The Fallacy of “Reverse-Democracy”

Lauren Gilezan

Over the past week, I have continued to be intrigued by all of the discussions on this forum regarding the idea of American citizenship.  It has been very interesting to see how many individuals have reacted differently to Shklar’s theory that having rights is much more important to the American people than is using their rights.  Shklar argues that individuals don’t all necessarily have an excessive desire to vote or actively participate in government—they only want to have the right to do so.  Thus, the value of American liberties is a judgment based on attainability, not what the rights enable the individual to do.

In particular, one of the reoccurring themes I have discovered is an argument that parallels Shklar’s definition of proper citizenship—whether or not direct participation by all citizens is necessary to the maintenance of a democracy.  Shklar says that “good citizens” cannot be restricted to only those that actively and religiously participate in their government.  Moreover, she also argues that they shouldn’t have to in order to have their interests represented.  However, as one might expect, many individuals have taken some issue with her claims.  To the most extreme view, I have seen that some have even suggested that the sole distinction between a democracy and a dictatorship is the ability and subsequent commitment of all citizens to participate in their government—particularly by voting.  These individuals say that if the people do not relentlessly pursue their interests and engage in the political system, we forfeit ourselves to a tyranny.  In other words, democracy is destroyed.  Accordingly, as Shklar also points out, a “good citizen” in America has taken on the definition of those who protect us from falling into an oppressive rule—the avid voters, the participants, the utopian civic republicans.

In contrast with these concerns, I find myself unable to affirm the idea that it is the direct participation of citizens that is responsible for maintaining democracy in America.  I think, instead, that the survival of democracy is contingent on whether all citizens have the right to participate in their government.  This is another reason why, as Shklar also told us, the value of having the right to vote is much greater than the value Americans place on going out to vote.  In my mind, tyranny will cease to exist so long as the American people share a like and equal freedom to protect and represent their interests. It is not a matter of whether they choose to use their rights, but whether or not they have them to use.

To illustrate this idea, we can look to the Ally Bank Pony Commercial that  one of our fellow bloggers posted this past week. I direct you to the man’s response when the little girl asks why she wasn’t also given a real pony.  To this, the man replied, “well, you didn’t ask.”  This interaction directly speaks to the point I am trying to make.  A democracy is defined for inherently having a full set of liberties and not having to ask for or earn them—not whether people use them. To put it a different way, I ask you this: what if the little girl had been asked if she wanted a real pony and she had said no? I believe that right now most of you are thinking that this would be fair and democratic.  After all, she was given a choice and she decided that she didn’t want the pony.  That is exactly my point! The nature of the situation was unjust because the little girl was not given the choice, not because she didn’t end up with a pony.  This same idea can be extended to voting.  Maintaining democracy requires that we assign each citizen the right to vote, and thus a choice.  However, like we wouldn’t judge the nature of the child for forgoing a pony, we cannot justly ascribe a title of “bad citizenship” to those who forgo voting.  Having a cast vote, like having a pony, is just one of the possible products of citizens’ democratic participation—it is not the democratic action.

Furthering on this idea, I again assert that democracy is having the rights to intervene and check the power of the ruling government if you choose.  This does not mean you always should have to participate for fear of a tyranny ensuing.  It also does not mean that you are a non-ideal citizen for abstaining from the action.  A tyranny results when the government can freely behave for or against the people regardless of their desires.  It is like the man in the commercial—a body that does the choosing for the people.  In America, the people may not participate all of the time, but that is not what is important.  It is that they can choose to step in whenever they would like—intervene.  Our government is not less democratic if more people choose not to participate—democracy is that very ability of the people to make that choice. The pro-choice movement is a great example of this ideal.  Those that affiliate themselves as being pro-choice are not advocating for all women to have abortions.  Rather, this movement stands for the idea that women should have the right to make that choice for themselves—that’s where the power lies.  Where abortion is legalized, pro-choice activists don’t think it is undemocratic for women not to utilize their right to have an abortion.  Likewise, it shouldn’t be seen as undemocratic for individuals not to choose to vote. Democracy is established through the abilty, not the action.

Going off of this idea, one might argue that people are actually also affirming our democratic government by choosing not to vote.  Not voting is just as much an active decision by the people as is voting. However, our society has trouble recognizing the double-sided nature of many such issues because of the exclusions Shklar references. For example, discrimination against whites today is often called “reverse racism.” Does this seem funny to anyone? The definition of racism is not restricted to an act of prejudice by a white person against a minority group.  However, in America, whites have historically been the ruling class and minorities the excluded groups.  As a result, we find it hard today to fully understand that racism flows both ways.  Likewise, as Shklar discusses, the perfect citizen is wrongfully thought to be one that directly participates and chooses to vote.  Nowadays, choosing not to vote is seen as what I would call “reverse-democracy.” Just as with racism towards whites, the decision against voting embodies the American idea of the “reverse,” or opposite, of democracy.  This is because people were once excluded from voting. Now, a false association of “not voting” with an undemocratic state persists even though the context of the situation has completely changed—people have a choice today! People are participating not only by voting, but also by actively choosing not to vote.

To this effect, I think that Shklar is right in that an American citizen is not only “good” if they make the decision to vote. Yes, it is a frustration to find that some people complain they are disaffected but are unwilling to participate in expressing their interests.  However, outside of frustration, I don’t believe these citizens pose any real threat to the preservation of our democracy, or that they are lesser citizens.  In fact, as I’ve addressed, although it might be in a way that is not naturally obvious to Americans, their decision not to vote is also participation within the democratic government.  So long as they have the right to give influence, America will not be less of a democracy. In fact, because of the structure of our government—a system of representation—those who don’t vote are ensured, at least some extent, that their interests will be represented.  However, when they feel that they aren’t, they can use their democratic choice to have a say—a check against tyranny.

That having been said, when analyzing the concepts of citizenship and democracy, I suggest that we might first turn the tables before we make any conclusions.  You might ask yourself if people would not consider it undemocratic if the government introduced sanctions against those who didn’t vote. If all that is separating the American democracy from tyranny is the direct participation of all citizens, why wouldn’t our government force us all to vote? Aren’t we a nation founded on the fear of tyrannical rule? I’ve argued that this is because forcing people to vote would be just as undemocratic as forcing others away from the polls in American history. A government is undemocratic when citizens are forced to behave, exist, or operate by the definition of one “right way.  All other opportunities—choices—are excluded.  On the other hand, a democratic government is one in which there is a freedom of decision on behalf of all of the people.  Thus, a good democratic citizen should be defined only for utilizing their freedom of choice on the matter of voting—not which decision they choose.  Shklar says the definition of a “good citizen” cannot be limited to only those who always vote and participate.  I believe this is true. If we exclude individuals from the definition of “good citizenship” because they don’t choose some decided “right way,” wouldn’t that be tyrannical? I think yes. However, because of Americans’ misconceived ideas of what constitutes democratic behavior—a phenomenon I have coined “reverse-democracy”—we struggle to see the fallacy in this judgment.  It is really choice that makes and breaks democracy, not participation.

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One Response to The Fallacy of “Reverse-Democracy”

  1. jonhntns says:

    The need to differentiate between a ‘good citizen’ versus a plain every day citizen is as the author suggests arbitrary and unfounded. She views one’s act of not voting a conscious decision not to participate; a decision that is equally valid with that of the individual who chooses to vote. According to the author, tyranny is avoided and democracy is maintained if the underlying principles hold true; being that the right to vote or not to vote is an inherent unbending quality of our democratic process which defines who we are as a political entity. As long as the refusal not to vote does not eventuate in government intervention to influence and-or punish the nonvoter, no harm is done to the system.
    However, it appears that the ‘repeating’ voter does qualify as a good or superior citizen based on the notion that he further perpetuates the pre-established democratic system. His voting or active participation mirrors the individual who is consciously making decisions about the direction of America he chooses as the best path to be taken. His voting can modify the process be it for better or worse; the non-voter may be democratic in his ability to choose not to vote but his noninvolvement does not allow for creative change as his input is unheard and unobtained. Oftentimes, the active voter is more than just a ballot provider. In fact, eager voters often represent people that take positions, which express strong views and who by their actions, can make the democratic process both alive and constructive. Just because the intrinsic principles that describe the democratic process appear fair and just does not mean that the democratic process cannot be improved upon. Voting, the imparting of new ideas and ways to look at surrounding institutions are in themselves an enhancement to the democratic process (whether they are accepted or not) for they allow growth and change to occur. Though it may be equally valid for the democratic process to call a nonvoter an equal participant in the democratic process, this is far cry from calling this individual a creative link to new and improved democratic process.

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