The meaning of democracy

Credit: Renew Democracy Initiative

By Monique Gonzales

I was so enthralled by this 5-part podcast series I listened to back in June, that I’m still thinking about the meaning of democracy and the impact it has on us all.  I was absolutely floored to discover that it does not mean the same thing to all of us. 

Democracy is not something I ever imagined being without, but considering what is happening in the world, it seems to be dwindling.  I understood that it was not the preferred government of many countries but always considered the U.S., Canada and Europe as strongholds for progressive ideas and liberty for all. 

Then Trump came.  I’ve learned over the years that there are usually multiple factors at play that lead to a problem.  There isn’t just one answer.  But even so, I still struggled to answer the question “Why, oh why?”  I couldn’t figure out why people were flocking to populism in the U.S. even though populism was quietly percolating in Europe.  It seemed that populism was being used to counter-attack democracy and liberal ideas. 

Democracy refers to a system of government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised through a system of direct or indirect representation which is decided through periodic free elections (Merriam-Webster).  Another way to view it is – the majority rules.  And that was the idea that was frightening to me in this podcast.  If the majority decides to exclude certain people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, etc., there would be nothing to check it.  That was not my definition of democracy. 

The series I listened to was titled “The Battle for Europe” and was part of The Daily podcast by the New York Times.  The series started off with Brexit in England, then went to France, Italy, Poland and ended in the reporter’s home country of Germany.  Although I knew that populism existed in Europe, I didn’t know that people disliked the European Union so much.  That’s what I came to learn through listening to this series.  I thought it would help me understand why populism was also growing in the U.S. 

Credit: The Economist

I had assumed that populism was growing due to anti-immigrant sentiments (which definitely exist), but that’s not the only reason.  I was prepared to hear the worst as the reporter interviewed people who had voted for populist candidates.  People are upset because jobs are leaving their country due to open borders and companies looking for cheaper labor.  One Italian mother simply said, “I just want my daughter to be able to work in Italy and be close to me.”  I found that to be a completely reasonable wish.  

Another lady said that she didn’t want to be forced to follow liberal values because they were contrary to what she believed in based on her religion.  I did not find this unreasonable coming from a person who is deeply religious.  So, she saw liberalism as the problem and therefore voted for populism as a way to protect her values.  If you flip the coin to the other side and think about something you truly value that becomes challenged by the government, you might be able to see her side of it. 

Another man talked about the fact that democracy could just be another ideology to run its course like communism.  That really blew my mind!  One could argue that communism was successful for a while and eventually saw its demise (although it still exists in China).  Maybe he was right to give it a time limit.  It sure seems like it today… 

When the reporter returned to her native Germany, that’s when democracy really took a turn for the worse.  She was debating with a group of young German nationalists and asked them if they thought someone like Hitler could be elected again.  They replied that Germany is not made up of the same people as it was before, and we do not think it will happen again.  I was hopeful, but I couldn’t escape the fact that Hitler was elected democratically.  And for the first time, I started to wonder whether democracy was the best solution. 

Overall, I do think it’s good to challenge your ideas and listen to different viewpoints.  Sometimes it’s good to examine your beliefs and hopefully it strengthens your resolve.   

You could say that Trump was also elected democratically if you downplay any potential Russian involvement and accept the electoral system as it is.  Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, so in my opinion he did not win but that is the system we have.  If we ever want anything to change, we need to keep voting, lobbying our representatives and keep spreading progressive ideas throughout the world.  My husband and I always say that progress might take a long time, but it always wins in the end. 

Monique Gonzales sitting down to a galette in Cancale, France. 

Monique Gonzales lives in Los Angeles with her French husband and 3-year-old daughter. They also have a cat named Cupcake. She works full-time as a controller for a visual effects company and tries hard to maintain a work/life balance.

Editor’s note: Monique is the youngest of  my four cousins who grew up in Gonzales, California, an agricultural town in Monterey County. She and her siblings are the daughters and sons of my late Aunt Ramona, one of my mother’s sisters, and my Uncle Eddie, who was my godfather.

Tomorrow: Bob Ehlers | Renovating and reuniting

5 thoughts on “The meaning of democracy

  1. Monique, Thank you for sharing this perspective. It is an excellent reminder of responsibilities and pitfalls of being part of a democratic society.

  2. Thank you for your musings on what we may have all taken for granted. I wonder if those who dismiss the rise of nationalistic governments around the world as “one and dones” (yes, I needed to use a sports analogy) have mis-read the deep frustration and sense of economic helplessness that the residents of “democratic” countries really feel in the face of outsourced jobs, automation, and conflict-related immigration. I also want to be optimistic but I fear that now that the hate-genie has been released, attempting to put it back in the box is going to create an even worse environment for all of us.

  3. It’s a scary world out there, but all the more reason to get out and vote your values. I feel the frustration of living in a country without universal healthcare, but I believe that day will come if we want it to, and work for it, and earn it.

  4. Thank you for paying attention and writing about our democracy. I believe too much apathy is part of the cause of where we are now. I am so sad for our country.

  5. “the fact that democracy could just be another ideology to run its course like communism.” Whoa. That blew my mind too. Thank you for the thought-provoking read.

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