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Democracy is What We Choose and Uphold

Mariana Isabel Sierra Estrada, Third Prize, Undergraduate Category, Essay Contest 2018

March 12, 2019

National Police of Colombia. CREDIT: Wikimedia (CC)

"I am a Colombian American student of International Business currently enrolled at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Medellin, Colombia. My bicultural background has driven my interest in understanding different economic, political, and social contexts around the world and gives me an enriched perspective in my area of study."

ESSAY TOPIC: Is it important to live in a democracy?

As history has taught us, democracy is a concept that has changed through time, and even today it varies depending on place and perspective.

What has democracy meant for the world? The democracy established in Greek antiquity submitted its subjects to its own criteria regarding the eligibility of its citizens to choose their governors, and their rights and responsibilities, and in turn served only those who were privileged in said criteria. In Athenian democracy, those eligible to be citizens were more directly involved in governing and decision-making than in today's examples; however, even Aristotle's definition of a citizen was far more exclusive than our current standard. In his theory, the exclusion of women, slaves, and non-Greeks is evident, making enfranchised individuals a very select group. Throughout history, these inequalities have been challenged to assure the universal recognition of individual rights and personhood, but even during the forging of modern democracy during the French Revolution, the recognition of citizenship extended only to men. In notable instances such as the Women's Suffrage and Civil Rights Movements, particularly during the 20th century, great advancements have been made for democracy, but the greatest of these has been the guarantee of its universal applicability. Still, our definition of democracy changes from place to place, as the elements that characterize it are determined differently in each state. Despite these differences, some elements are recurrent, such as democratic elections, majority rule, freedom of speech and equal justice under the law. Now, we can say that contemporary society represents the zenith of the application of democracy, as the adherence to its principles seems more widespread than ever.

But what does democracy do for us today? Is it an absolute guarantee that living in a democratic country instantly propels a person to a better living?

I myself have been living in two versions of democracy.

My first notions of democracy came to me in my childhood in the United States. I can remember with such clarity the presidency of George H.W. Bush and the conflicts braced by his administration. I vividly remember 9/11, and the subsequent "War on Terror" and the invasion of Iraq, and to me it seemed that the debate surrounding these horrible events was the fact that our ideals, our American democracy, was being attacked, and that we needed to both defend it and foster it. I remember watching daily on the news, as my mother was rigorous in instilling in me an education regarding our home politics, countless of officials profess the necessity of the promotion of democratic values and freedom around the world; a responsibility that seemed to naturally, and almost divinely, belong to The United States of America. This rhetoric was so frequent, that in my mind, and I am sure in the minds of many other Americans, democracy has been synonymous with correctness.

To many of us Americans, democracy represents the guarantee of rights, a fair and transparent state, and that one word that has so strongly characterized the country—freedom. It's thanks to the idealism that permutes American culture that a concept such as democracy can be seen so highly, we uphold everything to its standard—democracy is good, anything else is wrong. Living in a democracy was the right thing, our lives were better because of it, and spreading democracy to the rest of the world was necessary.

And later in life, when I returned to my family's home and the country where I was born, almost instantly the way I conceived democracy was challenged. I was born in Medellin, Colombia, a city that to many people is synonymous with a history of violence, and that in recent years has, unfortunately, been glamorized by many dark spectators due to the crimes that occurred here and the man that made a victim of an entire country. However, to many of us in Colombia, this city represents a stark transcendence from problems that held us down in the past, even though there is a long way to go.

Here, the word democracy doesn't have the same weight, and at first that baffled me. Considering that Colombia has been home to a conflict that has lasted over half a century, mainly against Marxist-Leninist rebels, one would believe that democracy would represent more. But here, the conflict has been about security, the economy, inequality, criminality, corruption, and the countless groups that have held their unrelenting grip on violence. Colombia's democratic institutions have been in place, we elect our leaders democratically, through the most troubling points of our history we have been living in a democracy—and that has not spared us from anything.

I realized throughout the years, that Colombia wasn't lacking in democracy nor striving towards it, the priorities of many Colombians were much simpler and never as abstract. Democracy was here, and it was paired with corruption and injustice—something democracy itself could not avoid. Even in the democratic setting of Colombian politics, a political movement which some would compare to fascism, called Uribismo, has taken place and allowed a single man to program the political landscape for well over a decade. With the American notion of democracy, many of these things seem incomprehensible.

Having lived in this version of democracy for some time, I returned to The United States on one specific occasion out of many, and for the first time in my life I felt that the promise of democracy had lost its glory. At the time Barack Obama was our leader, and the country's efforts in the Middle East seemed to be going nowhere, if not blatantly failing. Our mission to bring democracy to the rest of the world seemed so out of touch now. Though the United States of America to me, has never ceased to be the clearest and most pompous example of democracy, American democracy has scarcely achieved what it has promised, time and time again. Some examples could be the containment strategy against communism in the Vietnam War, or the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan which may have ultimately sought to reshape part of the Middle East in to a Western-friendly ally. But did any of these ever make the United States or the regions it was affecting any better?

Looking at both of my homes, with their different foundations and distinct problems, it seems that these political issues seem to take off regardless of the presence of democracy. Democracy doesn't immediately mean that there will be any safeguards against the problems our societies face.

And that's because democracy has been defined for strictly political purposes, but it has never been a single, unchanging thing. With each passing day it seems to be more inclusive, yet just as unreachable. It has been used repeatedly to justify political rhetoric, to justify conflict, to justify whatever needs justification, but I have scarcely seen democracy used to justify itself as a means for our better living.

And nonetheless, considering the evident lack of guarantees provided by this ideal, I will say that living in a democracy is not only important, it's necessary. The matter that anathematizes democracy is the very way in which we conceive, exercise and evaluate it. Because without democracy, what other platform do we have so far to demand that we are recognized universally as citizens, with equal rights and responsibilities? In what other way have we been able to hear the vox populi? For me, there doesn't seem to be a more transparent or just way for society to rally against the problems it faces than the majority rule that the democratic system allows. We can choose for democracy to be right, because we are able to elect what is correct for us and our collective needs through it. In societies where we have been able to recognize each other equally as citizens, there is no fairer way for individual wills to be manifested collectively to serve the people. Democracy provides the most equal mechanism in which people can participate to decide the future of their own state.

Democracy is imperfect, as is everything else, and in its colossal magnitude there have been monumental failures. But democracy can correct itself. As Joseph de Maistre puts it "Every country has the government it deserves," and this alludes to our responsibilities as electors within democracy, and the possible consequences. The answers to the problems in our societies lie in the choice of the electorate—and success or failure are also in the hands of each individual.

Democracy is what we elect it to be, but more importantly, it is also the standard we hold it to. In it, we are in our right to choose, but we also have the responsibility to uphold and protect these choices.

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