By Sung Jung (John) Kim
It was 3:15 p.m. when I arrived. The gigantic, rich, multi-colored brick castle resembling High Victorian Gothic architecture—New Haven City Hall—stood like an impenetrable fortress, looking down on me, an average 18-year-old college freshman. Fighting exhaustion from the long walk and the heavy backpack, I eagerly stepped inside, reminding myself Today is the day—Tuesday, November 6, 2018—the midterm elections.
I am a Korean-American born in Durham, North Carolina and raised in the suburbs of Virginia. I value equality, freedom, and justice. I enjoy engaging in dialogue and discussion on different topics, from politics to religion. Just a few weeks ago, during the midterm elections, I stood in line for more than four hours. At the end of the day, I slipped in a piece of paper in exchange for a sticker that read “I voted” with the American flag waving next to the text. But that’s not all I got. I was reminded that my voice matters and has a place in America. Yes, I may be only one of 325 million Americans, but that does not in any way diminish my power as an American citizen. This individual power and liberty serves as the foundation of our democracy.
Democracy has its roots in the city-states of Greece of the 5th century B.C. Defined as the “rule of the citizens” (the demos), democracy granted its citizens a voice in decision-making, a right exercised at mass meetings, in a style we would call today a direct democracy. Contemporary democracies, however, are quite different from the ancient Greek model. Now, in countries with larger populations, citizens participate in a representative democracy, one in which citizens elect politicians who would represent their values. While different in nature, both models of democracy are political systems that grant citizens the opportunity to participate in political decision-making.
However, democracy is more than just the opportunity to participate in the political system. Unlike an autocracy, where one individual holds absolute power, democracy stands as a political institution that protects individual freedoms, applying laws equally to all, and promotes equality. Some may argue that a democracy lacks equality of political power, citing that wealthy individuals and corporations unfairly influence politics. Others may argue that individual freedom is not only observed under democratic societies. However, we must remind ourselves that democracy is the best form of political system that guarantees equality and freedom, valuing individual power.
One of democracy’s greatest tenets is its unwavering commitment to individual political power, which serves as a protection against tyranny. A society needs a system of balance by the people in order to avoid the concentration of power in the hands of a few, who would likely serve their own interests. A lack of accountability and sense of restraint from the public would lead to a disproportionate distribution of power. For example, between 1965 and 1997, when Joseph Mobutu ruled Zaire, now known as Democratic Republic of the Congo, as a totalitarian dictatorship, he not only abused his power by eliminating the political elite, abolishing the right to strike, and banning all political parties, but also suspended the national constitution and dismissed the democratically-elected national assembly. In addition, the Zairian economy, which was one of the most prosperous in Africa in 1960, with an average annual GDP growth of 7.5% from 1949 to 1958 plummeted; the average annual income of $680 dropped to $100, one of Africa’s lowest; health care, public education and finance collapsed, leaving 45 million poor. Meanwhile, Mobutu and his closest elites, known as Les Grosses Légumes, became extremely wealthy; Mobutu built himself a palace and an airport, and in Europe, he bought “castles and owned large tracts of the Belgian capital of Brussels.” Unfortunately, Zairians had no power to democratically restore the economic and political situation, either through fair voting or representation. At last a successful seven-month rebellion forced Mobutu to quietly escape, relinquishing his power. When citizens of a country lack democratic mechanisms, they turn to other options, such as force and rebellion, which in comparison to voting, is inefficient, expensive and potentially deadly. In a democratic society, on the other hand, individuals have political power to protect themselves against such oppressive regimes. Elections and re-elections serve as effective tools to keep the representatives accountable. For example, America experiences a peaceful transition of leaders and administration every few years, through a democratic process—voting.
Furthermore, in a democratic society, individual political power is equally distributed among all citizens. Regardless of one’s religion, socioeconomic status, and more, everyone has an equal opportunity of voice in the government. While an individual with more property or children may have a greater stake in the conduct of the government, they do not receive any more votes. A modern liberal democracy is strictly governed by the principle “one person, one vote.” Now, some may argue that wealthy individuals and corporations have greater political power and can coerce individuals to vote a certain way. They claim that these acts of “buying” votes were evident in the 19th century, when political machines like Tammany Hall in New York City, run by Boss Tweed, provided jobs and social services in exchange for votes. However, this argument is not so much a critique of the democracy as a critique of all systems of government. In fact, compared to different types of political institutions, democracy best addresses this issue. In the United States, for example, while wealthy individuals may try to influence the outcome of the election, at the end of the day, it is the individual who votes for oneself, not the wealthy, ‘powerful’ magnate. In addition, voting takes place in a private setting where the person independently makes the final decision. On the other hand, under different forms of government, people either lack the right to vote or their votes do not affect the outcome, meaning voters are only given the illusion that they have power in the system. For example, in North Korea, there is no system of voting; in Russia, the leader runs nearly unopposed; in Venezuela, specifically in the recent election, candidates and parties were banned from running, the electoral calendar was manipulated to benefit the ruling party, and the ruling party placed electoral authorities who were partisan.
Besides fair distribution of individual political power, individual freedoms in a liberal democracy are protected by a stable legal system that applies the law equally to all individuals. The liberal-democratic principle of equality before the law means that the law is “impartially administered and that the substance of the law itself must be impartial, that it must not discriminate between individuals except on the basis of differences which are relevant to a legitimate purpose”. This means that basic freedoms, including speech, expression, religion, press, and assembly, are equally applied and protected. But is this really a unique factor of a democracy? Can’t individuals under benevolent kings, oligarchs, or other leaders also enjoy freedom? Yes. It is true that under benevolent kings or emperors, like Constantine the Great of the Roman Empire, people enjoy freedom. However, individuals under such government are not guaranteed the same protection of freedom when regimes change. While one leader may allow the exercise of certain freedoms, the next can be more authoritative and restrictive, and vice versa. For example, the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, which lasted over two centuries, happened intermittently and sporadically—from the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD to the Edict of Milan in 313 AD:
Toleration under Philip the Arab, predecessor of Decius; the Decian Persecution; toleration and intolerance under Gallienus, and in like sequence under Valerian; religious indifference under Claudius Gothicus; tolerance followed by a flare-up of intolerance under Aurelian; twenty years of toleration under Diocletian, succeeded by the longest and most violent of persecutions.
This unpredictable nature of religious toleration epitomizes the danger of living under a political system where the ruler is unbounded by the law. In a democracy, on the other hand, people have the security of mind in a stable law and have confidence that an administrative transition will not revoke their basic freedoms. The law is supreme and no individual is above the law. In the United States, like many other democracies, the Constitution strictly lays out the steps required to change the law. Thus, a democracy provides a guarantee of security in the system, not in the individual character of the ruler.
Through both equality of political power and equality of legal accountability, democracy fosters a government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln proclaimed in his Gettysburg Address. The Constitution of the United States begins with the famous phrase, “We, the People of the United States,” stamping the country’s steadfast commitment to uphold the individual power. While I can fearlessly denounce autocratic systems of government, my peers living in an oppressive, undemocratic system would be persecuted for such political discourse.
Sung Jung (John) Kim is a first year in Pauli Murray College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.