Social Studies Opinion

Remembering our Roots—Democracy of the People

By Harry C. Boyte — November 17, 2016 4 min read
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Dear Deb and Colleagues,

After the election, you said in your “Post Election Thoughts” on your website that “the task we have been working for since I was a young girl [is] changing the Democratic Party” (after you gave up on a socialist or labor party).

But you also say, in your Bridging Differences post on Tuesday, that an “enormous factor in our loss is the gradual disappearance of an organizing working class. The workplaces of yore were once where ordinary Americans got to know each other and...experienced what it meant to stand shoulder to shoulder on behalf of their common problems.”

There are two very different ideas of democracy here. Let me tell a story that illustrates your second.

Dudley Cocke, founder of the Roadside Theater, a community theater in Appalachia, observes that the “fighting 9th” Congressional District where he lives was the only rural Virginia district to swing Democratic, for Jimmy Carter, in the 1980 Reagan landslide. In 2016 his neighbors voted 75% for Trump.

What changed? “Among the most decisive factors was the loss of the United Mine Workers in the 1980s as a center for political analysis and community education.” I would say that unions, like other local civic institutions, once functioned as free spaces, schools for democracy.

Emphasizing building unions and other free spaces is a citizen-centered idea of democracy and the main task before us. I learned this in 1964 in the civil rights movement.

Too young to vote -- change in the voting age came in 1972 -- I proclaimed with the zeal of an 18 year old to Oliver Harvey, the janitor at Duke who was organizing a union, that “there is no difference” between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater,” presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties that year. “Johnson won’t desegregate the South!” I said.

Harvey shook his head. “No politician is going to desegregate the South. We’re desegregating the South.”

Harvey then also detailed the ways a president could make a difference in our work - helping shape the public narrative, supporting legislation, making federal appointments, protecting civil rights workers and more. But his basic point was that while government - and politicians - can be important partners, the driver of democratic change is the people.

Harvey’s idea was widespread in the freedom movement. In Hope and History, King’s friend and sometime speechwriter Vincent Harding described the movement as “a powerful outcropping of the continuing struggle for the expansion of democracy in the United States.” It showed “the deep yearning for a democratic experience that is far more than periodic voting.”

This concept of citizen-centered democracy has its roots in the nation’s founding. You stress the exclusions and injustices, which are important to remember. But there is another element.

The colonial experiences forged the idea that “the people,” not politicians, are at the heart of politics. Regular Americans cleared lands and built villages, schools, wells, meeting halls, congregations, and roads.

This generated what the historian Robert Wiebe called America’s portable democracy. Struggles against slavery and colonial elites played a role. My relatives in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, fought for local control against the slaveholding plantation interests for years. They declared independence more than a year before the rest of the country!

Such experiences led to a breathtaking innovation in political thought: the nation itself was the creation of “the people.” As the late political theorist Sheldon Wolin showed in a brilliant 1978 New York Review essay, “State of the Union,” unlike monarchies enshrined with divine power or communist governments led by vanguards, the Declaration of Independence “set out a conception of collectivity that...attempted to ground public authority in the specific capacity of the people to constitute their own political identity.”

A decade later the Constitution “preserved the democratic conception of collectivity... the idea of a people who could act politically,” expressed in the idea that “We the People” are the authors of government, which is established as an instrument for the people’s work.

Elites immediately sought to redefine “the people” as voters. “On the face of it, the creation of a mass electorate seemed to hold out the promise of translating into action the abstract idea of a collective will,” explained Wolin. “In reality, the ‘electorate’ was a pseudo-equivalent for ‘the people’...”

In recent decades, as Wolin also shows, progressives, like conservatives, have come to equate “democracy” with the government and citizens as largely consumers and clients, with disastrous effects of people’s self-confidence and self-conception.

But the ideals of democracy as citizen-centered, not politician or elite- centered, continue to be there in the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution. These ideals have inspired every broad democratic movement in America history.

Common schools were one expression. I’ve been re-reading Lawrence Cremin’s classic, The Transformation of the School. He describes how “in almost every state citizens organized to do battle in the cause of public schools. The political coalitions they formed frequently drew together the oddest collections of otherwise disparate interests.”

The common schools, like unions of yesteryear, could sometimes function as “free spaces” where diverse people gained power, got to know each other, and learned politics.

So while we need reform in political parties, I would argue that the more crucial challenge is to remember the idea of citizen-centered democracy, democracy of the people, by the people.

We need to rebuild foundations for such an ideal. A movement for people-owned schools which brings people together across partisan divides will help a lot.


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