Democracy: Is it a real choice or an illusion of it?

Today I thought I will write about a long-standing conflict I have in my mind- democracy. Why is it so important at this point of history? I will try to unfold the meaning of democracy, especially what it means to have the right to vote. The pressing question is whether it is an illusion of choice or a real power to make any changes around us. People have different ideas and concepts about democracy and no one seems to have a full picture. Different people have different values attached to it. On one hand, the people who never saw the light of democracy, crave for it to get a bit of taste and on the other hand, the folks who lived in it for a long time, take it for granted. So, I thought this is a good time to revisit the philosophy of democracy in the light of current events to remind us what we have and what we don’t have and what we think we have, but not really.

I live in a democratic society, well, not purely democratic- but a republic society. Republic and democratic, both forms of government provide a political system in which citizens are represented by elected officials who are sworn to protect their interests. Pure democracy is not very efficient. We have seen this in ancient Greek societies where every local policy is debated in the council and every adult male has the power and the right to cast vote for or against the policy. Well, not everyone though, women and slaves didn’t enjoy the same right. The major problem is that the laws are made directly by the voting majority leaving the rights of the minority largely unprotected. Moreover, it is a very slow process. Although you get a pure product, you lose a lot of time for it. And society sometimes doesn’t have the luxury to wait for the best outcome always.

Here comes the first compromise: a republic society. Here, laws are made by representatives chosen by the people and must comply with a constitution that specifically protects the rights of the minority from the will of the majority. Ancient Romans were a republic. It is undoubtedly the better flavor of democracy as debated by many philosophers, historians, and politicians for ages. In this, we still have some form of democratic representation and it can make progress in a fairly quick manner. In today’s world, most forms of democracies including the United States are republics.

Now in the US, the right to vote was NOT by default since it’s inception. Like the Greeks, only adult males could vote. Women and African American slaves did not any such rights. To be historically accurate, women actually lost the right to vote in most states while slaves did not have any. Since then hundreds of thousands of people had fought and died to gain this right. In the late 20th century, with the expense of hundreds of years protests and a lot of human lives, we finally have the right to vote for all of us now. So, if you are someone in the US reading this article in the 21st century, remember a great deal has happened to get you this privilege. So try to appreciate what you have.

Now why I chose to start with the background history? It is important to understand the premises of our question in the lights of history. The knowledge of history is always important. Now the question was whether democracy is a real choice or an illusion of it? First I will layout the context of the question in order to make you comfortable with why it is a very important question to ask.

I will try to discuss this in the context of US politics. US has a two-party system, namely the [R]epublicans and the [D]emocrats. Although in many local levels, there are many coexisting ideologies and thus many parties, at the national level, it is essentially a battle of two big parties. I am not going to debate whether this two-party is efficient or not. Because I don’t have any answer to it and I don’t believe anybody has. The point is that this two-party system was emerged due to a compromise, that was believed to make the system more efficient and robust. Time to tell the rest.

Now the lingering question has been prevalent many times in recent history, especially since the 2016 US presidential election. The question goes like this: If I am given just two choices, but both are bad enough to ignore my agendas and neither is aligned with my ideologies, what should I do? Should I make a compromise and choose the lesser evil? Or should I just don’t vote and decline to choose at all? What my actions constitute in the grand scheme of things. Interestingly, many people have told me that rather than choosing another bad person for four years, they prefer not to choose at all. Karma through action or inaction. I believe that this is a real moral dilemma and this article is for the people who are suffering from it. I want you to read the rest of the article and to keep an open mind while you do so.

I am here to say that I understand your point of view. When you say that you believe that the system is rigged, and you don’t want to play their crooked game, I totally get it. I get it when you say that this is a form of protest you are undertaking by not obligating yourself to fall for the broken system. I get it when you say you want to see the whole system to be broken down and rebuilt from the scratch so that you get a fair share and the system no longer appears to be an illusion. But how do you plan to achieve all these?

I want you to sit down and think about it deeply for a while. Know that no governance system is perfect. Since the beginning of human civilization, we are trying to make it perfect. We are trying to make it livable for every human being. And this effort is also a part of ‘trying’. I believe in your good intention, but if you neither go vote nor make your voice heard, essentially you are not contributing anything. Your effort will go unnoticed and unheard, and that will accomplish absolutely nothing. You are probably waiting for the change to happen by someone who is not necessarily you. You are probably waiting for the perfect guy to appear in the ballot so that you can go support them on that day. But you are forgetting that they won’t appear in the ballot if you didn’t fight for them in the primaries. Yes, you might have just one vote, that might seem pretty insignificant. But so does the guy next to you and the guy next to them and so on. If an idea goes unheard of, it was never an idea, to begin with. And most importantly, nothing comes for free in a democracy. Every step requires a fight, an active participation, at least a willingness to fight for it. Even if you want a complete breakdown and remodeling of the whole system, you have to make your voice heard by saying it out loud, so that other like-minded people get inspired by looking at you.

But if you do not believe in that, you got the whole democracy wrong. It’s not about ‘my way or the high way’. Life is not just black and white. Remember in a democracy, you are to still respect the choice of the majority even if you have lost. Even if the country is going into a direction that you never anticipated or never wanted, you have to respect the will of the majority because that is what you have signed up for as turned out to be in minority. Remember, democracy is working well only when the will of the majority is accepted and that of the minority is respected. If there is any other outcome then there is something wrong with it. And only a democracy can overcome the shortcomings of it. That means you have to fight it with democracy itself.

You have noticed that the ideas (including laws and policies) are constantly changing in our society. So democracy is indeed a continual process that requires rigorous attention as does the maintenance of our body and health. A constant presence of something might make it appear to be absent, and that is the mistake we make by taking it for granted. All the bad legislations are there NOT because the democracy had failed, we rather failed to act upon it. Democracy worked as it was supposed to. We moved our attention away from it for a while and thus it was taken over by the bad actors. We let it happen. We let some people exploit it in the wrong way, and it is us who enabled them to do so. These crooked people are in positions of power because they were enabled by the ones who elected them AND the ones who did not participate. Hence as responsible citizens, it is our civic duty to educate ourselves in the matter and participate. You lose the right to complain if you don’t exercise your right to vote.

Now, what should you do if you like neither of the candidates? How should you participate? Democracy says you have the right to say that you choose nothing. But make sure your voice is heard. Choosing nothing is also a choice, but be sure that you have let the world know about your decision. Otherwise, your action of not showing up for vote means nothing. Some states in the US allow protest votes or none of the above (NOTA) vote. Vote NOTA if you can and feel that way, but show your participation. You have to make the people in power uncomfortable by asking questions. That is the whole point the democracy. If you don’t want to actively participate, you might as well live in an autocratic society and wait for a white knight to come and save your day from time to time.

Now if you don’t have the option to choose NOTA, I am afraid you have to sit down and think about your options. You have to compromise. Remember, you are compromising all the way from pure democracy. You are here because you were denied all the other options. So what’s one more step? Even if you don’t like it, you can’t just sit around. Make your voice heard so that in the next election you don’t have to make the same compromise again. Be the part of the solution, don’t just dream about it.

And choosing a president is NOT the end of the story. It’s not everything that you can do. That is not where our responsibility ends. There follow a hundreds of local and national elections where you can choose the people who are most aligned with your ideas. When you have to compromise, do it in an optimum way. Research about each candidate. The government can intentionally make it harder for you to gain information about them. Then you have to work harder so that they don’t do it anymore. Make an educated choice, protest, engage in conversation, make your voice heard, talk to the people as I am doing right now, and most importantly vote, and inspire others to do the same. You may fail, but you’ve gotta try.

So back to my question. Is democracy an illusion? The answer is yes and no. It depends on how YOU see it. In a way, every choice in our mortal life is an illusion. In a way nothing really matters, but then you don’t just sit around and wait for death, do you? You go and have fun and make the most out of your life. We do what we can do with all our limitations and that is when all illusions become real to us. So is democracy. We truly have the choice only when we truly believe we have it. So we work with whatever we have by acknowledging our limitations and the fault in our stars.

And remember to compromise a bit, not too much though. That’s how it works. We all compromise a little bit so that everyone gets the most out of everything. Even if you believe that progressive is the only way to move forward or only conservatism can bring stability, remember we live in a society that is for everyone. It is not just for liberals or socialists or capitalists or communists or libertarians or any other single-minded person but for everyone. That is the whole point of it. You have to nurture your own ideologies and principles while respecting others’ beliefs and interests. That is how we find a common ground. And through protesting, voting, participating in the civic duties, singing and dancing, we find common ground amongst ourselves. So we do compromise for the sake of others. And people are making compromises since the day when the idea of democracy was coined. When pure democracy didn’t work, people just didn’t throw the whole idea and moved on with monarchy. They made a compromise and came up with a republican society and so on. Who knows in 2000 years, what form of democracy we will see if we ever want to see it. Throughout the world today, the rise of authoritarian governments is an indication that there might not be any democracy at all. But what matters today is our intention. The question is do we intend to keep it? If yes, then we have to work with what we have and keep pushing for more. Because, remember, once the people in power are not uncomfortable, the rest of us will be.

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