Addressing Democracy

Zack: “Hey, come on, come get pizza with Rob and me.”

Jack: “Nah, I’ll pass. I’m not hungry right now.”

Zack: “But we want you to.”

Jack: “I’m deciding not to.”

Zack: “Too bad. There’s two of us and one of you, so you’re outvoted. Majority rules. You have to come and get pizza with us.”

Democracy. The people get together and vote on how their society should be run. Maybe there’s discussion and debate first, maybe we’re voting for a candidate rather than for the policies they stand for, or maybe the system is organized in any number of different ways, but at the end of the day, we vote. For a given issue, the vote decides the outcome, and whichever way you voted, you’re bound by the decision the same as anyone else. Every person receives one vote, and an equal, participatory citizenship is owed to each and every American. The ability to choose our own leaders and pass our own laws is what makes those laws binding and those leaders legitimate. This whole process is common understanding in the United States, an assumption that goes beyond political alignment. It’s the foundation for all our other political discussion, and so we rarely question it.

I think it’s fun to question the things that people rarely question, and I’m curious about the “people get together and vote” part of this basic idea of democracy. What I’m wondering is this: who decides who the “people” are? Who decides which people constitute the voting body? Who decides who can vote and who can’t? If democracy is the most legitimate form of government, then surely a decision as important as who can and cannot vote has to be made democratically. But we’d need to know who can and cannot vote in order to vote on that issue!

The easiest, least arbitrary line to draw is to say that everybody gets to vote. Everybody gets to participate in a democracy, because
that’s how democracy works. And maybe “everybody gets to vote” can serve as a coherent foundation for democracy. Maybe not. But a global democracy isn’t really what we’re looking for. In order to justify anything close to the current, common understanding of what democracy is, we must consider the concept of nations, each with their own independently justified democratic governments.

“Everybody within the borders of the United States gets to vote” unfortunately doesn’t work as neatly. Let’s go back a few centuries to a time when the United States did not yet exist. Let’s ask ourselves: how can we create a United States with clearly defined borders if we haven’t got a voting body to vote on them yet? Defined borders should be necessary to determine who can vote, but we can’t have defined borders until we’ve voted on them! “All United States citizens can vote” works no better; laws establishing citizenship need to be voted on by citizens, and we can’t have defined citizens to vote on those laws until the laws are already made.

Let’s say we resolve this issue somehow, and we figure out a fundamental rule about who can vote and who can’t. Another problem arises when we examine voting procedure. Are decisions to be made by majority, or plurality, or unanimous decision? It’s the same sort of issue. The decision to govern by majority vote is a political decision in its own right—does that decision itself get made by majority vote? In theory, the people would need to democratically decide the procedures for passing a vote, but a democratic vote to establish those procedures would need to be done according to some sort of procedure!

To recap: we have a country established by a vote that, conceptually, could not have been legitimate, passed according to a procedure that, conceptually, could not have been legitimate. Within that new democracy, formed undemocratically and almost arbitrarily, there will inevitably be people who never wanted to be a part of it. Going forward, those individuals will be bound by the voters’ decisions even when they disagree with those decisions. Like Jack in our opening dialogue, these involuntary citizens are forced to comply with decisions with which they disagree, a type of coercion supposedly justified by their inclusion in a voting body that they did not consent to join. This problem cannot be easily or simply resolved.

Please don’t misinterpret my point. The purpose of this article isn’t to argue that we shouldn’t be democratic. It’s that conversations about American political values can’t simply begin and end with “Democracy! America!” Even a value as fundamental as democracy, an idea as basic as who gets to vote, has its own share of philosophical complexities. Who’s to say whether these problems have solutions, or what those solutions are. Plenty of theorists have tried to figure that out. At the end of the day, knowing that these questions exist gets us that much closer to finding the answers.

Jack Goldberg ’19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at

Jack Goldberg

Jack Goldberg '19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *