Whenever we talk to one another, we use words. And for those words to communicate what we intend, they have to have a more-or-less agreed upon meaning. If I say “dog” and you picture a furry creature with four legs that barks, then we can move forward with our conversation. But if instead you picture a two-footed, winged creature covered in feathers, our conversation will quickly break down. To use a language is to participate in a community of meaning.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that words each have some complete, narrow definition. The word “dog” covers a nearly infinite number of possible creatures, from wolves to chihuahuas, and is also used figuratively to refer to anything from pained feet (“my dogs are really barking!”) to untrustworthy men (“he’s such a dog!”). Even so, the word can’t just mean anything, because in that case it would actually mean nothing at all. The boundaries that contain a word’s possible meanings are the very structure upon which our meaningful speech and writing are based.
This means that an ambiguous word is not very helpful to us. Indeed, most of us know immediately that vagueness is the enemy of clear communication. And yet, to the extent that we recognize vagueness, it isn’t much of a threat. If, for example, I say “so then I told him to leave me alone”, and we aren’t sure who “him” refers to, we know to ask, and thereby clarify the meaning of the sentence. Having recognized this vagueness, we can resolve it, and clarify our communication. So it is unrecognized vagueness that is the true enemy of clear communication. If two people are using the same word to mean different things–and neither of them realizes it–then no real communication will happen. Indeed, both people will simply be speaking past each other, rather than to each other.
This kind of hidden vagueness afflicts more of our communication than I think we’d like to admit, but today I’d like to just focus on how this vagueness afflicts one word in particular: Democracy. This is a word whose meaning we need to hunt down because it is both ubiquitous and powerful. It’s a keystone in much of our political, social, and cultural life. And yet I think it often means very different things to different people.
Although I am sure there are many different ways of understanding democracy, for now I’d like to focus on the two meanings that I think are most common, and most formative to our political culture.
The first meaning is something like this: democracy means a system of government in which the government interferes with individual life as little as possible (“The best government is that government which governs least.”) In this understanding, democracy is about removing the barriers that impede individuals from living autonomously. Most notably, advocates of this kind of democracy tend to focus on ensuring that individuals can make decisions about their private property with as little interference as possible. Indeed, this vision of the democratic, which is historically linked to small-“r” republicanism, we might call “libertarian democracy” (though of course this adjective introduces its own vagueness). This approach understands democracy as simply releasing the power of property-owners to maximize their own welfare.
It’s important to see that while advocates for this understanding of democracy definitely want to limit the control the government has over them–i.e. kings are seen as very bad–they are at the same time generally very interested in maintaining their control over other people. Profiting off of private property always involves efficiently using the labor of other people. Much of the freedom that advocates of libertarian democracy want is the freedom to employ labor as cheaply as possible. This is how one gains the economic means to live prosperously. This is why, seemingly paradoxically, this vision of democracy frequently come hand-in-hand with slavery. This relationship is evident both in ancient examples of this mode of democracy (e.g. Athens and Republican Rome) but of course, also in democracy as it was envisioned by the founders of the United States.
In short, libertarian democracy seeks to limit the control the government has over property owners in order to give those property owners maximum ability to exercise control over others–that is, labor. This vision of democracy is probably the more dominant in American culture; the fetish for constantly minimizing taxes, even among working-class people, speaks to the power of this vision. As John Steinbeck (maybe) said, “…the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We all seem to want to limit government’s control over us, so that we can use our skills, power, and connections to exploit each other. Because so many of us understand democracy in this way, we have a hard time imagining what else it might mean. But in truth, there is at least one other major tradition of understanding what it means to believe in democracy.
The libertarian vision of democracy is focused on releasing the individual (or at least some individuals) from any kind of control, restriction, or oversight from the state. The logic of this vision of democracy is perhaps best glimpsed in the work of Ayn Rand, whose political philosophy amounts to a fetishization of the individual’s will. Upon a moment of reflection, though, this might seem odd. Doesn’t the very term “democracy” come from two Greek words, demos, meaning “people”, and the root kratia, meaning “to rule”? If so, then at first glance, democracy seems as if it should be focused not on the arbitrary autonomy of any individual, but rather on the will of the people more or less as a whole.
Indeed, this understanding of democracy is not absent from American political life. It is perhaps most clearly seen in two examples: first, whenever we talk about the importance of majority rule, and second, in the fact that the motto of the United States originally was the Latin phrase E pluribuis unum: “Out of the many, one.” These elements of our political thought point to this different, second conception of democracy. Instead of understanding democracy negatively as a set of limitations on government, meant to free individual (property owners) from any interference, this vision of democracy understands the democratic impulse as the desire to create a prosperous, harmonious, and just community. Understood this way, an individual may actually believe that it is his or her belief in democracy that should lead them to accept restrictions or discipline by the community and government. This is at the heart of the celebration of majority rule: if someone feels the need to uphold a law, value, or goal that they do not personally hold, but which the community has decided upon according to a democratic process, then this community-focused vision of democracy is in action.
We might call this second understanding of democracy “social democracy”, though like the term “libertarian democracy”, this term comes with its own vagueness, as well as a set of assumptions and biases that may cloud, rather than clarify, our meaning. This vision of democracy may not always be mutually exclusive with its libertarian counterpart, but there will often be tension between them. To cite just one example, the libertarian understanding of democracy will likely lead to one rejecting the idea of single payer healthcare as a violation of democratic principles, because it will involve taxing property owners to provide healthcare for others. However, someone who asserts a social democratic understanding will draw the exact opposite conclusion: since government guarantees for healthcare are not only hugely popular, but also help to ensure a prosperous, harmonious, and just community, support for such a measure will be seen as necessary for anyone committed to democratic principles.
What’s crucial to see here is that our public discussions and debates are not enriched by arguments in which each side simply asserts “democracy” at each other. Since each side actually means something rather different when they utter this word, no real communication is happening in this case. It is only once we explore what this word means for each of the groups using it that we can see the real divide. Once we can see this, we are armed against overly simplistic debates in which two sides simply denounce each other as insufficiently democratic. Exploring the details of what each of us means by the word “democracy” allows us to get the fundamental values that are really motivating us. For any real political discussion to happen, this is essential.
Contained within discussions and debates about democracy is a deeper conflict between conflicting priorities: individual autonomy, on the one hand, and the general welfare, on the other. The point is not that one of these is wholly good and the other wholly bad, but that each of them is good in some way and to some extent. Crafting a political system is about weighing the relatively value of each, and admitting that we may have to make trade-offs in balancing which value we are pursuing. Seeing this allows us to perceive the difficult complexity of our political and economic life, and allows us to bring to the surface the real conflicts, while avoiding long-winded debates about the purely superficial.