What is Democracy?


The U.S.’s military invasion of Iraq was in the name of democracy despite leaving the country in ruins. (Image source: http://www.cnn.com)


In 1899, poet Rudyard Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands.”  He wrote the piece after the U.S. annexed the Philippines from Spain as a result of the Spanish-American War.  The poem conveyed the white man’s responsibility to “civilize” non-white peoples around the world.  Kipling touted colonization and imperialism as desirable processes for advancing cultural development in foreign lands.  Kipling’s white man also served as a metaphor for colonial powers such as the United Kingdom, Spain, France, the U.S. and so forth.

The takeaway from the poem is the obvious sentiment of white racial superiority.  By applying the “white man’s burden” to rhetoric of development and civilization, Kipling portrayed European and American colonization as a good thing for the colonized and thus, a morally righteous endeavor.

In reality, European and American colonialism only brought violence, exploitation and destruction to what we now know as the Third World.  The moral imperative of “development” was just a cover for colonialism’s depravity.  Moreover, the idea that these lands weren’t developed reflected a narrow Eurocentric and capitalist understanding of development.

Today, the word “democracy” is used in a similar fashion.  As a widely accepted and idealized political system, democracy is used so frequently in modern discourse that its meaning becomes obscured.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.’s supposed quest to bring democracy led to unprecedented violence in the region.  By proclaiming the U.S. as the world’s greatest democracy, American officials justify U.S. involvement in other countries’ affairs.  As a result, rhetoric of democracy is employed in other countries currently experiencing unrest.

The recent uprisings, revolutions and conflicts in the Middle East and Africa occurred with an eye toward achieving democracy for the countries involved.  However, the subsequent political and humanitarian crises in the region pose important questions about democracy’s significance when people’s basic needs are unmet due to repression and war.  But before addressing democracy’s appeal and whether it’s worth such high human costs, understanding its meaning is necessary.

Analyzing Democracy as a Concept

Last June, I wrote an article attempting to define and describe racism.  This article is a similar exercise with democracy.  Although democracy is a vast concept that undoubtedly deserves timeless consideration, there’s much value in trying to explain it in an article.  If we fail to scrutinize democracy, it lacks meaning when applied in the real world.

We’re taught that a democratic system is characterized by free and fair elections, the rule of law and equality for all citizens before the law.  More generally, democracy is often equated to freedom.  A democratic society is understood as a free society whereas in other political systems, people lack freedoms.

While the concept of democratic governance is convoluted and has various meanings in different contexts, I’m critical of the belief that democracies are socially just and stand for universal freedom.  This is not to advocate for tyrannical governance; rather, my critiques of democracy stem from its own deficiencies regarding freedom.

Democracy’s core ideals raise vital but rarely asked questions.  Because democratic societies are upheld by their citizenries, the notion of citizenship deserves careful consideration.  In a given society, who determines the eligibility requirements for citizenship?  What distinguishes citizens from non-citizens?  If a democracy is built by the will of its people, does the democratic vision include society’s non-citizens?  Simply put, where do non-citizens fit into a democracy?  And does citizenship really ensure equality?

Freedom is another noteworthy issue.  Although democracy and freedom are regularly conflated, the American model reveals important contradictions between the two.  The U.S. is considered the world’s oldest democracy and yet, the country’s growth is rooted in exclusion and destruction.  With that said, how were slavery and Jim Crow accounted for in America’s democracy?  What about settler expansion via stolen Native American land?  Moreover, how can a democracy exist if women have historically been denied equal rights?

Questions about American democracy also have an international scope.  How can the U.S. spread democracy through military invasions that have cost millions of innocent lives and often led to greater violence and disorder?  Is democracy worth such costs, and do Third World societies desire democracy so bad that foreign military interventions are welcomed?

Although some may question whether the U.S. is really a democracy, I’m more concerned about democracy itself.  Should societies aspire to a democratic system?

On Citizens and Non-Citizens

Democracy facilitates exclusion through citizenship.  A democracy is defined by its citizens, but citizens are defined by non-citizens.  This is why the U.S. is considered a democracy and yet, can still sanction genocide and racial slavery.  Slavery and colonization didn’t invalidate American democracy; rather, they helped to grow it.

Today, although the democratic process is more inclusive for people of color, their rights are still constantly under attack.  Voting restriction measures continue Jim Crow’s legacy (during Jim Crow, laws were passed in the South to prevent Blacks from voting).

Furthermore, people entrapped by the prison system (mostly Black and Brown people) have their rights taken away.  In most states, felony disenfranchisement laws revoke the voting rights of those incarcerated from felony convictions.  Only Maine and Vermont have unrestricted voting rights for people with felony convictions.  Almost 6 million people are disallowed to vote due to felony disenfranchisement.  Unsurprisingly, these laws especially affect Blacks and Latinos.


This map shows the different levels of felony disenfranchisement by state. (Image source: http://www.kieranhealy.org)

The right to vote isn’t the only issue for people caught up in the prison system.  Finding employment, housing and/or pursuing higher education (along with attaining other rights afforded to citizens) are much more difficult for people with prior convictions.  As such, mass incarceration is perhaps the easiest and most convenient way to alienate people and deny them citizenship rights.

Undocumented immigrants also lack these rights because they are excluded from citizenship status entirely.  To this day, most people of color are either second-class citizens behind whites or not citizens at all.

Democracy as State Power

Although the U.S. is recognized as the world’s beacon for democracy and freedom, there is ample evidence to indicate otherwise.  The U.S. isn’t unique in that sense either; many Western democracies exercise similar levels of repression.  Why then is democracy an ideal if it allows state repression?

Democracy is favored because it advances state power through a liberal, rights-based process where citizenship is valued above all else.  Citizens have rights that non-citizens lack.  Throughout U.S. history, different groups have struggled for citizenship.  Many of these groups eventually gained citizen status, even though the fight to keep their rights is ongoing.  But while the state (in this case, the U.S.) gave these groups political recognition by granting their citizenship, such action never translated to a relinquishment of state power to the marginalized groups.  On the contrary, as groups fight for their rights under American democracy, the U.S. gains legitimacy.  In this sense, the quest for citizenship actually strengthens state power.  Democracy’s expansion further entrenches state authority.

Wealthy white males have always held the power in the U.S.  The American “forefathers” were white men who defined the parameters of citizenship; they are the same people who established enslaved Africans as 3/5’s persons under law.  For them, only white males deserved citizenship, and hence, their status became defined by non-citizens – all women, Blacks, Native Americans and other non-whites – because it was these marginalized groups who built America through their labor and land.  Therefore, history shows how U.S. authority reflects white male supremacy; democracy’s contribution to state power actually subsidizes white male power.

Democracy is fundamentally tied to the state because it privileges the state over all other entities.  The state administers elections and the legal system.  Because its representatives also define and enforce the law, the state is seen as objective and becomes the moral arch under which all activity is judged.  Thus, democracy conditions peoples’ trust in state authority.

Nation-states are entities in which power is centralized and concentrated.  However, nation-states also constitute a larger international system, where they compete with each other for resources and global influence.

American Democracy and U.S. Imperialism

The U.S.’s activities across the globe reflect its power and influence in world affairs.  This is especially evident in the Middle East, where the U.S. routinely invades countries and justifies its military incursions with rhetoric of “spreading democracy and freedom.”  The war in Afghanistan, which was officially named “Operation Enduring Freedom,” was framed with the objectives of destroying the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and supposedly bringing freedom to Afghans.  The Iraq War was portrayed as an invasion to liberate Iraqis from Saddam Hussein and to secure Iraq’s nuclear arsenal (which of course, didn’t exist).  “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was the name under which the war was carried out.


U.S. military involvement in the Middle East has caused unprecedented chaos and disorder. (Image source: http://www.businessinsider.com)

Such allusions to freedom and democracy are, nevertheless, completely empty.  The leaders and groups that the U.S. now intends to destroy are the same ones the U.S. once supported and helped legitimize.  For decades, the U.S. has been the biggest hindrance to freedom in the Middle East because its political, economic and military involvement has only brought destitution, destruction, corruption and death.

With millions dead or displaced in Iraq, “free and fair” elections are meaningless and have only led to heightened sectarian tensions between Shi’as, Sunnis and Kurds.  In Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban now have considerably greater followings due to the U.S.’s attack, which was an enormous disaster for Afghans.  Both organizations are now entrenched in other areas of the Middle East and Africa, signifying a more widespread resentment against the U.S.  Iraq, Afghanistan and other similar cases illustrate how democracy is far from people’s minds when war and violence surrounds them.  Yet, democracy is the chief reason U.S. officials use to rationalize interventions.

The Problem with Equating Democracy and Freedom

Words like “democracy” and “freedom” have prior historical and racial parallels that are equally cynical in nature.  Centuries earlier, it was said that Europeans brought “enlightenment” to the so-called New World and “civilized the savages.”  The rationale of supposedly spreading democracy is today’s “white man’s burden.”

The underlying idea behind U.S. policy and Eurocentric ideology is that the U.S. and Europe exemplify freedom and democracy.  This logic essentially dictates that it’s America’s job and the white man’s burden to teach others about freedom and democracy, even if that necessitates war.  But democracy fails to have meaning when it is used to justify bombing countries and killing innocent people.  And it also fails the victims of state violence within democratic nations.

In sum, democracy is not concerned with political, economic and social freedom as it pertains to people.  Democracy provides freedom to the state and its representatives.  It legitimizes state authority, which has free reign to define and limit people’s freedoms.  In other words, countries like the U.S. are free to repress because there are no mechanisms to monitor abuses in state power.  We see how the U.S. exercises its own freedoms while abusing people’s freedoms both at home and abroad.  The state is accountable to its citizens in a democratic system, but because citizenship is outlined and guarded by society’s privileged members, such accountability is an illusion.

In the U.S.’s case, beneficiaries from state power are those who have political and financial capital, which includes corporations and other behind the scenes actors.  Like most places around the world, wealth and political power are interconnected in the U.S.  Wealth predetermines the influence one has in the political arena.

As a result, contemporary language concerning freedom also applies to economies, money and markets.  Because corporations are inherently tied to the state, democracy strengthens “free” and open markets and reinforces economic deregulation.  Money is speech and corporations are people, which further convolutes our understanding of citizenship.

Free trade and deregulation policies allow corporations to exploit workers at heightened levels and to gut consumers all for greater profit.  “Freeing up” economies inevitably further entrenches racial and class oppression.  Democracy plays a central role in this process. .

As such, democracy must be scrutinized and challenged as a means to achieving justice and equality.  The U.S. and other democratic states are among the worst at violating people’s freedoms and perpetrating oppression.  These nations were built on the backs of unfree non-citizens.  This is why citizens are defined by people who are marginalized and excluded.  As the world’s oldest democracy, the U.S. is tried and true proof that democracies serve society’s elite at the expense of others.


Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York.  He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.

Follow us on Twitter @OvertheLine1 and contact at overthecolorline@gmail.com

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