What happened late Friday night and in the wee hours of Saturday morning in Wisconsin’s senate was a devastating blow to what’s left of the state’s rich tradition of clean, open and honest government. What those actions will mean is a lot more money flowing into state elections and a lot less oversight of politicians. A perfect recipe for more political corruption.
All this has a lot of people wondering if we even have a democracy anymore. A Princeton University study says no, the U.S. no longer qualifies as a democracy. And that conclusion was drawn well before Wisconsin senators did what they did over the weekend, which had some writing obituaries while others likened the condition of democracy in America’s Dairyland to a mortally wounded mugging victim.
Democracy in Wisconsin and all across America is unquestionably in a weaker state and at greater risk than it has been at any time in living memory. The reactions of the few dedicated observers who were still awake to witness the dirty work of a dozen and a half state senators are hard to argue with. The Princeton study is eye opening in many ways and mind blowing in a few. The problem with these assessments is they put too much weight — all the weight, really — on what government officials do or don’t do, as if those official actions are the only conceivable manifestations of democracy in action and what other citizens are thinking and saying and doing is unimportant or irrelevant. That’s a strange conception of democracy — one that assumes democracy is something confined to corridors of power. It also assumes democracy is something we have, not something we do.
Those currently in power in Wisconsin and in so many other places in our country have shown themselves to be hostile to the basic operating principles of democracy. But that is not enough reason to say democracy no longer exists in our country or is about to be extinguished. Democracy is more verb than noun. And no matter how much despotic rulers try to kill the noun, they can’t kill the verb. When you and I practice democracy, we still have democracy. It can be battered and brutalized, but it cannot be taken away from us altogether without our consent.
Moreover, democracy has so many dimensions. One dimension can be flat-lining and others can be alive and kicking. The fact that political corruption is on the rise is an ominous sign. But the fact that I can write in a public forum that my government is corrupt and not suffer state censorship or stand in a public place and openly condemn corrupt officials without being arrested is itself an indication of democracy’s existence. When harm is done to democracy in one respect, that’s all the more reason to exercise it more vigorously in other ways. When authentic representation is denied us in the halls of government, then speaking out publicly and taking to the streets to organize and agitate for change become that much more important.
Democracy is not something we have, it’s something we do. Only when we all stop doing democracy will democracy in America be truly dead.