“Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like”: Liberation and Democracy’s Limits
Asked to reflect on what I consider as a democracy, I was reminded of a call-and-response chant that rang through protests that I have attended in the past. First, a single voice amidst a sea of people and posters urges others to tell them what democracy looks like. Immediately after, the crowd calls in a chorus: “This is what democracy looks like!”. I was heartened to be surrounded by a collective of individuals who championed resistance; who outwardly questioned adherence to an insidious status quo; and who spoke out against structures of power that pervert policy to prioritize a privileged minority. Democracy denotes power to the people and purports a commitment to equality. It relies on the preservation of certain rights, such as the freedom to protest and the freedom to participate openly in government without fear of suppression or censorship.
The persistence of inequity and injustice, however, suggests that democracy and liberation are not synonymous. Democracy does not necessarily lead to liberation. Its imperfections are salient, and its failure to deliver on its promise for equality is apparent in the blatant suppression of voting rights, punitive measures targeting the poor, and stark health disparities mediated by the interplay of social inequity. Furthermore, democracy has functioned to the exclusion of certain groups– especially people of color– ever since Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at Americans being “born equal, instead of becoming so” in the 1800s. Viewing society through the lens of liberation forces us to grapple with difficult questions about who we as a “democracy”– despite lofty claims about commitments to egalitarianism– have systemically left behind. Liberation demands that we aspire for higher ideals, and it provides a critical framework of equity and justice that democracy alone cannot deliver.
In addressing questions of democracy, we also ought to consider the pivotal role of education serves as a foundation for a stronger democratic society. Ideally, education should cultivate a civically-minded citizenry, but the barriers that impede access to education after it suggest a departure from those goals. Supporting students in becoming more informed individuals becomes nebulous when schools introduce frequent increases in tuition, exorbitant debt, and questionable hiring practices that prioritize cutting costs. The relationship between education and democracy is certainly important, but we should examine the disconnect between the democratically-informed goals of education and the burdens imposed on students.