Visions of a democratic reality

As Assemblies for Democracy meet this Spring, citizens are starting to ask what real democracy is. Democracy doesn't need heroes or heroines, but level-headed good practitioners.

Rashid Mhar
31 March 2015

Do you have things in your life that you truly love? I am sure you do, I am sure that the very question conjures their image into your mind. Though I can't guarantee it, I truly believe that those images would all be the faces of the people close to you. Do you have ideas, principles and ideals you truly love? Does that question conjure something into your mind, or does it give pause for reflection?

For myself I have to say, unlike my first question where I would confidently imagine what the question would conjure in your mind, to my second question I don't know. Many years ago, I would have said freedom, equality, friendship, civilisation, community and perhaps most certainly I would have thought one of the ideas that would be dear to your heart would be democracy. As you already know this is no comment about how I see you, it is something that causes me to reflect upon myself. I have to ask myself what has happened to change me.

I am going to share a secret. At sixteen years of age I committed a rather major felony. I stole a voting card and went off to vote in my first general election. You don't need to know the gory details of how I as an idealistic young scamp raised in Labour safe seat country decided I wanted to vote for a lady, whose name I shall keep anonymous for fear of repercussions, because she represented the end of the age of men in grey suits.

Regardless of my rather immature reasoning, going to vote was an adventure. The polling station was in my old infants school, but going there on polling day was like stepping into the adults' secret cavern. An initiation process, I anticipated, from which I would gain insights and knowledge into how the real world worked that would blow my schoolboy mind. Racking up the felonies I, a chubby spotty young boy, impersonated the fine educated young gentleman who'd decided that voting was so passé that his vote could be lackadaisically cast aside. Brazenly presenting 'my' voting card to the registrar, I thought damn the consequences, my country needs me to act on these beautiful ideals, these visions of loveliness cast in words. These thoughts that could shape a world.

What has changed in me, what did I work out as I engaged in my pause for reflection? I worked out, I guess, how little I know. I worked out that the ideals of one person don't actually represent the unifying force that brings a nation together. That believing in something doesn't make it true. That heroines and heroes are legendary beings, that when cast into reality do the same bodily ablutions as me. That they don't know everything, that regardless of how determinedly they deliver the three repetitions rule of speech making, the sparkle and razzmatazz - doesn't make for well considered wisdom. Yet the thought of living in a democratic society won't die, apathy and oblivion won't take away the dream. But the vision needs to grow up.

Now as I think about the search for a truly democratic society I know one thing as a fact, as it stands in the context of here and now as well supported by my observations. Maybe it's a truth that will stand long past the age of humankind. Democracy is a process of doing, not an ideal. It is given meaning and form in the collective effort.

I cannot be a practitioner of democracy and stand alone. I cannot be a democratic citizen who preaches an unchanging ideology that is resistant to the views and opinions of the people around me. I cannot be a hero of democracy. Democracy doesn't need heroes or heroines, it needs level headed good practitioners. It needs people with enough cautionary doubt to motivate careful listening, enough gentleness of spirit to be good company in a heated debate and enough selfishness to pursue the best interests of themselves and the people they care about.

Democracy isn't in the leadership, therefore it isn't in the selection of leaders. The vote isn't the power of democracy. It is merely one tool for the expression of democratic will. The process of democracy is the people's exploration of the choices, that starts with their understanding of the issues they face. From that view I look at the democratic movements in history and see democracy aside from any revolutionary acts of shock and bluster. I shan't cast down the examples, it's as well for true democracy that your knowledge casts doubt upon my opinions.

However I will say that movement has been through the consciousness of the people, the decision to explore a path of governance that took responsibility upon themselves and away from a false idol. That was the real and practical force of change. The acts of violence that did happen, in my view, were against the barriers of communication, the blockages of the process. But in many cases they were probably inefficient choices, the spilling over of grievance, the one-sided view of blame. After the people achieve a democratic consciousness, the real struggle is already won.

The mentality of a free democratic citizen is learned by doing the practice of being democratic. Listening, talking and sharing the free and honest flow of facts, views and questions. Reaching the choice to try solutions knowing that making errors of judgement is part of the process and will be tempered by those you share that process with. If bad decisions are made, taking responsibility and keeping a proper eye on the consequences, intended and unintended, should lead quickly to changing the decision and correcting it.

I think I am still naive and immature and that is a good thing to know, it makes me more willing to listen to others. I did learn to take responsibility from my youthful errors and change my mind over political ideologies. I stopped looking for heroines to end the reign of grey suits and for coal miners to smelt iron wills. But I did do one thing right as a kid, I exercised my democratic will and learnt from the experience.

This article was first published at the National Community Activists Network, NatCAN.

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