In the summer of 2000 I went to Philadelphia to protest the Republican National Convention. Since I had no lodging, I stayed at the local YMCA with other people in the same situation, which included a colorful group of anarchists.
Well we were all anarchists. I was an anarchist as far as political theory went, but these kids had the whole costume down. The red and black flags, the black clothing, complete with the black mask and only a slit in for the eyes.
They were a nice group of kids. Perhaps a bit on the paranoid side. At a rally early in the week they were passing out leaflets explaining Anarchist theory. One of them approached me. I recognized him through the mask. “Hey how’s it going?” I asked him.
“You don’t know me,” he said defensively.
“It’s me,” I said. “I’m staying in the same room as you guys in the Y.”
“No, you don’t know me,” he said, stressing his words this time. I let it go at that.”
Shortly afterwards a bit of a scene broke out. A Republican delegate had come out of the building to try and argue with the protesters. Of course the rank and file delegates to the convention were just ordinary people, and through out the week sometimes they would try and talk to the protesters to convince us that they weren’t really bad folks. And some of them actually did a decent job at it. I met some Republican delegates I respected. But some of them just wanted to preach at us, and didn’t want to listen, and this guy was one of them.
Both sides were in full costume. This guy was a middle age white man in a suit and tie. And the anarchists were as I’ve already described them. It wasn’t hard to tell which one was the delegate and which ones were the protesters. He was shouting something about the values of democracy, and the anarchists were taking the bait by standing around and trying to debate him.
“Democracy is the best system in the world,” he said.
“We don’t live in a democracy,” one of the anarchists said.
“What? Yes we do. What are you talking about?”
“This is an oligarchy.”
“Ancient Greece was a democracy.”
At this point he just threw his hands up. “Oh come on. Don’t start bringing Ancient Greece into this.” He turned around as if to walk away in disgust, and then turned back to briefly admonish them one more time, “look, all I’m saying is don’t be destructive out there today. Don’t be violent.” The anarchists just murmured with their heads down, seeming to be disappointed that he had cut off the debate. He turned around and walked away.
Of course the ironic thing about this story is in November Bush lost the popular vote but won the election. A lot of people thought this was unfair, and the newspaper columns and AM radio stations were filled with right wing pundits saying, “Geez, didn’t these people ever pass an 8th grade civics class? Every idiot knows we don’t live in a democracy. Democracy was in ancient Greece. We live in a republic, which has checks and balances on the whims of mob rule. How dumb are these people? Where did they ever get the idea we live in a democracy? Etc etc etc.”
The moral is that democracy is one of the most abused words in our modern political discourse. Politicians and right wingers love to use it for it’s positive connotations, but if you try and suggest any true democratic reforms see how quickly you get shouted down.
Ironically Bush, whose election in 2000 is now the current textbook example proving that we live in a republic, not a democracy, has been one of the worst abusers of the word. With all the talk about “democracy” in Iraq, or in the Middle East, it’s important to remember what democracy really means. And for true examples of democracy, it is good to read about the Paris Commune, or the anarchist communities in Spain during the 1930s. The United States, for all its rhetoric, has never been a democracy.