Equality is the New Democracy
Democracy is a term we are all familiar with, and also one that has been the topic of some intense debates in recent years. During the Toronto International Film Festival this year, I had the opportunity to see What is Democracy?, directed by Astra Taylor. The documentary explores ancient philosophers’ original conceptions of democracy, and tracks these ideas to today. It engages with issues from the Trump Administration in the USA to the refugee crisis in Europe. There were several times in the film when my own understanding of the world was challenged, and times when I actually teared up. I walked away from the film with so much to say about the state of democracy in our world, and while I can’t give you an answer to the question, I want to shed some light on what I have learned.
By definition, democracy is a system of government that represents the people. That can sometimes be a contested issue, so one of the main questions that Taylor asked in the film was “what does democracy mean to you?” Most people said something along the lines of democracy being synonymous with freedom, because if we have freedom then we must have democracy. And while that is a possible answer, one of the people interviewed in the film raised the point that if we need to have freedom from something, we’ve already lost in democracy because it implies that there is still oppression. To this point, I think that democracy means equality. And if you asked me the follow up question of “do we live in a democracy?”, I would say no.
We do not live in a democracy, because the systems and institutions upon which we have built our nations and societies fundamentally deny equality.
We may have a democratic system of government, but that system is broken. It’s broken because it allows for varying levels of access to that democracy, depending on gender, race, and socioeconomic status. So by this logic, we cannot have democracy because we do not have equality, because we do not have representation of the people. Take the United States for example. The first line of the constitution starts with “We the People…” and then claims to represent the rights and freedoms of all, but goes on to say that there were exceptions to these rights and freedoms based on race and gender.
I think the best way to express this is to look at what we consider the pillars of democracy, to really expose how there is not, and never has been, equality.
The Right to Citizenship
From the beginning of modern nation-building, the only people considered citizens were white men who owned property. Women were not considered citizens because they were the ‘dependents’ of their fathers and then husbands. Non-white men were not considered citizens either because of the racist social hierarchy in these new nations. So here’s the problem: if you do not have access to citizenship, then you do not have access to the rights this ‘democratic’ state promises its citizens. And even today, with the refugee crisis in Europe and the new immigration laws in the USA, states are still discriminating based on citizenship and using citizenship as a political tool. Citizenship has always been a tiered system and a way of excluding people from accessing their democratic rights based on gender, race, and class.
The Right to Vote
Voting rights are really tied in to citizenship, because if you don’t have citizenship, you are not allowed to participate in the systems of the state. And if people are being excluded from participating in these systems, can we really call it democratic? Historically, women weren’t allowed to vote because they were considered irrational beings and incapable of political thought. Realistically, though, this was just another way to exert power and control over the population, and ensure that the patriarchal hierarchy remained intact.
The Right to Representation
Representation is the fundamental claim of democracy: that all people are represented by the state. But if not all people are allowed to vote, how are they a
ll represented? Look at the government of your country: is there someone in power that you feel represents you? In my opinion, the government doesn’t represent the people but it represents the interests of the select few in power. This is not democracy.
Let’s look at the marches for better sex education, for more affordable access to birth control and period supplies, and for the support of planned parenthood. We saw women demanding that their governments represent them, but what did the government do? The exact opposite. Furthermore, with mass protests against race-based violence and discrimination, it is clear that the government and the institutions that claim to protect its citizens are not doing their job. When governments do not listen to the people they claim to represent, how can we say we have a democracy? When governments dismiss the concerns of their people, and devalue their voices, how can we say we have a democracy?
I say that equality is the new democracy because I think achieving equality is the closest we will get to fixing our broken democratic system. And I don’t mean equality just in terms of recognition – I mean equal access to systems and institutions regardless of gender or race. I mean visible changes to power structures and institutions. It’s daunting, to say the least, to tackle such a massive issue, but I am confident that it can – and should – be done from the bottom up. And let’s remember that while we criticize these systems of power and control, we are still participating in them regardless of whether we want to or not. The only way to actually make a change is to actively and constantly resist these norms, and to call out the people and institutions in power. Our greatest enemy is silence, and our greatest ally is each other.