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  • None of Us is a Democrat Now
  • John R. Wallach (bio)

The title of the panel, “We are all democrats now...,” is self-subverting: it notes a common political belief, and it subjects it to questioning. “People may say it’s so, but that can’t be the case: so what’s going on?” It’s both curious and provocative.

It is curious, because one of the sources of the panel is Sheldon Wolin’s most recent book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, in which he argues that democracy has been hollowed out by the forces of capitalism, bureaucracy, and state-power to become a one-dimensional political form that is connivingly, ultimately, anti-democratic. Wolin would say that there are strikingly few democrats now. The scare quotes make the Symposium title provocative, for it suggests the statement passes for common knowledge but deserves interrogation. Dutifully provoked, I have chosen to signal my remarks by negating the panel’s title, affirming that “none of us is a democrat now.”

What is the state of our common knowledge? On November 15, 2007, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte spoke at the inaugural ceremony of the 4th Community of Democracies Ministerial in Bamako, Mali. Secretary Negroponte said, “Never before have we been so unified in charting a course of better opportunity for all men, women and children of the world. The whole world stands to benefit from the stability [my italics] that will come from a future of development and democracy.” Here we can hear how democracy is prominently touted on the international scene, at least by the United States. While the United States surely pays official heed to essential institutional procedures of modern democracy, such as elections for the principal public offices in a state, its practical significance implies the desire to extend democracy across the globe in such a way that it becomes safe for American power.1 Indeed, this has been the aim of the policies associated with democracy promotion, the neologism if not oxymoron that was birthed by the Reagan-initiated National Endowment for Democracy in the 1980s, the initial focus of which was Latin America. That slogan reached intellectual maturity through the work of academics and NGOs in the 1990s, and has achieved political maturity, if not success, in the American invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq over the past eight years. Meanwhile, the democratic institutions the U.S. is supposedly enhancing have been undermined at home by the corruption of elections, perversions of the political process, growing economic inequality, and intimidation of the citizenry’s rights to exercise their civil liberties.2 Can these events simply be explained as results of human nature’s imperfections or collateral damage from the interaction between the democratic process and the American political order? Does the state of rhetorical acclaim for democracy reflect common knowledge or a combination of common ignorance and uncommon subterfuge?

But I would like to aim higher than the easy target of political rhetoric used by American public officials to use the word democracy to disguise arguably anti-democratic practices. After all, astute and respected political theorists regularly intone that democracy is the coin of legitimacy for contemporary political regimes.3 I would like to review the historical origins and transformations of the term democracy in discourse and practice in order to clarify what we might be saying or ignoring when we invoke the term democracy. I do so not to deny that a word’s meaning is ultimately determined by its use, but this deferral of truth to agency does not help us understand how the meaning of democracy has been abused.4 It is not enough that we allow “democracy” to mean anything which those who have public control over its use say it means (Lewis Carroll, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and James Boyd White notwithstanding).5

As a linguistic synthesis of demos and kratos, the word demokratia was coined by ancient Greeks in the middle of the fifth century BCE to signify a form of government in which the demos ruled. The demos was a social class of individuals—property-less men, small property-holders...

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