of the old centre are a hopelessly endangered species, since their politics are defined by a lack of fundamental change, but economic and environmental circumstances are forcing fundamental change. Double-downers will replace them; the question is which ones.

The best way I know to help the democratic camp is to renew serious discussion of what democracy is. Turning more urgently to it than we have for decades, we find the idea dusty and misunderstood. After all, my generation learned what democracy is from the generation that confused it with free markets. Fully digging it out of obscurity will keep us oriented as we step into leadership, taking the path of most resistance.

Dusting off the pieces

I said we normally invoke only fragments of democracy’s full meaning. Here are the fragments I’ve seen lately:

  1. A colleague and I were looking at a list of names, which happened to be in alphabetic order. “Alphabetic order,” he said. “That’s the most democratic, I suppose.”

  2. The Fringe Theatre Festival selects participants via lottery. When I attended the lottery results event, someone sitting beside me remarked, “The Fringe Festival is democratic.”

  3. While working on a tablet application for a corporate audience, I was on a call with the client discussing how, if we included sound in the experience, not everyone would be able to hear it properly, because their surroundings might already be too noisy. The client decided, “Let’s just democratize this and have no sound for anyone.”

  4. As we discussed the shortcomings of Toronto’s transit system, a friend from China declared, “I think democracy is too inefficient — look at Shanghai’s metro. They don’t allow politics to get in the way of building things.”

  5. In The Observer, a play by Matt Charman, Fiona, an international election observer from the UK, explains to her local translator, Daniel, how she loves seeing people get excited about voting for the first time. She says citizens of her native Leeds are largely bored by voting, and many don’t bother. “And when we get bored of being able to vote,” Daniel asks, “bored like Leeds, then we know we are truly democratic?”

Some clear themes emerge. The remarks about alphabetic order and the Fringe lottery express democracy’s association with fairness. Both are examples of distributing benefit without personal preference. Of course, we sometimes feel that distributing benefit according to merit would be more fair, but this would incur the strife of determining merit. Democracy’s non-preferential fairness therefore takes on the stigma of mediocrity — aiming low to avoid difficulty.

The next two examples speak directly to this perceived mediocrity. According to the client’s use of the word, democracy involves sacrificing whatever benefit can’t be enjoyed by all. And in the mind of my friend from Shanghai, democracy produces benefits too slowly in the first place — presumably because it requires leaders to subjugate their expertise to the irrational will of the people, even when the correct way forward is obvious. (Although he did admit that a lack of democracy makes a poor leader even more dangerous.)

The exchange from The Observer is my favourite example, because what it expresses about democracy is more of a question than an answer. It outlines a paradox: Fiona thrills to watch a country vote for the first time, because, in a sense, democratic energy is at a peak when democratic processes have barely begun. Apathy seems the inevitable result of mature democratic processes. But which stage is more truly democratic? How sustainable is democracy?

The worst form of government, except for all the others

It’s clear from the above examples that people in my daily life hold a mixed view of democracy — at best. Our “can’t live with it; can’t live without it” attitude toward democracy is most famously expressed by the above words, a view popularized (but probably not originated) by Winston Churchill.

Now that we’ve surveyed what we say about democracy, let’s look at what democracy says about itself. Do you remember this, perhaps from high school civics or philosophy?

“Democracy,” from ancient Greek = dΓͺmos (people) + kratΓ­a (power).

The people have the power. That’s the cry of revolutionary movements, a high ideal. Fiona loves to see this attitude come alive in new democracies, whereas back home in Leeds, it would seem a romantic, sentimental description of the daily reality of democracy. We might cynically say it expresses how democracy looks from a distance, whereas from close up, the mechanics of so many people sharing power are not so inspiring. But why not?

One problem here is the word democracy’s multiple meanings. What Fiona loves to see is the people grasping raw power — the civics-class meaning of democracy. But that grasping may wax or wane, and all the time we may describe a country as a democracy, referring to its system of government. Humanity has a variety of approaches to democratic systems. For instance, during the most stable period of ancient Athens — often thought of as the exemplar of democracy — the 500 members of the main council were chosen at random every year. (And only wealthy men were eligible.)

So democracy is not a system in itself; democracy is some value that a democratic system is meant to promote. A system to promote the sharing of power is not the same as the fact of sharing power. Using the word “democracy” to refer to a system, or a form of government, is just a common shorthand — not to be taken literally.

If democracy is home, a system of elected government is a house. We often use “house” and “home” interchangeably, but home can take many forms. And sometimes a house is not a home. Home is a bigger, more important idea. It refers to an ever-correcting balance between a dwelling and its residents, as well as among the residents themselves.

Fiona and Daniel’s conversation implies the question of whether Leeds, and the UK in general, are truly democratic. The house is truly impressive, but is it a home? What are the criteria for that?

In wealthy, so-called stable democracies, democracy often feels like it’s more about what you can’t do than what you can. People have different ideas of the best course of action, which makes any given idea hard or impossible to implement — creating the feeling that fairness leads to mediocrity. Furthermore, among proponents of a given idea, some naturally become frustrated with fairness and advocate sacrificing it in the name of efficiency — even if that seems less democratic.

But it’s a false choice. Obviously, neither way is workable. Incremental change isn’t always adequate, but big change without a strong mandate is unsustainable. Indeed, how to get a strong mandate for big change is the question of our times.

We come to this false choice by thinking of democracy as merely a system. This leads us to breeze right past the most important questions. Fairness means people get the good things they deserve — but what’s good, and what makes people deserving? Efficiency means getting something done — but what? These are questions about values, which means no system can answer them, only human dialogue. And we can’t answer them for all time, only for today.

Of course, in difficult moments, it’s natural for people to want to talk past each other, discount information that goes against their preconceptions, and sometimes even vilify each other. In large societies, humans don’t naturally empathize with everyone, so we need some backup reason to follow through on our dialogue, in order to make value judgments together. If everyone has some of the power, no one has the luxury of ignoring anyone else, even if they’d prefer to. The power to participate in these value judgments is the most important type of democratic power.

In a country with a newly installed democratic system, democracy itself is of course riding high, because the new system embodies a concrete transfer of power from a concentrated group to a wider variety of people. But the continued existence of such a system does not necessarily indicate the continued sharing of power. Given time, the power-hungry can get around systems, and even turn them to their advantage. The very same system can enable democracy in one era, and hobble it in the next.

Power always resides with someone — the question is how many people. Democracy means it resides with as many people as possible.

The nature of power

If one person or a tight group of people have most of the power, then “the people” — that is, the general public — don’t. The nature of power in the hands of a few is the imposition of will, with the attendant, high-pitched struggle to maintain the imbalance.

On the other hand, when power is shared widely, its nature changes: the struggle to maintain balance has a lower pitch, and the path of least resistance becomes consensus. This necessitates lots of open-ended talking.

Of course, there are always some who want to accumulate more power for themselves so they can enjoy disproportionate, short-term benefits at the expense of others. If such individuals are like viruses, enough others must be like antibodies.

Power is like health: although we talk about having it, it’s not really a possession; it consists of actions. Making use of your good health is what keeps you healthy, and when you don’t make use of it, it declines. Let it decline far enough, and it becomes hard to use and therefore hard to get back. Similarly, power is the means to keep itself, so it’s incumbent on the holders of power to defend it through use. Power is by nature active, so you can’t have power passively, nor can power be handed to someone unwilling to use it.

In a civilization where the people have the power, they organize constantly around various shared concerns, and government is simply the formalized part of this self-organizing activity. The role of leaders is to focus the people’s self-governance, using their experience to mediate conflict, find points of common interest, integrate concerns, and build consensus.

I’m not describing a utopia. In fact, democracy is necessarily the messiest way to live together. Taking into account different points of view is slow and exhausting. Solutions may initially be a hodge-podge, before getting refined later. But consider how things play out differently in a healthy democracy — i.e., where power is widely shared.

Something is broken.

  • Unhealthy: most people assume fixing it is someone else’s job. Even if what’s broken is a public utility or a matter of public policy, it is considered a professional domain in which it is irresponsible for non-professionals to meddle. Some people may complain or give input in a one-way conversation, which may inform the work of professionals. But since most people don’t get up close to the problem, their input is hard to act on and easy to gloss over.

  • Healthy: if anything, too many people get involved trying to fix it, each bringing a different understanding of the problem. Not all of them are even directly affected by the problem, but act like busybodies who take an interest anyway. Between them, these people have much of the information required to solve the problem, but it needs integrating. A skilled leader may be able to transform the cacophony into a solution. A great leader may be able to turn the crisis into an opportunity to solve an even larger problem.

A leader makes a mistake.

  • Unhealthy: power is a game, so the leader attempts cover-up or spin, while their enemies gain popularity by attacking them.

  • Healthy: leaders and potential leaders tend to avoid mudslinging, an obvious sign of trying to hoard power. Whichever leader deals most constructively with the problem (be it the one who made the mistake or not) tends to come out on top.

A disagreement turns bitter.

  • Unhealthy: leaders see an opportunity to advance their careers by entrenching feelings of us-versus-them. This works because most people feel disempowered by default, and therefore enjoy the illusory power of belonging to an “us.”

  • Healthy: people hate being divided because it’s disempowering. The best thing for a leader or potential leader’s career is therefore to de-escalate, and help forge consensus.

One person, one vote

Sharing power sounds good, but what does that mean in concrete terms? A civilization must choose a method. Western democratic countries enshrine power as a vote. Since every adult gets one vote, power appears — mathematically — to be shared evenly.

But while it’s true that a vote is power, it’s not the only kind. A vote is an answer to a multiple-choice question. It isn’t an opportunity to participate in the critical conversations about values. Choosing a side from among those who did have the power to participate is not the same thing.

This distinction disappears if you think of democracy as a system, because that means you’re skipping the value judgment step. Once the range of available values has been predetermined, assigning the same voting power to each citizen sets up a level playing field. This sounds fair, and fairness is supposedly essential to democracy. But what good thing is being distributed fairly? For those who didn’t get a chance to participate in the fundamental democratic conversation, what’s left over to distribute fairly is the chance to compete with each other.

In the worst case, a society will use contests of votes as a way to resolve differences. This often ends with 51% of the citizens (or fewer, under some systems) simply imposing their will on the rest: the tyranny of the majority. Anyone who equates this with democracy will naturally take a dim view of democracy. Maybe they’d even be in favour of restricting voting rights based on some measure of competency.

But such a use of voting cannot be democratic, because democracy means the people — that is, as many of them as possible — have the power. And if 49% of citizens can simply get ignored, then it’s clear the people are not powerful. Even the other 51% can’t be that powerful, because all of them, too, have certainly been on the losing side before, and will be again.

It’s worth questioning the origin of the 50% threshold. Presumably, it’s utilitarianism: pick the way forward that satisfies the greatest possible number of people. But if it’s only possible to satisfy half of all citizens, then something has gone wrong with democracy upstream. Dialogue has failed, and voting has devolved into a proxy for battle. (The way we sometimes talk about elections reveals the influence of this degenerate thinking, e.g. “battleground constituency.”)

In battle, power resides with generals, not soldiers. Similarly, when a majority appears tyrranical, the real tyrants are likely to be small groups of people who get something out of polarizing the rest. In their divided, uncommunicative condition, few of the citizenry — on either side — are able to produce the results they really want, while the small groups enjoy disproportionate benefits.

If power is truly shared, then near-consensus is required, and people are accustomed to resolving differences through long, open-ended conversations, not simplistic contests of will.

At its best, voting encourages a three-dimensional relationship between leaders and constituents, while holding leaders accountable to some extent. But in a polarized society, voting is not a way for the people in general to keep power — it’s more about taking power away from other people, and concentrating it in the hands of one’s favoured few. Thus the only fairness voting guarantees is the equal power of each citizen to disenfranchise the rest.

“But still,” you might insist, “in every election, the people have the opportunity to replace their leaders with better ones. Whatever the outcome…

“They get the government they deserve!”

This is another sentiment often invoked in democracy’s grim moments. And if the people have the power, then it’s true, right? Not quite.

People who “get a government” must not have had much power to begin with. This language paints a picture in which the people are not self-governing, and the functions of leadership and representation have calcified into professions unfamiliar to the general public. Recall that power is essentially active: people only have it to the extent they’re accustomed to using it.

Of course, governments do need some trained professionals to perform specific functions and to inform decisions with expertise. These roles are important, but different from leadership and representation. Only if these, too, become insular professions, unattainable by or undesirable to average citizens, do governments turn into things that the people “get.”

In this situation, the people are not in control of their own governance. What you have, rather than self-government, is public service and public policy consumerism.

Vote with your dollars

I mentioned the conflation of free markets and democracy — that doomed romance of the late twentieth century. Supposedly, the freedom of capitalists to build empires went hand-in-hand with the freedom of consumers to express their values by choosing one company’s products over another’s.

But the fact that anyone would seriously utter the above phrase reveals that they already thought of voting as a consumer activity. Capitalists argued that free markets were modelled on democracy. Instead, we ended up modelling our democracy on capitalism.

In some societies, political parties act like corporations vying for the contract to be the exclusive provider of public policy and public service. As a natural consequence, the citizen becomes a customer, taxes become fees, dissent becomes customer dissatisfaction, and representation becomes customer service. (Not to mention, one’s legitimacy as a citizen becomes proportional to fees paid.)

But what’s the harm? Why does this necessarily mean the people are not fully in control?

If you want to argue that even under this circumstance, the people are still in full control, you must be thinking that a wide enough variety of citizens will make credible runs at leadership, and those with the best ideas will tend to win power. If these things are true, then presumably, simple competition will result in the best possible government.

The reason this doesn’t happen is that where government is a professional industry, it takes on all attributes of professional industries: it fills with specialized, inscrutable language; it requires huge marketing budgets; and on a social level, it becomes a small, risk-averse domain where most people know each other and new ideas are rare.

Think of private-sector industries dominated by large corporations, like telecommunications or air travel. There is certainly competition between corporations, but at this scale, acting in your customers’ long-term interests is often not the most effective way to compete. Telecom providers may get more mileage out of locking customers into contracts than protecting net neutrality. Airlines may find acquiring regional monopolies more worthwhile than providing transparent pricing.

As an industry gets large enough, and the major players few enough, the incentive to take the risk of being genuinely good to customers shrinks. This is because, even if one company believes doing something different in their customers’ best interests would give them a competitive edge, the small number of similar competitors is not enough reason to take the risk. Better to sit back, hold steady, and buy up any small companies threatening to rock the boat.

Transparent pricing for air travel, limits on the length of phone contracts — these have become the norm in Canada because the government passed laws, not because they spread spontaneously through competition. But where government itself is a similar oligopoly, no other entity exists to protect its “customers” from exploitation.

An adult conversation

Due to the word’s various meanings, various ideologies seem able to claim democracy as their figurehead. Similarly, ideologues often frame their view as the “adult conversation,” in condescension to opposing views.

But if, by democracy, you mean self-government, then you mean the rejection of all ideology. People who mean to govern themselves must abandon preconceptions and seek out reality, including the reality of each other. And they must do this not for the purpose of establishing a new, perfect doctrine of reality — impossible — but for the purpose of finding a good enough way forward, for now.

Similarly, if by an adult you mean someone who does their best to deal with reality, and if reality is made up of many other people, each as complex as ourselves, then consensus is the adult conversation. It presumes, optimistically, that all participants are worth trying to learn about, and all are capable of learning more. It’s far from foolproof — and that’s a good sign, if you want to avoid ideology.

We needn’t think on a governmental scale to see these principles at work. To begin with, consider small groups of friends sharing a home. Such arrangements inevitably require resolving differences, but quickly break down if anyone tries simply to impose their will without an honest attempt to integrate the concerns of others — even if it’s four against one.

For example, if one roommate always plays loud music while others are trying to sleep, it may seem reasonable for the others to “legislate” against this unconventional behaviour. But what if it’s the only way he knows to deal with insomnia, or to cover the snoring of one of the others? The status quo isn’t workable, but the legislative solution might not be, either. It could also be he’s doing it out of spite over a previous conflict. This doesn’t make it okay, but it also makes the legislative solution even less promising: any kind of force only escalates the conflict further.

In this example, it’s possible there is no solution that will satisfy everyone. But what’s certain is that if a good solution exists, it’s unlikely to be found unless the roommates go out of their way to listen to each other’s perspectives.

Since being a jerk is perfectly legal, and residential tenancy law impractical to enforce, little outside help is available to groups that fail to reach consensus. Of course, crossing certain lines will invoke the blunt and costly criminal justice system. But, except in extreme circumstances, this is more likely to hurt and further complicate the household than to help — as is civil litigation. The most common result of failed consensus is that one or more members of the household will move out.

The same principles apply to sovereign nations, but with higher stakes and even less outside help available. In practical terms, the ethical standards set by international law are more aspirational than enforceable — especially when it comes to wealthy, industrialized countries. As for internal laws, every civilization needs a rigid baseline to deal with wilfully destructive behaviour, but if this net catches more than a handful of citizens (e.g., drug prohibition or copyright law), then it becomes an obstacle to self-government, which depends on sharing power as widely as possible.

If democracy is the rejection of all ideology, it must not expect perfection, nor look forward to any final accomplishment after which the people can rest on their laurels. In each generation, some people take great interest in power, and others none, so it naturally clumps together, as if by gravity.

People who give up power by choice are, in effect, outsourcing the need to deal with certain aspects of reality. It’s convenient to let Google or Apple manage all my data, just as it’s convenient to trust a major political party to create good policies without requiring me personally to get to know people from different backgrounds. But consensus means the people involved are in touch with the reality of each other. Thus, the concentration of power and the breakdown of consensus are the same thing.

Human rights as democratic power

I must take care to correct a potential misinterpretation of the importance of consensus. When I say self-government means sharing power, part of what I mean by having power is having one’s human rights respected. For example, gathering in public is a human right, and when it is repressed, the expected response in a healthy democracy is not accommodation or negotiation, but a digging in of heels. Of course, learning more about the perspective of those attacking your human rights can only be a benefit, but it’s hard to dialogue with your attackers in a way that doesn’t legitimize their position.

This remains true for other human rights, including those more commonly attacked along lines of race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. The rights to feel safe in public, to make decisions about one’s body, and to marry should not be open to negotiation. The importance of consensus does not mean it’s the job of those under attack to consider the perspectives of their attackers. It’s the attackers who have shut down the consensus process, leaving the attacked no choice but to defend themselves with whatever means are available to them.

In general, whether discussing human rights or any other form of shared, democratic power, people should not be expected to behave well when their share of power is withheld or threatened. A threat to anyone’s share of power is a threat to the general idea of democracy. If people whose power is threatened can find a peaceful way to defend it, they are doing everyone a double service, first by defending democracy, and second by taking the trouble to de-escalate a conflict they didn’t start.

The power to do what?

I wish no one had nuclear weapons. There’s no good use for the power to obliterate thousands of people in an instant. But I’d rather several countries had them than only one, because this power is less likely to be used if the potential retaliation is just as fearsome. This is the crudest example of why shared power encourages us to seek consensus.

But to call yourself a civilization, you have to reach the point where power is more than just the power to harm. The powers to speak, to gather in public, to pass and enforce laws, to buy and sell, or to sue only have meaning to the extent that anyone has the luxury to relax out of fight-or-flight mode. Relaxing works stepwise, as with nuclear disarmament treaties. Lowering the material stakes is important, but the key is building trust.

Trust among citizens is key not only because it allows life to be enjoyable, but because, by absorbing shocks, trust allows power to take on the many nuanced forms necessary for living together densely. But trust can only absorb so much shock, and when it’s depleted, the only power left is the power to harm. In a small social context, trust may be rebuilt after error or malice through apology — the demonstration of understanding and remorse with respect to having inflicted hurt, and a best attempt at material restitution. Deep hurt may require long periods of consistent action to demonstrate sincerity. And some hurt can’t be mended.

In a larger social context, the same principles operate, just with more complexity. Settling disagreements through contests instead of dialogue erodes trust, because it means the citizens on the losing side are hurt without apology. Whether they were clearly right, clearly wrong, or somewhere in between, the erosion of trust is just as real. Without trust, power loses nuance and becomes more harm-based. Its tendency to clump together accelerates: the people cannot keep the power.

Trickle-up policy

So the struggle toward consensus is indispensable, but what does it look like? Hopefully, we know what constructive dialogue looks like in a small social context, but how is it accomplished in a larger context? I’ve made much of dialogue as compared to contests, but how are thousands or millions of people supposed to have a real dialogue together, as opposed to just hurling slogans around through mass media?

Of course, the answer is representation — but let’s clarify exactly what this means. It doesn’t mean being smart enough to think up solutions and charismatic enough to convince people you’re right. Neither does it mean listening slavishly to your constituents and doing your best to keep everyone happy. If you were to say it means translating between your constituents’ concerns and the capabilities of your level of government, this would be closer to the mark, but the trouble with all of these conceptions is they still cast the citizen as a customer.

The core of self-government is pursuing consensus, so a representative’s first job is to lead this pursuit. This means not just listening to your constituents, but getting them to listen to each other. If good policy is to grow out of their experiences, they need to actually experience each other — otherwise only partial or unfair solutions will emerge. When things are seriously broken, it means relationships are broken, not just policies, so attempts to fix policy must begin and end by addressing relationships.

Of course, this presupposes the absence of any other agenda the representative wants to impose on their constituents, for reasons of ideology, career, party affiliation, etc. Dubious trust is fostered by those who haven’t earned it themselves.

Achieving any consensus locally means the people involved gain wisdom, which is to say, knowledge with some universality. This is what makes it possible for the representative to then work with their counterparts on solutions with broader applicability. Having gotten to this point with constituents is a better definition for “mandate” than simply having won enough votes.

The idea that democracy is achieved when the will of the people is manifest in policy is simplistic: it’s not enough for public policy to directly reflect what a majority of people want. In fact, “direct democracy” is a contradiction in terms. The word “direct” denotes the elimination of an intermediary, and in this case, what’s eliminated is representation, along with the dialogue it enables. Without these, you’re not even trying to share power, which means you’ve forsaken self-government.

The submission of a question to referendum shuts down dialogue just as surely as the threat of force shuts down diplomacy. Of course, debate takes place — but only with the goal of growing one’s favoured side to a winning size. The relaxed posture necessary to talk productively about disagreements becomes impossible, because it’s pre-decided that the issue will be settled by force (of will).

Instead, democracy is achieved when almost all citizens find their public policy good enough. Any important piece of policy is unlikely to be exactly what a given citizen initially wanted, but neither is it a simple compromise (some things they like and some things they don’t). Successful public policy is a synthesis of citizens’ concerns and felt experiences — one they couldn’t have imagined before learning new things about how their lives affect each other. Couldn’t have imagined, not only because they lacked answers about each other, but also because only together could they find the right questions.

Even in fortunate places like Canada, consensus sounds like a pipe dream, because we wrongly think of it as a circumstance instead of a process. A circumstance is black and white — either it is the case or it isn’t. So as a pre-existing circumstance, consensus on any important issue is unlikely, and therefore to expect it is naive. But the real meaning of consensus is a process in which talking and listening are equally important, and connected to each other in a feedback loop that generates shared ideas. In this model of discourse, ideas don’t spread through force of will, nor mainly by force of argument, but in small steps, through mutual creation — in other words, by consent.

The tension of stability

Power is like health in that one must use it to maintain it. Without use, health declines and power over-concentrates. Therefore using either one enough to maintain it will always feel like a struggle, even if things are already in good shape. If you’re not sweating, you’re not keeping fit. And if you’re not feeling challenged, you’re not exercising democratic power.

This is the source of another paradox: formal structures and systems are indispensable to the sharing of power, but can equally serve the hoarding of power.

This ever-present tension is actually a good thing. The structures I mean — e.g., legislation, ministries, departments, parties, electoral systems, labour unions, professional associations — are the only way to consolidate democratic accomplishments. Yet like any living thing, they must have porous outlines and be open to revision and renewal. This means accepting some degree of vulnerability to being revised incorrectly, so the tension is unavoidable.

Said another way, formal structures must bend or else break, but this bending is not weakness. History never ends, and the shapes of institutions must change to serve the changing needs of new generations. To bend is to be able to remain relevant and useful — yet formal structures resist change by definition: that’s the point of them. If they were too easy to change, they wouldn’t be an effective way to consolidate accomplishments, because they could be ruined at a whim. Bendable is not the same as flimsy.

In a healthy democracy, formal structures change stepwise via the continual struggle toward imperfect consensus. In less democratic societies, they are brittle, resisting change entirely until suddenly giving way to coup d’Γ©tats of temporary majorities who are convinced they have the perfect answer — without having to listen to others.


When we use the word democracy formally, we usually mean a system of accountable, elected leaders — but elections don’t necessarily promote accountability. Less formally, the word may refer to the principle of majority rule — yet, when relied upon repeatedly, majority rule produces short-lived, impotent majorities, disempowering everyone over the long term. Other times, by democracy, we simply mean fairness — but the idea of fairness is like an empty box, waiting for us to decide what values to place inside it.

None of these is a good general definition of democracy: elections and majorities are specific techniques meant to promote some value — the question is what. Fairness is part of it, but not the whole story. When your core values have fallen into unconsciousness, you mistake the techniques meant to promote those values for the values themselves. Mediocrity is the natural result, so its current association with democracy is no surprise.

It turns out civics class provided a good start on the general definition: the people having the power. “Self-government” is a more action-oriented synonym. In practice, this definition implies a social philosophy of self-organizing in the pursuit of consensus — in other words, going out of your way to share power. But, by itself, this is not a political philosophy.

Self-organizing in the pursuit of consensus is natural in small groups, but for whole societies, it requires some kind of system. Many possible system designs can promote the sharing of power, and each has strengths and weaknesses. The philosophy of self-government doesn’t seem to favour any single system; it only insists that however large a civilization grows, people and relationships are still its fundamental pieces — not systems.

But because civilizations achieve reality through systems, there is no such thing as a pure democracy, which means it doesn’t pay to be a democratic purist. For example, my criticisms of elections are not a reason to give up voting. Even where voting has become a polarized contest of will, the outcome still matters, so it’s crucial to use this power. But voting alone doesn’t build consensus, so is not a means of keeping power with the people. And where government is an oligopoly, voting alone will not create better choices for voters. Only agendaless dialogue, with its attendant, messy disagreements, can accomplish these things.

In a fictional world where no one ever learns new things or changes their mind, we might have to resign ourselves to government by a simple algorithm that satisfies the greatest possible number of wishes. In such an unfortunate world, the fairness-efficiency dichotomy would be real. Governing would be a matter of choosing a point along a spectrum between fairness-as-ideology and efficiency-as-ideology — in other words, looking for democracy somewhere between communism and fascism.

In the real world, what makes a third way possible is the ability of people to have dialogue and gain insight, and the assumption that most people are well-intentioned even when wrong. It’s impossible to predetermine what’s fair or efficient, because through genuine dialogue, people change their minds about what they want. What’s more, the loss of trust from imposing a majority’s wishes on a minority only makes sense as a last resort, when circumstance forces an immediate decision, and the limits of dialogue have not only been reached, but pushed.

Democracy isn’t about people getting what they want. It’s not Christmas. But neither is it about forcing on people what they need — because you can’t know what people need unless they are willing and able to figure it out for themselves. Instead, democracy is about people figuring out what they need together. For large civilizations, this is complicated and difficult, which is why they rely on leaders — not to fulfill all their desires like customers, and not to tell them what they need like children — but to help them pursue consensus. This is what keeps power shared, which is all democracy means.

Democracy that can ever be perfected is not worth having. There is always more work to do, and to see that work, citizens must be able to see each other. It’s exhausting, uncomfortable, and sometimes rewarding. That’s governing for you.