Democracy’s Good Name

Not so long ago it seemed that every progressive person I knew who was over 55 years old was majorly depressed about the state of democracy. It seemed that what George W. Bush had done to democracy’s good name was irreversible. The war in Iraq, the ill will between reds and blues, the destruction of the social safety net: it all seemed totally dire.  And that was before the economy caved in.

I’m too much of an optimist to despair, so I just hung in there.  And then Barack Obama comes along and starts to give people hope that yes we can save democracy’s good name, that yes we can change this country.  And yesterday morning we woke up saying not only “yes, we can,” but “yes, we did.” I’ve been to three parties already and even those who’d been most depressed are giddy with delight and optimism.

Now Obama has a lot to live up to.  But I think we need to realize that he’s an emblem, and if he were to “save democracy” then we’re not talking about democracy.  Democracy is rule by the people, not rule by a really good guy, no matter how good the guy.

I live outside D.C. and we’re all aflutter around here about what the new government is going to look like.  This is fun talk over a beer with friends.  But we’re not talking about democracy, not really.

What’s the meaning of democracy?  Democracy means a culture in which all who are affected by common matters have a hand and a voice in shaping common matters. That need not mean that everything is decided by referendum but that public matters are matters for public discussion, deliberation, decision in a deep and fundamental way, namely in sensing that what we say matters and then acting accordingly.

With his community organizer background, I think Obama would agree.  Let’s hope he’ll govern in a way that allows space for democracy. But for democracy to happen we have to step up and step into that space and continue to take ownership over what happens in public life.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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