Democracy is conflict. 

One way I understand democracy is through my inner-conflicts of being an idealist or a pragmatist. I tell myself to learn to live and coexist with that tension, but it’s never satisfying. I relate my thoughts on democracy to my every day challenges: avoiding all-or-nothing thinking, trying to break down larger goals into smaller ones, and accepting ambiguity and uncertainty as part of life. Often, I don’t believe I’m even productive coexisiting, or trying to at least, in that tension; I believe more could get done if one just chooses a side. Other times, I understand democracy through the world’s worst moments: the mass and targeted genocides, violence and destruction, the abdication of responsibility, exploitation of the vulnerable, and the hubris of the knowledgeable. But it’s still hard to sort it all out. For one, democracy is a collective voice and what voice would that be?

In my political science classes, we discussed democracy as a system of government that allows it’s citizens and participants meaningful participation and contestation. We also conceptualized democracy as something we approach but never arrive at, like a platonic form. Viewing democracy platonically, it’s easy to be cynical about the consistent and enduring failings in our democracy: slavery and the continued disenfranchisement and oppresion of black, indigenous and people of color, wealth distorting meaningful participation, tension between majoritarian and anti-majoritarian institutions (the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Electoral College), and the politics of power. All of this exists alongside an ideal democracy, one I would define as a form of government stable enough to include all people within a defined territiory and allow them meaningful participation (allowing them to vote, enabling a free press, and so on) and contestation (meaningful opposition votes, eligibility to run for office, civic protest). I would also include the realization of a baseline equality for all (the realization of human rights, which include adequate access to food, housing, education, etc.). Ideally, there would be a more democratic among all countries so there can be true global participation. 

When I view democracy platonically, I channel my idealist side. It calls for definition of democracy on how it should be. Paradoxically, this also makes me the most cynical. It often seems like we are so far away from those stated goals, despite all the progress we’ve made that was hard-fought for. How can we claim the voice of the people when we dilberately and maliciously exclude some? Sometimes it does feel binary: we are either in a democacy or we are not. It’s weird, but I’m at my most optimistic when I conceive the world in a natural state that coexists with beauty and conflict. I conceive humanity as one that is inherently good at making in and out groups and that is capable of showing great care and compassion to those in the in-group while ignoring, pitying, and maligning the out-group. In this context, humanity can be “rationally” ignorant because they are not personally bearing the costs. Acknowledging some of these cognitive and social deficits and maladaptions or just plain difficulty in our collectivization, this makes our achievements in greater equality and justice more impressive. When acknowledging our human constraints, one could still make incremental, and over time, meaningful change in a practical way despite power differences and our own internal weaknesses.

In the end, a democracy needs idealists and pragmatists to fully realize its stated goals and to adapt those very goals when necessary. 

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