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  • Writer's pictureJennifer N. Victor

Democracy is an individual trait

As unrest in America’s cities grows in response to overwhelming injustices, along with the devastating scourge of pandemic disease that has also brought economic ruin to many, American democracy is under threat. Political scientists have warned of decline in the quality of American democracy for several years now, noting reductions in the number of elected leaders who adhere to the norms and values of a democracy. But what does it really mean for democracy to be in decline?

Democracy is a complicated, and sometimes controversial, adjective used to describe American society. I’ve come to understand democracy as having two essential, and often competing, elements: liberty and equality. A democratic society offers freedoms to it citizens. Having the freedom so speak, pray, write, and protest are quintessentially democratic. But freedoms must be accompanied by protections for democracy to offer its greatest gifts. When people feel slighted, threatened, unsafe, controlled, or unfairly treated relative to others, they are unable to enjoy the full extent of those freedoms. The liberty and equality are in tension with one another, where greater freedoms often contribute to lesser equalities for some, and greater equalities for others, can restrict freedoms. The best democracies attempt to bring balance to these ideals.

Democracy is not something given to everyone equally.

Another way to think about democracy is that it is not just an adjective that describes the complimentary and competing ideals of freedom and equality with regard to government, but that democracy describes how much each individual person has its traits. In other words, democracy is not something given to everyone equally. It doesn’t describe the state of government or society around us; rather, it describes the relative level of freedom and equality that each of us has as individuals, and it varies among us.

For example, if we think of liberties as the extent to which a person can make their own choices about their life, without constraints from others, then someone who feels completely free to choose where they live, what job they take, whom to partner with, how to spend their Saturday, and so forth, has great liberty. But if those choices are constrained by where you feel safe, the level of education you’ve been able to achieve, how much leisure time you have, and so forth, then you have less liberty compared to one without those constraints.

Likewise, one who has the sense that the way they are treated is fair, enjoys great personal “equality.” If you have the sense that others treat you with respect and that the rules that govern your social and economic life are just, then that sense of satisfaction about how you’re treated by the world, gives you sense of personal justice or “equality.”

We can think of each individual person as experiencing different levels of liberty and equality in their lives, and together these quantities indicate how much democracy a person experiences. A person like me has a very high level of personal democracy: I have a job I enjoy and that provides for my family; I live in a welcoming neighborhood; I have chosen my partner; I feel generally surrounded by people who care about my well-being, and I perceive the rules that I follow to be just. But someone who feels unsafe in their neighborhood, or who does not feel at liberty to live or work where they prefer, or who senses that law enforcement treats them differently than others, or who feels like they get less than they deserve from their government, has less personal democracy.

Democracy then, is a personal trait, as much as it is a characteristic of a country. How much democracy, or freedom and justice, a person experiences is a function of a complex web of social, economic, and government forces that shape our lives. When many people become frustrated that their level of democracy is low, either because of lack of freedoms or insufficient personal justice, they get frustrated, angry, and seek to blame someone, something, or some group for their plight.

We can think of declining American democracy as a greater number of citizens who have less freedom and less justice in their lives than they did a few years ago. Levels of democracy vary across people, and across time within people. I may have more democracy now than I did when I was young, because my life stage and economic status allow me greater freedoms. To some extent, the unrest America feels right now is frustration over many people experiencing the decline of democracy—their own democracy. If you don’t feel the same sense of loss, frustration, or passion, it may be because you have more democracy than those in the streets right now. Count your blessings.

Individually, we have limited control over our own personal level of democracy. But the lack of control has more to do with the equality side than the liberty side. That’s because how much equality or justice you experience is primarily a function of external rules that you do not control. The extent to which the economic, law enforcement, or social systems around you have determined your position, health, and general status, is not up to you. But the liberties you take, although they are constrained by the level of equality you have, are in your control. A lack of justice may limit what’s on the menu, but your personal agency allows you to exercise freedom over what you select.

Liberty is controlled by you, equality is controlled by others.

An uptick in civic activism is consistent with this idea of individualized democracy. Protests, marches, demonstrations, public meetings, lawn signs, and even voting, are all expressions of personal liberty. As people sense that their level of personal democracy has declined, or is threatened, they can recover some of it, just by getting out there and engaging in democratic civic actions. Where such activity is met with violent resistance, people have the sense that liberties and equalities are further threatened. But when such activity is met with protective support, encouragement, or the sense that leaders are listening, it can have the powerful effect of increasing one’s sense of personal justice.

I’ve done an aggressive amount of oversimplifying in this think piece, so to take it a bit further, liberty is controlled by you, equality is controlled by others. In other words, what you choose to do is up to you, but controlled and constrained by the rules that govern the liberties. The amount of justice or equality you experience, is a function of the rules imposed on you. Ideally, the rules help generate justice, and protect the liberties. But when these are out of balance for many people, we have unrest and instability.

Each person in America has their own personal democracy that is defined by their sense freedom and justice.

As a form of government, democracy in the U.S. is in decline as a result of increased partisan polarization and a degradation of the norms and values most strongly associated with democracy. But everyone in the U.S. does not experience this degradation the same way. Each person in America has their own personal democracy that is defined by their sense freedom and justice. Improving institutional and personal democracy will take herculean efforts by a whole lot of people.

As individuals, we can work to improve our personal liberty through civic engagement—protest, vote, put a sign in your yard, vote, vote, vote. Improving personal justice is not up to us as individuals. It requires coordinated, thoughtful group actions to improve equalities. This is the work of citizenship. If we want to have democracy, we have to live it. Recognize how much of it you have relative to others. Exercise your liberty and express how much you value justice and equality. If everyone does, we will achieve a better balance between liberty and equality, for everyone.


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