I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Ah, democracy!

Like so many words echoing through today’s content-free political tantrums, “democracy” gets thrown around by folks who don’t seem to understand how it is supposed to work. (“Liberty” is similarly misused; in the recent RFRA debate, defenders of the law used it to mean retailers’ right to discriminate against customers whose identities or behaviors offended their religious beliefs.)

My observation about the misuse of “democracy” is prompted by a recent blog–diatribe, actually–posted by an Indianapolis school board member named Gail Cosby. (Full disclosure here: I wouldn’t have seen the post, nor would I be following the school board’s “inside baseball” disagreements if our daughter and a former graduate student of mine weren’t both members of that body. So while I am a constituent of Cosby’s, I come with a somewhat amplified point of view.)

In the wake of the most recent school board elections, Cosby has found herself in the minority (alone, actually) on several issues, and has taken to accusing those with whom she disagrees of bad faith, hostility and “undemocratic” behavior. She is absolutely entitled to her opinions, whatever one may think of the propriety or accuracy of these accusatory posts, but like too many other Americans, she quite clearly does not understand the democratic process.

And that leads me to my larger point.

When voters elect a legislative body–the General Assembly, the City-County Council, the School Board–the majority rules. Losing a vote, failing to have your opinion carry the day, or failing to have all your demands met is not evidence of anti-democratic behavior, or “failure to collaborate.” It is the way the system works. The obligation of those of us who find ourselves in a minority position–and believe me, I’ve been in minority positions a lot— is to persuade enough other people of the wisdom/prudence/soundness of your position that you become a majority.

Of course, that takes effort, and persistence, and a willingness to listen and to compromise.

One of the reasons American politics is so debased these days is that too many people share Cosby’s evident disinclination to participate in the hard work required by the democratic process. Too many legislators want to blame their inability to get their own way on other people’s bad faith, or ulterior motives, or “undemocratic” behavior.

To say that the majority isn’t always right is an understatement. But that doesn’t make majority rule undemocratic.


  1. What? Not trying hard enough? When big money buys the majority of politicians and the news outlets, and corporations and their lawyers write the legislation that keeps their interests safe while the population is dummied down, the rest of us are not trying hard enough? Are you kidding me?!

  2. Sheila; this is EXACTLY what I have tried to explain to two of my friends who fully supported President Obama in 2008 and quickly backed away when he did not fulfill every one of his campaign aims as “promised”, seemingly to them personally. Both of them are intelligent and one a political activist in California for more than 50 years till what was somehow viewed as his “disappointing” performance once elected and inaugurated. I understand the terms “democracy” and “democratic process” – I also understand it applies to the opposition who, in the case of President Obama, have made it their aim in life to stop his every effort to move forward. They seem to have expected, as did many others, that miracles would continue to happen once a biracial President was actually in the White House. I expected his best efforts; which I have seen, the inability to please all who voted for him was not his failure but the success of the bought and paid for GOP and their staunch followers who do NOT understand the terms – only the party name.

    I expected the opposition, but I did underestimate the racist and bigotred hatred and NOT political opposition that is behind current conditions in this state and the entire country. The state of Indiana is still in the state of being the laughing stock in the country along with southern states who continue trying to fly the “southern cross” as their national flag. I admit I did not expect the political animosity and successful attempts by the Republicans to demean Glenda Ritz and deny her her rightful responsibilities after being duly elected by Indiana voters. We thinking constituents who voted for her, understand her struggle has been to improve public education levels in this entire state which should not be a political issue along with our sex lives and women’s medical decisions.. We also understand that this is NOT her failure but is again the local bought and paid for GOP and their staunch followers who do not understand who or what they are supporting. To them, “democracy” and “democratic process” is believed to translate to mean the Democratic party…which to them translates to “the bad guys.”

    All of this goes back to Sheila’s repeated hope for civics classes to be taught in our schools to educate future voters as to their rights and the limits on government control. Civics classes for my generation would have better prepared us for the lack of power afforded our president as well as teaching us the meaning of “democracy” and “democratatic process.” And again; the basis of much of this is…FOLLOW THE MONEY.

  3. You can’t treat a malady if you don’t first see the symptom. Unfortunately, there is no MRI for detecting

    Since we don’t have a 3D MRI that can examine the health of our democracy. All we can do is look for and point out symptoms like Sheila is doing. Maybe just maybe, observing enough symptoms of potential trouble can overcome the cognitive dissonance that is so pervasive. And we then can look deeper into the root causes of the malady and finally do something about it.

  4. The simple point of democracy in my view is that the people who the laws created by government apply to ultimately get to hire and fire those governing. In other words no privileged interests. Democracy while cumbersome, slow, and imperfect is still the only way to achieve that end.

    I became a political activist when conservatives attacked democracy claiming that it wasn’t what the founders intended. As it is the only practical approach to government that allows the freedom of government of, by, and for the people, all of them, I was personally insulted by their claims that they were entitled to be a privileged group because they were white or male or wealthy or Christian or small business owners or southerners or Republicans. That unveiled to me the magnitude of the oligarchy movement and the ungodly tyranny of media in the home thought to be free only because the wealthy were paying for it as a means of brainwashing.

    It’s not an exaggeration to observe that the most basic tennants that we stand for have been compromised by what amounts to acounting. We don’t know the true cost of energy or entertainment or ultimately freedom.

    The previous generation, the “greatest” generation, who had learned first hand how costly freedom is, and passed it on to us so magnanimously that we took it for granted. Shame on us.

    Accounting is what makes institutions transparent and in service of mankind. When ours only counts dollars it fails us. That makes institutions manipulative rather than democratic. We used to know this but it has been replaced by chasing every squirrel that crosses our path. It turns out that entertainment, not religion, is the opium of the masses.

    We will recover. The question is what will be left of civilization when we do. Especially American civilization, once the envy of the world.

  5. I agree with the comments from both Theresa and JoAnn. We have seen evidence both in Indiana and the U.S. where majority votes have been undermined by Republicans with power and financial backing. With gerrymandering of districts and the powerful lobbying by special interests, it seems that democracy left our country long ago.

    I don’t know how we can accomplish the changes needed when the bulk of the voting public takes the easy road by listening to and believing the messages of the loudest and most frequent propoganda. The general public that goes to work for 8 hours or more every day simply does not have the time nor energy to research what is (and has been) going on. The powerful and wealthy recognize this and continue to beat people down with constant propoganda that directs even more power and money into their pockets. Sigh….

  6. Our big problem is not money it’s OBEDIENCE. I’m not talking about disobedience.

    Take a look and listen to Matt Damon on TED. I’d also recommend along the same lines a new book entitled “The Age of Acquiescence” by Steve Fraser.

  7. “When voters elect a legislative body–the General Assembly, the City-County Council, the School Board–the majority rules.”

    A majority of a body creating policy is not necessarily prudent, sage or democratic. Whatever “democracy” means, it is not a synonym for “majority rule.” Indeed, with no better than one in four citizens voting, it becomes difficult to say that the actions of any of our elected bodies are, in any way, democratic.

    The etymology of “democracy” is crudely put as the “rule of the people.” It is in no way axiomatic to say that a position held by a bare majority of school board members is essentially democratic.

    Supermajorities are better proof of democracy.

    “Losing a vote, failing to have your opinion carry the day, or failing to have all your demands met is not evidence of anti-democratic behavior…”

    Bare majority rule can indeed be, and often is, an undemocratic course. The whole of the people may be better served by the defeated position or a position both sides of the voting body rejected without granting it a vote.

    As a philosophical matter, neither the will of a majority of the People themselves, nor the majority position of an elected board drawn from the People, is essentially democratic.

  8. Sorry Gopper; per my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary the word “democracy” does mean “government by the people…rule of the majority”.

  9. While many people claim that their personal definitions for words carry weight communications are enhanced when more common definitions are used.

    This from Wikipedia.

    Democracy is “a system of government in which all the people of a state or polity … are involved in making decisions about its affairs, typically by voting to elect representatives to a parliament or similar assembly.”[1] Democracy is further defined as (a:) “government by the people; especially : rule of the majority (b:) ” a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”[2] According to political scientist Larry Diamond, it consists of four key elements: “1. A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections. 2. The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life. 3. Protection of the human rights of all citizens. 4. A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens”.[3]

    The term originates from the Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) “rule of the people”,[4] which was found from δῆμος (dêmos) “people” and κράτος (krátos) “power” or “rule”, in the 5th century BC to denote the political systems then existing in Greek city-states, notably Athens; the term is an antonym to ἀριστοκρατία (aristokratía) “rule of an elite”. While theoretically these definitions are in opposition, in practice the distinction has been blurred historically.[5] The political system of Classical Athens, for example, granted democratic citizenship to an elite class of free men and excluded slaves and women from political participation. In virtually all democratic governments throughout ancient and modern history, democratic citizenship consisted of an elite class until full enfranchisement was won for all adult citizens in most modern democracies through the suffrage movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. The English word dates to the 16th century, from the older Middle French and Middle Latin equivalents.

    Democracy contrasts with forms of government where power is either held by an individual, as in an absolute monarchy, or where power is held by a small number of individuals, as in an oligarchy. Nevertheless, these oppositions, inherited from Greek philosophy,[6] are now ambiguous because contemporary governments have mixed democratic, oligarchic, and monarchic elements. Karl Popper defined democracy in contrast to dictatorship or tyranny, thus focusing on opportunities for the people to control their leaders and to oust them without the need for a revolution.[7]

  10. “Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary?”

    Sold me, as that volume is unquestionably the definitive philosophical journal.


    Beyond eighth grade, nobody cites to a dictionary as a primary source. The higher you ascend, the more a household dictionary citation comes off like overalls at the symphony.

  11. Also from Wikipedia and also true:

    Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first President of Czechoslovakia, is remembered for his saying “Demokracie má své chyby, protože občané mají své chyby. Jaký pán, takový krám.” (Czech: “Democracy has its faults, because people have their faults. Like owner, like store.”). He regularly described democracy as “a discussion”.

    Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first President of Czechoslovakia, is remembered for his saying “Demokracie má své chyby, protože občané mají své chyby. Jaký pán, takový krám.” (Czech: “Democracy has its faults, because people have their faults. Like owner, like store.”). He regularly described democracy as “a discussion”.

  12. Exactly how does gerrymandering work? What is its mechanism? Amassing lots of people in a sprawling district? Computer generated collections of like-minded people? Possibly.

    Just what is it that unites the people of New Albany with those of Greenwood? How could they possibly come together in order to oust a legend like Lugar for a clown like Mourdock? What is the common bond which outweighs common sense?

    It’ll come to you.

  13. I agree with Gopper’s comment: “Bare majority rule can indeed be, and often is, an undemocratic course. The whole of the people may be better served by the defeated position or a position both sides of the voting body rejected without granting it a vote.”

    For example, I can accept that an 8-1 vote by the Supreme Court is probably a good one (Abercrombie & Fitch), but the more common 5-4 votes tell me something other than democracy is in play.

  14. @gopper

    I was wondering, since you’ve advised me where to eat on my route home from the beach:

    “Do you have a name or a party affiliation? I feel you’re getting a little too personal. Don’t you agree?”

  15. “While many people claim that their personal definitions for words carry weight communications are enhanced when…”

    …people actually read what’s at issue. You’re bad at this one, Pete.

    Reread the issue.

    Sheila is objecting to a person named Gail Cosby is complaining of undemocratic behavior, despite having herself having presently personally participated in a majority-rule vote. Clearly, Ms. Cosby does not find the terms “majority-rule” and “democracy” synonymous. Otherwise, Ms. Cosby’s statement could be cast as “This majority-rule vote doesn’t feel very majority-rule.” We may presume that Ms. Cosby can perform arithmetic.

    If you truly believe democracy is analog for majority-rule, drop all references to “democracy” in your speech, and give your statements a more honest and direct quality. Say things like “In our majority-rule system…;” “We must fight this war to make the world safe for majority-rule…”

    In short time, if you’re a thinking man, you’ll appreciate how silly you sound.

    Many writers bemoan the loss of America’s “democracy.” Few are complaining of the loss of majority rule. Indeed, all of the complained-of attacks on “democracy” occurred because of majority-rule. If the majority voted in a dictatorship, Pete would be obliged to call the resultant totalitarian government a democracy.

    You should really be paying me $1,500 an hour for this.

  16. Marv, what the …?

    Never mind. It’s the thought that counts, so just think about things. No need to write them down.

  17. It’s not that complicated. Voters rule democracies. The majorities of them. The forces of elitism have been trying to impose themselves over we the people since Athens. They occasionally make gains. It’s up to the friends of freedom to keep them in check.

    There are many enemies of freedom and they share one common trait. They all think that they are entitled to an inordinate share of influence. But that’s what corrupts.

  18. Gopper; “dictionary”: 1. a book giving the meaning and usually the pronunciation of words listed in alphabetical order, 2. a reference book explaining words of a particular subject listed in alphabetical order.

    Maybe I should have listed this definition first; “book”: 1. a set of sheets of paper bound together

  19. In my last comments to Gopper I lost sight of a valuable lession my little old Irish mother taught me as a child; she told me to always “consider the source”. Sorry Mom; I will try to keep that in mind.

  20. Re: the IPS School Board

    I can understand Ms Cosby’s expressing her dismay with the recently elected IPS SB decisions and policies, and while holding a simultaneous thought, I can also understand that elections have consequences. I’m unwilling to throw Ms Cosby under the bus for articulating her personal opinions on her personal blog, nor I am going to throw the majority of the Board members under the bus for joining in a highly-funded coalition to ensure their policies are implemented.

    As Will Rogers once quipped, “Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.” I do not believe Ms Cosby is ignorant any more than I believe the ruling Board coalition is ignorant nor especially enlightened. They’re simply coming at the issues from different viewpoints.

    When entering the political arena, having thin skin is not an asset whether one is in a distinct minority position on a Board or in the prevailing majority position on a Board.

  21. Ahhh. I was fooled by Marv’s statement that it was a TED talk when it’s not.

    After watching it I find that there’s not much that I agree with. We don’t need civil disobedience, we have democracy. We need rule of law to prevent oligarchy. We just have to escape the confines of marketing and reclaim our ability to think independantly. We need education not revolution. We don’t need stridency we need statesmanship.

    We have had what we needed but only briefly. After the civil rights gains and before the conservative based, entertainment imposed, push for oligarchy now being democratically dismissed.

    As I said earlier seemingly almost free energy and entertainment were the most expensive illusions ever perpetrated on we the people and the race is now on to limit their cost to what we can afford.

    We were bequeathed good government by the founders and progress since. Our freedom has been protected for the life of the country by courageous men and women. We just need to protect those gains from the false promises of business and religion and get back to the real promise of our own brains.

  22. @Pete
    I wasn’t trying to fool anyone.

    I don’ think you viewed the same Matt Damon talk that I did. It wasn’t for civil disobedience.

    I’m not necessarily a political fan of Damon. He can be pretty much “off the wall.”

    I viewed his talk at a friends place of business. He was watching it on his computer. And told me it was a TED talk. I’ll try and find out more specific information. Damon talks all over the place.

  23. @Pete

    I found the talk I was referring to: It was Matt Damon reading from a speech given by Howard Zinn in 1970, 45 years ago. It was not a TED talk. Zinn was a leader in the civil rights gains you praised. It was a pep talk. As you said it did mention civil disobedience. But it stressed the word “obedience.” Like the self censorship that completely permeates Jacksonville.

    This was a speech given 45 years ago and since that time, as discussed in the book I referred you to, we have for the most part given up in challenging the corporate elite or oligarchy.

  24. Yes Marv. That was the one that Gopper found too. I wondered what the Howard Zinn thing was about. I’m not familiar with him.

  25. How are you going to write an entire blog post about a person and spell their name wrong?

  26. @Pete and Gopper

    “By summer’s end, Jim Silver, Howard Zinn, Staughton Lynd, and Robert Coles—engaged intellectuals all—had left the South (1964). That fall, Alfred A. Knopf published Zinn’s “The Southern Mystique.” In it Zinn put forth a thesis that directly countered Silver’s point in “The Closed Society.” Silver had described Mississippi as set apart from the national will—so set apart that the nation would have to force change on it. Zinn argued that the South was not so special, so different. Americans ought to shrug off the idea of a “Southern mystique.” The South only exaggerated some of the characteristics of the nation, including racism. The South was a distorted mirror image of the North.” The southern mystique—the idea that white southerners were innately violent or xenophobic were only an excuse for inaction. The truth was that “compromise and vacillation on the race question are intrinsic parts of our national political heritage.” Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement, Carol Polsgrove (WW. Norton & Company, 2001) p.233

    Carol was a professor of journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington. The following is my analysis which at one time was a link on her website:

    Zinn wasn’t from the South. Silver was from an old southern family. He was a professor at the University of Mississippi. Zinn was a professor at Spellman College in Atlanta. Atlanta wasn’t a typical southern city because the Editor of The Atlanta Journal was very progressive for his time.
    Zinn was the darling of Progressives and still is. Most of them have taken his position. The problem is that Silver was right. Racism wasn’t just in the South. But, the deep political system in the “bible belt” was different. It was a completely controlled closed system based on fear. And in Jacksonville, it hasn’t changed a bit.
    Addendum: I was in the courthouse this afternoon observing the trial of one defendant who was part of the Jacksonville 19. The 19 was composed of a mixed group of young activists protesting on the Hart Bridge here in Jacksonville last December after the racial problems in Ferguson. The atmosphere was that of the 60’s. You could feel it. I’m right. It’s still there.

  27. Fascinating stuff. Culture usually is. When it becomes an issue both sides think the other has decided to act in a dysfunctional way when the truth is that neither has. They are merely, out of something like habit, reflexively repeating what people who they consider like themselves have demonstrated is normal.

    Not that in areas like civil rights there isn’t right and wrong. But the side in the wrong doesn’t see it that way and the other side can’t see it any other way.

  28. @Gopper

    Sorry, if I was a little paranoid today. I was going to be the sole witness for the defense as an “expert on free speech” in the Jacksonville 19 trial. The defendant’s attorney and I both decided that would only make matters worse because of the atmosphere at the Courthouse.

    I forgot? How did you describe Jacksonville yesterday?

  29. @ Marv – you might be interested to know that while governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels banned all books written by Howard Zinn for grades K-12.

  30. “The People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn should be required reading for all students in high school. It’s a long book but the information gives great detail on the struggles of immigrants and poor people just trying to survive in this country. It was the hardest book to read and put down. I had to put it down several times to have a good cry and walk off my anger at how humans were treated in this country. If you have one ounce of compassion in your heart, that book may be the key to understanding human rights, human dignity and sacrifice. That’s probably why “Not my Man Mitch” wanted it banned. It’s probably too real for him to stomach.

Comments are closed.