Democracy As A Measure Of Justice: Shortcomings; And Walt Whitman, Carried Away


In the world, today, we have often heard democracy spoken of as though it were a synonym for justice. Democracy - that beautiful political form, that beautiful system in which the people freely choose their leaders by means of elections - is used as, perhaps, the central measure by which we judge the moral qualities of a society. Democracy is good. Dictatorship is bad. Because we are a democracy, we are good. From our vantage point, as citizens of a democratic society, raised in the furnace of its values, we have come to see the world in terms of political democracy - which is the wavelength of social and cultural reality most visible to us - and to judge societies, including our own, on the basis of whether or not they hold elections. I do not want to trash that point of view, for political democracy is, indeed, a great blessing for those fortunate enough to enjoy it. I want to expand that point of view, because political democracy, by itself, is not enough.

For many years, some critics - some of them dictators looking for an excuse, and some of them believers in the democratic system attempting to overcome its limits - have pointed out that political rights, especially, the sacred right to vote in elections in order to choose one’s leaders, are not the only kind of rights needed by human beings. The borders of morality, they say, go far beyond such rights, and include social and economic rights, as well: the right of every individual in a society to be respected, and to have equal opportunity, no matter what his ethnicity; the right of every individual to have certain basic guarantees regarding his safety; the right of every individual in a society to have enough to eat, and to have access to education and medical care. Political democracy, these critics say, is empty without these rights.

Of course, the assumption for those of us raised in the center of democracy, is that all of those things will come naturally, once political democracy is put into place. For how could the people, once they controlled their own government, not direct society to meet their needs?!

Sadly, history teaches us that things are not quite so simple as this. It is vital for us to remember - perhaps now, more than ever - that democracy is not the end, but only the beginning. Not the sole measure of a society’s moral attainment, but only one of many measures that must be applied. Moral overconfidence and self-righteousness are great destroyers of souls; and no one who lives in a political democracy can ever afford to sit back, and say, "I’m there." Nothing will kill the journey to justice faster than mistaking the way there, for "there."

Great Injustices May Exist Within A Democratic Society

Great injustices may exist within a democratic society. Here are some examples:

Ancient Athens, the golden cradle of Western democracy; Republican Rome, stronghold of democratic institutions; and the United States of America, from its foundation until 1862-1865 - all supported the institution of slavery. Vast numbers of human beings were deprived of liberty, forced to serve others against their will, and often brutally mistreated, in order to enrich men who saw them as nothing but tools for enhancing their own experience of life. Of course, the slaves were not citizens, and could not vote. Some may say, the moral defects possible in those days have been eliminated, in our own times, by the expansion of voting rights and the attainment of universal suffrage. However, the lesson of those days is eye-opening. In an era overpowered by the myth that democracy inherently equals justice, automatically equals justice, it goes to show that democracy, by itself, does not guarantee the sensitivity, compassion, or moral awareness and discipline, of the people who live underneath it; that government "by the people" does not, in any way, guarantee that the people, and the government they put into place, will be wise, fair, or even human. Why did the citizens who could vote, back in those days, allow their human brothers to be put in chains?

After the Civil War, and a period in which the vanquished Southern states were garrisoned by Northern troops, democratic rule was returned to the South, which was compelled, by new national laws, to accept the liberation of the former slaves, and to respect their rights as citizens, including the right to vote. Under these circumstances, determined to limit black power within the contours of democracy, some southern states and districts found ways to misuse the system in order to accomplish their end. In some areas, a poll tax was implemented - a fee which prospective voters had to pay, in order to be able to vote. Large numbers of poor blacks, still suffering the economic consequences of the legacy of slavery, and excluded from new opportunities by racism, could not afford to vote. In many districts, a literacy test was also established as a requirement to determine voter eligibility. The test was justified on the grounds that democracy, a system of government "run by the people", required that the people who ran it possess certain minimum standards of literacy and knowledge, in order to make informed, constructive choices about society’s future. The true objective of the test was to filter large numbers of blacks, whose poverty and social isolation had impeded, (or altogether denied them), their education, out of the political system. To solidify this racist mechanism for disempowering blacks, a double standard was applied to the literacy tests. The white officials who evaluated the test would sometimes give different tests to blacks and whites, or else let ignorant whites slip through the screen, marking their failed exams as passes. In still other cases, intimidation was used to keep blacks away from the polls. The meaning of a group of white thugs or vigilantes visibly positioned near the voting site would not be lost on a black, coming in to vote. Most likely, he would turn the other way and go back home. While the democratic system seemed to exist on paper, with elections open to all citizens, the reality was that democracy was not working. Only after years of struggle, and the great sacrifices of the civil rights movement, were these blockages to the workings of the democratic system finally removed.

Now, today, many African-Americans complain that the battles won to protect their rights as voters and participants in the democratic political process are still being partially neutralized by social and economic conditions resulting from racism, poverty, and a history of starting from behind. While some thinkers today, for some reason committed to bolstering the spirit of crude racists, seek to blame African-Americans for their own plight, even daring to bring forth arguments of genetics, IQ, and moral constitution, anyone who knows this race well - its beauty, intelligence, and soul - knows that the slums, the broken families, the unemployment, the crime, the disasters, the widespread wounds, are products of social and economic forces that have haunted this race in America from the very beginning, and that continue to haunt it, underneath the superficial equality of the democratic process. A man’s life does not begin and end with a voting booth. There are realities beyond elections which define the trajectory of lives. Which goes to show us that there is more to justice than merely living in a democracy.

Another major force which sometimes derails the effectiveness of democracy is apathy. Many who could vote, choose not to do so. Why? Perhaps because there are certain inherent flaws in the democratic system, to begin with: like the fact that running for office can be an enormously costly affair, and that men with money, or men able to appeal to those who have money, are the ones most likely to be able to run successfully for office. Perhaps many of these candidates, elected by the people, do not really serve the people with passion and commitment once they are elected. Perhaps they serve the interests of the money which supported their campaign. Or serve themselves. Perhaps the people begin to notice that their lives do not really change much, no matter who wins the elections: Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dum. Perhaps they become discouraged, cynical, stop caring. As many drop out of voting, the democracy becomes less and less of a democracy, it becomes a government of some of the people, not all of the people. And perhaps, even among those who do vote, the exhaustion, challenges, and stresses of their daily lives gradually cause them to withdraw their interest from the details of their governance. Perhaps they essentially lose sight of their leaders, in between the elections. Perhaps they trust too much, and do not question enough. Then, perhaps, what democracy becomes is little more than a series of four-year dictatorships, with all political power given up to those who have captured the prestige of important positions, and the powerful tools for creating public perceptions, which go with them. In cases, if the apathy is severe enough, the leaders of a democratic society may actually break the laws of the land, and get away with it, usurping the Constitution and turning the democratic form into a front for their tyranny, and the democratic society which elected them, into their own personal fiefdom, while the people, deceived by the form, offer no resistance.

All across the globe, the capacity of democratic societies to tolerate and produce injustice, has been displayed. What about South Africa, and the notorious apartheid system, which took so long to vanquish? There, democracy existed, but it was divided into layers - into separate democratic processes for Indians, blacks, and whites, with the white democracy having ultimate power over them all.

In some countries, bribery has played a major part in the electoral process, as a political candidate may, in addition to his promises, offer local rallies and fiestas, filled with food and drink, in order to win votes. Or irresponsible tax cuts that will only end up creating devastating budget deficits and damaging the future prospects of society.

In our own past, of course, and in some other places in the world, when voting was not done by "secret ballot", but done in such a way that your voting choice could be witnessed by others, democracy existed in name only. The pressure to conform, and sometimes, fear of reprisals, made you vote, not the way of your conscience, but the way others wanted you to. Now, even with secret ballots which guard an individual’s privacy at the polls, the voting behavior of local districts, municipalities, and regions may still be observed, and used to reward or punish constituents of those locales, through the granting or withholding of economic aid, development projects, contracts to local business, etc.

Then, of course, there is the dark and ever popular realm of electoral fraud. Everybody wants the sense of legitimacy and approval that can be bestowed upon them by elections; yet, at the same time, nobody wants to lose. When the desire not to lose exceeds the commitment to the electoral process, which depends upon fairness in order to fulfill its avowed social purpose, electoral fraud is the frequent result. Supporters of one candidate, operating from within the electoral mechanism, may miscount the votes, undercounting their opponents and overcounting their own. The votes of opponents may be "lost." Sometimes, depending upon how the votes are physically registered, the votes may actually be changed by the individuals charged with counting them. There have been reports, in some elections, of people voting multiple times with false IDs, sometimes posing as citizens who, though still on the voting register, are actually deceased! In the 1960s, in South Vietnam, there was a case in which a S. Vietnamese army unit voted in one district, and then, was flown by helicopter to another, to vote there, as well! In a recent election here, in the United States, leaflets were put up by the supporters of one party urging everyone to go and vote for the candidate of the opposite party, but giving the wrong day for the elections! The apparent "friendliness" of the leaflet was meant to dupe members of the opposite party into believing that it was a legitimate communication from their own party, and to trick them into showing up too late to vote. On the ballot, or within the voting booth, itself, deliberate confusion may sometimes be created in order to lure people into voting for someone or something else than they intend! Many amendments or laws that are put up before a popular referendum, are structured and worded in such a way as to mislead voters. For example: supposing the issue is: should park lands be ceded to developers? If you were in favor of opening up the land to developers, but thought the proposal to allow it might not pass, you could reverse the expected meanings of "Yes" and "No." Whereas most people would expect "Yes" to mean let the developers in, and "No" to mean don’t, you could word the proposal like this: "YES, I support the current ban on ceding park lands to the development project", and "NO, I do not support the current ban on ceding park lands to the development project", and thereby, most likely, get many people to vote in your favor, without even realizing it!

Besides fraud of this type, elections are sometimes sabotaged by fear and terror. Bands of armed men who may drive known or suspected opponents away from the polls, threaten violence against localities which vote for candidates other than the ones they want, shut down the polls in areas known to be supportive of other candidates, or threaten acts of terrorism and assassination on election day, can effectively dampen people’s enthusiasm for participating in the electoral process. In some countries, where the appearance of democracy is important in order to present a positive image to the world, and to qualify for military and economic aid from other lands, the face of a democracy is worn in order to protect the heart of dictatorship. Elections are held, but opposition candidates, leaders, organizers, and supporters are threatened, persecuted, and, if need be, murdered by assassins and death squads, who the government pretends to be against, and to try to stop, as it secretly profits from their reign of terror. This kind of activity helped to prop up the democracy of El Salvador in the 1980s, and was also a very significant element in Colombian politics in the 1980s and 1990s, although there, the violence was multidimensional, involving complex relationships, shifting alliances, and sometimes paradoxical objectives, between different strata of government, the military, drug traffickers, and guerrillas. In many countries, which lack a substantial-enough middle class and a wide-enough political consensus to meet the basic prerequisites of a functional democratic society, as defined by political scientists, democracy is, nonetheless, attempted by those who do not believe in it, as a means of gaining access to the support of democratic nations; it is then reshaped to fit their needs, as advocates of one side of a highly polarized and conflict-ridden society. The gentle cow of democracy is given the claws of a lion, the wings of an eagle, the teeth of a crocodile: death squads, assassins, martial law, and other weapons of dictatorship. A strange, hybrid creature is, thus, born into the world, one half designed for public relations, the other half for military effectiveness.

In some other cases, earnest and well-intentioned democratic governments live in the shadow of their own hostile militaries, whose implicit threat of coup limits their freedom of action and, essentially, keeps them on a short leash.  Democratic governments in nations such as Argentina, Chile, and Guatemala, which have devastating firsthand experience with the apocalyptic reality of military rule, are likely to stay within the bounds expected of them, lest the army, once again, emerge from its barracks into the streets to enforce its own vision of the social order.  Not to mention the fact that a whole generation of opposition may already have been dismantled by the military's previous reign of terror, before it "withdrew", back to its bases, to allow the resumption of civilian rule.  A democracy without opponents - isn't that a dictator's dream?  Societies such as this may also be viewed as hybrid creatures:  cosmetic, and sometimes partially-functional, creations, hiding a sinister secret

Then, there are the cases of those democratic societies which may be destabilized from the outside. Sometimes, what is supposed to be an internal affair, a choice of the people of a nation, turns out to be the choice of somebody outside their country! Foreign lands may attempt to funnel funds and expertise to support the candidacy of individuals who they feel would best serve their own interests. In as much as this support may distort the final results of the election, it represents a form of invasion and even conquest, exploiting democratic means to penetrate and gain control over another land! President Clinton was criticized for having received improper support, of this kind, from agents of the Chinese government, creating quite a scandal at the time. But that relatively minor and harmless affair is far from the only example. In 1970, the American company, ITT, was discovered attempting to bribe members of the Chilean Congress to block Salvador Allende, the new, democratically-elected, socialist president of Chile, from assuming power there. (They believed that his victory would threaten their operations in Chile.) When their efforts were uncovered, a huge scandal resulted, and legal opposition to Allende’s rightful assumption of power was dropped. A few years later, however, as that divided society battled with itself, the CIA began to funnel large amounts of money to striking transport workers in Chile, in order to prolong their strike, which was disorganizing and weakening Allende’s government. (The US opposed Allende due to his radical positions, his nationalization of US-owned copper mines, etc.) The additional paralysis and chaos created by this strike contributed directly to the atmosphere which led to the coup on September 11, 1973, that toppled Allende from power and resulted in years of military dictatorship under the harsh rule of Augusto Pinochet. As these cases show, democratic societies are sometimes able to be penetrated and used, not to represent the power and dreams of their own people, but to spread the power of other lands and their visions. Exaggerated fears of this potential, in fact, led to the McCarthy Era in 1950s America, as many believed that the open doors of American democracy were being penetrated and used by Communist agents to try to subvert America from within. These fears are also at the heart of Fidel Castro’s long attachment to power, and to the very concept of the "proletarian dictatorship", originally conceived, by Marx, as an integral part of his revolutionary blueprint. For he believed that political democracy, in the context of a newly achieved revolutionary state, would only provide counterrevolutionaries with easy avenues into its heart, to destroy it, by means of buying candidates, injecting propaganda into its veins, and supporting internal acts of sabotage and rebellion, as they simultaneously blockaded, pressured, and threatened the revolutionary state from the outside.

As you can see, there are an enormous variety of ways in which a political democracy is able to fail its people, to be distorted, corrupted, and rendered ineffective, from both the outside and the inside, and to fall far short of its promise and expected aims. Whether we are considering our own democracy, here at home, or democracy as practiced in another land, we must look beyond the surface, to see what is really going on in that society. Does it genuinely represent its people? All of its people? Is it generating actions that could be considered fair, humane, and compassionate? Is there substance beneath its form, or does its beauty only go skin-deep? Is it free to function as it was meant to, or is it cramped, manipulated, and used? Is it able to meet its people’s needs? Besides the right to walk into a voting booth and pull a lever for a candidate, is it proving capable of feeding its people, clothing its people, schooling its people, protecting the health of its people, providing jobs for its people, respecting its people? - It is time that we begin to look at "democracy" in a more complex and complete way, not assuming that all is well in a society, just because it "is a democracy."

A Democratic Society May Perpetrate Great Injustices Against Other Societies

The founders of our society were extremely worried about the potential abuses that might occur within a democratic society, particularly regarding the possibility that the majority might misuse their democratic power to trample over the rights, and utterly persecute, an unpopular minority. For this reason, they injected the Bill of Rights into the Constitution, legally entrenching certain basic rights into our society, which the government, majority-ruled or not, could not touch or impede. Thus were the rights of property; the right of due process, and fair and equal treatment before the law; the right to freely express one’s opinion and to worship as one chose - among many other rights - written into the law of the land, and woven, as sacred strands, into the fiber of our culture.

But what of those peoples living outside of our society? Those not covered by our Bill of Rights?

There is often an assumption that people living within a democratic society are fairer and blessed with higher moral standards than those who do not. It is as though the nature of our political system were a halo, glowing about our heads, redeeming us of every possible sin, making everything we do right. It is as though we believed that we, and our democratic society, could do no wrong in the world. As though we were perfect, or at least better than everyone else, almost as a matter of definition. In this sense, democracy has, nowadays, practically become a cult, giving those who inhabit it a false sense of moral superiority over others, our own small taste of what it might be like to belong to the Master Race.

Consider the early history of our own nation, when the concept of Manifest Destiny ran wild over the untamed continent of America, land of forests, mountains, deserts, plains, rivers and lakes. The land was already lived upon by numerous and diverse tribes of Native peoples, with cultures deep and alive, and magnificence not after our own image. But to the settlers of our bold new democracy, which had just shaken off the chains of political bondage to Great Britain, these native peoples were primitive, undeveloped, and dangerous, and they stood in the way of the land that seemed to beckon the new democracy onwards, inviting it to sweep forward, to pour into the "underutilized vacuum" of a continent that was "too great" for its original inhabitants. This is what Manifest Destiny was - the faith and dream and vision that the United States of America’s fate and duty was to spread from "sea to shining sea", to carry the torch of civilization, progress, Christianity and the Bible, and its "democratic way of life", from the Atlantic to the Pacific, overwhelming all that which stood in the way. It was very much an American re-creation of the Biblical concept of the Chosen People in search of the Promised Land - and for those who bought into that outlook, the Native Americans and the Mexicans became the treacherous and unworthy Canaanites, to be driven away or cut down by the guardians of the Holy Vision. So proud was America of its way of life, back then, that it felt justified to trample over other ways of life that dared to limit its extension.

Consider these lines from Walt Whitman’s ecstatic homage to this spirit, in "Pioneers! O Pioneers!":

Come my tan-faced children,

Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,

Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?

Pioneers! O pioneers!


For we cannot tarry here,

We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,

We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


O you youths, Western youths,

So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,

Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


Have the elder races halted?

Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


All the past we leave behind,

We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


We detachments steady throwing,

Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,

Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


We primeval forests felling,

We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,

We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

Whitman, as a newspaper writer, jingoistically supported the US war against Mexico (1846-1848), at a time when Thoreau, Lincoln (as a Congressman), and many other Americans of conscience openly opposed, or felt ashamed, by the prosecution of a war that seemed to cloak the desire for land and wealth under righteous arguments of honor and freedom. Out of that war, the US gained what were to be its southwestern states, California, and new trails to the Pacific. Although impressed by the striking appearance and dignity of Native Americans, of which he left a record, Whitman also glorified Custer, perpetrator of the massacre of a peaceful Cheyenne village on the Washita River (1868), romanticizing his tragic end at the Little Big Horn (1876) at the hands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors, as he attempted to duplicate the "victory" of the Washita on a larger scale. But in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Whitman did not see the Indian women and children who were saved by the spirited resistance of their men, he saw only "the cavalry companies fighting to the last in sternest heroism." For him, Custer was he "of the tawny flowing hair in battle… with erect head, pressing ever in front, bearing a bright sword in [his] hand, desperate and glorious in defeat…" Even more than that, Whitman saw, in Custer’s heroic fall, the redemption and soul of the American people, and Humanity itself:

Continues yet the old, old legend of our race,

The loftiest of life upheld by death,

The ancient banner perfectly maintain’d,

O lesson opportune, O how I welcome thee!


As sitting in dark days,

Lone, sulky, through the time’s thick murk looking in vain

for light, for hope,

From unsuspected parts a fierce and momentary proof,

(The sun there at the centre though conceal’d,

Electric life forever at the centre,)

Breaks forth a lightning flash.

[From "From Far Dakota’s Canyons]

Whitman - a brilliant poet, and a sensitive soul, who cared for maimed and dying soldiers during the American Civil War, and expressed his constant fascination and love for life, and all its wonders, in his exuberant, celebratory, reverent poems - provides incontrovertible proof of the power of Manifest Destiny, which captivated his poet’s heart with its driving, adventurous spirit, its promise of freedom, its suggestion of an ocean of justice and hope and opportunity flooding over the world, washing away all limitations, and the sin of not having a dream. (If Whitman could be so mesmerized, how could vast multitudes of people less sensitive than he not fall into the same trap?) Unfortunately, living people got in the way of this dream, which was dreamt with eyes half shut: Native Americans and Mexicans, and later others, as the US took control of Hawaii, and aggressively pushed its influence south, into the Caribbean and Central America. The people of that young and robust America lived in a democracy, and they used their freedom of choice to choose not to see or to feel the hurt that their dream was causing others. They chose to conquer, always with excuses. They proved that democratic systems do not always generate compassionate and just behavior towards other peoples, living outside of the system. Democracy does not always make right.

Lest some people think that I am an America-basher, this criticism is not intended to negate the positive things that America has done in the world, which are numerous, only to show that it, as any democracy, is capable of committing acts of cruelty and unfairness, which its own, internal democratic process is not always able to prevent. Naturally, we expect acts of aggression and injustice to come from authoritarian regimes - and, indeed, the history of nations lacking in political democracy - nations such as Russia under the Czars and later the Communist Party, Germany under Hitler, Italy under Mussolini, and China under Mao, all fulfill our expectations in this regard (although peaceful authoritarian regimes are also possible - as in the case of some monarchies in the past, for example). However, we are surprised to find that democracies, which are supposed to embody the highest human values, are also capable of unsavory and shameful acts in the international arena. Besides the examples already cited from our own American past, we have the example of ancient Rome, which was aggressive, expansionist, and frequently ruthless during the democratic days of the Republic, not only during its later Imperial phase, under the Emperors. We have the example of Great Britain, which, in spite of being a democratic state, drove the American colonists to the measure of war (there was a Parliament at that time); abused and exploited Ireland; humiliated and mistreated China; and colonized and exploited India and large parts of Africa, in the name of bringing civilization to the darkness. We have the example of France, which, in spite of being a democratic republic, attempted to hold on to a huge colonial empire, including parts of North Africa and Southeast Asia, brushing aside the dignity and rights of other peoples in order to further its own economic advantage, all masked under the guise of bringing culture and progress to primitives.

How is this possible? Simply stated, democratic nations are directed (when they are properly functioning) by their people. If the people lack a well-developed sense of morality - or lack insight, clarity, and awareness about the world around them, which can sometimes enable them to be manipulated into believing that immoral and self-serving actions are really moral and self-sacrificing - then they may act in egotistic, unfair, and harmful ways, just like a gang or wolf pack, attacking what is outside of their system and not protected by it. Morality does not come automatically with democracy. Rather, democracy reflects the people, and what is in their hearts and souls. If they are wise, compassionate, and involved, the nation will act accordingly. If they are greedy or ignorant - or disinterested, and misled by cruel and deceptive leaders - once again, the nation will act accordingly.


Does this article have a point? I think it is this: that we can never pat ourselves on the back, and assume we are right, just because we are a democracy. Our system does not make us, it only allows us to express and radiate what we are. The real work, the crucial work, that must go on within a democratic system, is the human work of developing ourselves each day, of evolving spiritually, culturally, and morally, so that the system which expresses who we are will have something worthy to express. Some people, fascinated by a car, believe that it is the car which matters most. But though the car may matter, it is the driver behind the wheel who matters even more. (A drunk driver, in a "perfect car", can still cause unspeakable damage and heartbreak.)

As I have shown, democracy can be thwarted, sabotaged, or curtailed from within or without. It can be allowed to become irrelevant to the central issues of many people’s lives. And it can stoop to committing shameful acts abroad. In order to be moral, just, and exemplary, the shining beacon we all wish it to be, Democracy - government by the people, for the people - needs, just as much as the institutions that define it and facilitate it, a people who animate it. Democratic forms are the veins of the democratic society - but the people are the blood. Let this simple truth never be forgotten, and let us live according to this truth, accepting the responsibility that it brings us.


NOTE: Walt Whitman poems are from Leaves Of Grass.

Thanks (?) to OPC for being the one who first woke me up to the "other side" of our beloved poet!


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