Session IX — What Does Democracy Look Like?

The democratic founding ideals of the American Revolution were soon subordinated to the fears of white propertied men who had the power to take charge and write the Constitution.  These men believed that genuine people’s rule (what Alexander Hamilton called “the mob at the gate”) would undermine the order and stability on which they believed the future of the republic rested.  Many people are surprised to learn that the word “democracy” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution of the United States of America.

People ask what alternatives we who resist corporate power suggest.  Indeed, a component of our struggle needs to be developing and modeling ways of organizing our common economic and social life based on human equity and ecological health.  Ultimately, however, the fundamental alternative to illegitimate corporate governance is democracy:  rule by the people.

Cornel West remarked that our minds have been colonized for so long we can scarcely imagine what real democracy would look like.  What images and forms could breathe life into self-governance?  And how do we achieve it, especially in light of the wide diversity of beliefs, circumstances, and opinions of “the people”?

A key task is to critique what currently passes for democracy.  What kind of processes would we design for governing ourselves and selecting our spokespeople?  What values and beliefs would underlie our choices?  Equally important is the challenge of designing and practicing democratic processes in our own lives and work.  What attitudes, behavior, and skills support (and impede) this effort?

We suggest checking in at the beginning of this session by sharing a democratic experience each person has had, and including in the discussion some evaluation of the group’s process from the standpoint of democracy:  is leadership being shared?  Is participation balanced and egalitarian?  What helps and what hinders the democratic functioning of the group?


1 – Excerpt from an interview of Noam Chomsky, by David Barsamian (1 page)

2 – “Confining Democratic Politics: Anti-Federalists, Federalists, and the Constitution,” excerpts from a book review by Jennifer Nedelsky (4 pages)

3 – Excerpts from Political Freedom: The Constitutional Powers of the People, by Alexander Meiklejohn (2 pages)

4 – Excerpts from Radical Democracy by C. Douglas Lummis (4 pages)

5 – “Nature, Human Community, and the Corporation: Characteristics and Contrast,” WILPF handout (1 page)

6 – “Some Thoughts and Definitions to Inspire Conversation About Democracy,” WILPF handout (1 page)

Discussion Questions:

1.     How has the history of the political concept of democracy — from Aristotle to the Founding Fathers — shaped our ideas of what constitutes democracy today?  If rule by the people was not actually the founding ideal of the Constitution, what was?

2.     Discuss Alexander Meiklejohn’s bitterly disappointed hope about radio in the context of the First Amendment.  How has this scenario replayed itself in the second half of the 20th century?  If the people do not have access to and control of the public forums according to the technology of their day, what replaces real democratic interaction?  How are these decisions the same and different between generations and their related level of technological development (e.g., public speaking, literacy, newspapers and other print media, radio, television, internet)?

3.     Explore C. Douglas Lummis’s description of democracy as “essential politics: the art of the possible,” with the notion that the power of the people “takes the possible out of the hands of random fortune and transforms it into an art:  a creative enterprise.”

4.     Discuss democratic attitudes and behaviors in relation to activists and our groups; in relation to common corporate patterns of operating; in relation to ways in which our governance is and is not democratic.  How is our concept of democracy framed by our concept of property?

Supplementary Materials:

     Radical Democracy, by C. Douglas Lummis.  Cornell University, 1996.

     Political Freedom: The Constitutional Powers of the People, by Alexander Meiklejohn.  Harper & Brothers (New York), 1960; Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1979.

     Noam Chomsky has written prolifically for decades; some of his books and interviews are available in multiple languages (the Library of Congress,, lists 127 titles!).  Some appropriate books for consideration include: Class Warfare: Interviews with David Barsamian, Common Courage Press, 1996; The Common Good, Common Courage Press, 1998; Secrets, Lies, and Democracy, Odonian Press, 1994.

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