Democracy as the Grounding Value of Radical Grassroots Politics

(Featured image: “File:Murmure d’étourneaux.jpg” by Anne Jea. is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

The US isn’t a democracy, but it plays one on TV. When election year comes around, a lot of video cameras point at politicians making speeches about how they’re gonna fight for you and your grandma. A paradise is promised and all you have to do is vote for them as a show of your belief in democracy and freedom. Then after the election is over, politicians go back to playing golf with CEOs.

In a world like ours, one with so many horrors and so much duplicity, it’s not hard to see why some people tire of hearing about democracy. But is there any other way to dream of a better world and move toward it than to get with others and decide collectively what is needed and how to get it?

Of course, democracy isn’t the only social value, as friendship, autonomy, justice, cooperation, and love also bind us together and govern our lives as members of our communities. In frustration with society’s hollow promises and false progress, some people come to reject social values and instead seek fulfillment and meaning solely through individual values of self-mastery, pleasure, self-expression, and happiness. But beyond the individual values lies the human need for connection, and above the other social values democracy alone carries the possibility of producing societal transformation.

Any political discussion of values has the unfortunate tendency to be both vague and abstract. Certainly, that’s how values first appear to us when we try to identify them in ourselves, and without careful attention to thinking them through that’s how our values often remain. However, in a world full of political obfuscation and misdirection, good but inert intentions, and an overwhelming number of options about what issues to prioritize and what actions to take, I find that periodically returning to reflect on my values and think through what they mean concretely keeps me grounded and enables me to keep going.

While democracy is commonly reduced to a form of majority decision-making, when that stands in for all of democracy we lose most of what is precious about it. Radical movements need to not only claim democracy, but be able to interpret it and show how radical versions of democracy are more liberating than a reformed status quo could ever be.

Democracy’s Origins

The word democracy itself comes from the Greek words demos, meaning people, and kratos, meaning power or rule. Democracy is distinguished from other types of political rule in that it attributes power to the people without distinction between them in the way autocracy (“rule of one”), aristocracy (“rule of the elites”), and other Greek concepts do.

While this Greek definition of democracy has fundamentally shaped discourse in the west on what popular rule is, each culture and civilization has its own traditions of political discourse, each of which contains contests over whether the rule of the few or the many is preferable. The egalitarian political structures of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy contrast with the authoritarian rulers of the Aztec Empire, not dissimilar from the way the direct democracy of Swiss cantons contrasts with the monarchies of 17th and 18th century France and England.

The factor uniting all different traditions of rule of the many over rule of the few is the idea of political equality. By political I refer to decision-making about those things that are considered important in an org, community, or society. The political in this sense is not separate from the economic or the social, rather they are intertwined with each other. So democracy as political equality means giving people equal access to important decisions in all aspects of life. This is an important place to start for defining democracy, but political equality as a social value remains too abstract and open to misinterpretation to be put directly into action, so we must elaborate democracy to connect its abstract essence to practical application.

Three Levels of Democracy

In politics of various kinds today democracy gets invoked in different ways. As we tease out a definition of democracy appropriate to radical social movements and social change we need to determine how to differentiate and draw from these various definitions.

Perhaps the most common framing of democracy is what I’ll call watered-down democracy, which is diluted to a form of decision-making that emphasizes 1-person, 1-vote majority rule. Surely, any kind of society or organization that aspires to be democratic must have some such kind of decision-making process that gives all members a formal say, often in the form of a vote. 

But watered-down democracy by itself is a skeleton with no flesh or organs. Issues left open in this definition include what else might influence decisions that may or may not facilitate true political equality? Who is included as voters and what do they get to vote on?

While watered-down democracy is at least a good starting point for thinking about democracy as a fundamental social value, when it’s claimed that this is all there is to democracy, we can suspect that something else is going on. In “giving us” democracy, what else is being taken away? A heftier form of democracy would go further in fortifying political equality and fixing all these loopholes. 

A smooth-and-milky definition of democracy is where all the stakeholders of an issue are empowered to make decisions on that issue to the degree that it affects them. This definition has a number of important implications.

First, in empowering people to make decisions about things that affect them, they are naturally incentivized to want to make the best decision they can. Making good decisions requires reviewing policy options, deliberating on them, debating them with other members, and taking a vote. When a group is both affected by a decision and responsible for making the decision that affects them directly, this kind of procedure is markedly different from one where you vote for someone else to make decisions on your behalf, many of which don’t affect you.

Second, this smooth-and-milky democracy enables us to discern who gets to make decisions about what without monopolizing or excluding people in arbitrary or corrupt ways. Should males be able to make decisions about female reproductive health? Should the opinions of the people of Iraq have any influence over whether the US initiates a bombing campaign and invasion of Iraq? Should the workers of a factory have any say over whether the factory closes and moves to a country without labor and environmental regulations? How much influence each person deserves requires working out the technical details, but at least as a guiding principle this definition of democracy is able to guide us towards a more fair system for embodying political equality.

While this definition of democracy significantly fills out what democratic decision-making looks like as a process, it offers no inherent guidance for what kind of policies we should vote for that are in line with a democratic ethic. Perhaps this is asking too much of democracy, or perhaps we can invite layers of meaning into our most cherished values so that they can be our compass in a world beset by chaos and conflict.

A thick-and-juicy democracy seeks to empower all members of a group, to restrain and destroy the power of anyone who has coercive power over others, and to embody these ideals not just internally but in its relations with external groups as well. This is the only kind of democracy sufficient to fulfill a radical grassroots politics because only this kind of democracy takes explicit account of power relations.

The three parts of the thick-and-juicy definition each refer to political equality as the grounding value and the desired end goal. Empowering everyone in the group means working to build up those with less power so that they gradually come to have equal power to the rest of the members over the decisions and direction of the group. The restraining and destroying of coercive power means making sure no one person or small clique has the ability to force others to do things and dominate the group as a whole. Embodying political equality in relation with external groups ensures that democracy in one area is never used as a pretext for dominating or being servile to others in another area.

Liberalism and the Abuse of Democracy

Liberalism justifies and informs the principal societal institutions in the US, Europe, and much of the rest of the world. Liberalism is the philosophy that claims that representative democracy based on universal suffrage and politicians is the best way to organize politics and that capitalism based on private property and free markets is the best way to organize economics. Democracy is invoked as one of the pinnacle achievements of liberal society and of which the US was purportedly one of the pioneers, but what kind of democracy is it?

The problems with liberal democracy can be broken down into economic and political categories. Starting with the economic problems, liberal democracy permits very little democracy in the realm of economics, where shareholders and executives make the most important decisions about where to put and how to use society’s wealth based on profits instead of human needs, while workers mostly do what they’re told and consumers have to buy from what’s already on the shelf. Because democracy is invoked as a principle relating exclusively to government institutions, extreme economic inequality is not only permitted but institutionalized. Lastly, the way those with economic resources are able to buy influence in the political system through lobbying, campaign funding, withholding of cooperation from government policies, and so on, turns democracy into a competitive auction where most citizens can’t afford what politicians are selling.

The first political problem with liberal democracy is how much distance it puts between voters and policy execution. The long distance a bill must travel to turn into a policy is not a reflection of the democratic journey, but rather is a journey away from democracy as the process gets further and further away from meaningful public influence and deeper into the tight grasp of undemocratic brokering and influence-peddling. The second political problem is the way people are included and excluded from voting in the first place. Whole groups internal to the US–noncitizen immigrants, minors, felons–are excluded from voting, depending on the period and region, others have had their vote excluded or suppressed via arbitrary qualifications of intelligence, property, and citizenship proof. Furthermore, the US has an outsized influence on international economic, political, and military affairs, but those around the world affected by US policy rarely have any means of influence on it.

The economic and political problems of liberal democracy lead to vast inequalities of resources and of power over important decision-making. This mode of governance doesn’t even ascend to the level of what we defined above as watered-down democracy because its scope is so restricted and alternate non-voting methods of influence are so pervasive. When grassroots social movements speak of radical democracy, we have to be clear about our critique of the emptiness of liberal democracy. 

Social Movements and the Promise of Democracy

Grassroots social movements are the central social thrust of popular democratic passions against the anti-democratic institutions of the liberal state. Seeing democracy this way requires thinking in terms of power instead of mere rules of decision-making.

While relationships built through 1-on-1 conversations are the primary atomic bonds of social movements, it’s in organizations where these bonds can combine democratically into complex proteins that can acquire new capabilities and accomplish more than their mere numbers would suggest.

Implementing thick-and-juicy democracy effectively within orgs is more complex than it sounds, and to my mind the majority of groups that aspire to create radical change don’t do it very effectively. There’s many recognizable ways that orgs get democracy wrong.

As a newly radicalized activist in college, the groups I was with often tried to get other students to come to our meetings and get involved, but we didn’t know how to make potential or new members feel welcome or give them the basic knowledge and skills to participate meaningfully. All too often someone new would come to a meeting and we’d discuss some question of strategy and ask them what they thought, and they wouldn’t know what to say because they didn’t know the background of the issue or all of the contextual elements that really defined the issue. Such people would feel overwhelmed or that their needs were ignored and would usually not come back a second time.

A friend recently told me about another org whose events she’d been to and that she wanted to join but it just never really happened and she didn’t know why. We discussed how the other org just didn’t have much infrastructure to help new people get involved and find their role, and so while curious people might attend occasional events, they mostly continued to float on the periphery.

In contrast, truly democratic orgs invest a lot in member infrastructure. They have trainings where new members can learn the basic organizing skills which is the basic work that moves the org forward. They design regular member meetings to be optimally engaging and inviting for newer people. They have a network of more experienced members who make sure to reach out to potential and new members–not just once but on a recurring basis–and build relationships with them and talk about the group’s work and how to get involved. For more experienced members there’s a commitment to growth through regular workshops and discussions that are developing their skills and knowledge and pushing them to be better organizers in their communities and more empowered to be full decision-makers in the org. Rather than just identifying an issue and hosting intermittent events about it, they’re in a constant cycle of member outreach and development.

This might all seem like it has little to do with democracy, but I think it is a core part of the highest kind of democracy. Without mechanisms in place to constantly spread skills, relationships, and knowledge throughout the org, one of two things results. Either these groups become monopolized by a couple super-activists who, intentionally or not, come to dominate the organization and prevent others from becoming more involved, or the group stagnates as newer members are not engaged, the same people uncritically repeat the same tactics, and the org spins its wheels without adapting or growing. Organizations that get calcified in these ways rarely muster the vibrancy required for internal substantive democracy and never achieve their goal of making society as a whole more equal and democratic.

Nevertheless, while democracy is the goal that grassroots orgs should constantly be moving towards, at any one time an org is made up of people with different levels of experience and commitment to the org in a way that reflects different levels of informal influence. At any one moment, the ideal of political equality between all members is never really manifest. But this is inevitable if an org is trying to constantly grow, bring in new people, and have an ever-greater positive influence on its issues. Rather than evaluating the democracy of a group at a snapshot in time, it’s best to see it as a flow through time where political equality is constantly being spread around and people being built up to reach their potential as group members, gradually taking more ownership of the direction of the org and the becoming involved as full decision-makers. The internal democratic orientation of these groups is also refracted outwards, empowering people further and restraining and destroying the oppressive structures in society as a whole.

Thus, the proper barometer of the democracy of an organization isn’t principally how many all-member votes it takes on every little issue. Sometimes democratically-inspired activists will focus all of their efforts on the formal architecture of an organization and neglect those parts of organizational life that make the formal architecture purposeful in the first place. Of course, it’s important that members have access to and real voice and influence on formal decisions (orgs can become very manipulative when people are excluded from decision-making, as I write about here). But the formal gears of deep democracy only turn when they are constantly being oiled by the practices and infrastructure of intentionally spreading power around through building relationships, sharing knowledge, and practicing skills.

As distant as this is from the kind of democracy we’re taught in high school, the Greek word roots of “democracy” were always about “power of the people” and never about mere parliamentary procedures. Etymology aside, this is what the value of political equality over community decisions has always been about.

When organizations are built on member- and social-empowerment, their influence starts to accumulate. Social movements achieve their greatest power when a stampede of organizations are running in the same direction, getting masses of people involved in being active participants in organizations that affect the central issues in their communities. All the orgs don’t have to act in unison, but in bringing their resources and grassroots power to bear on a set of related issues, elite resistance starts to break apart and demands are won. Rather than the lapdog of capitalism, this is the democracy of wolves.


This article provides just one example of what it means to connect one’s abstract values to an understanding of the world and finally to one’s concrete intervention in that world. Examining one’s values periodically has a cleansing effect on one’s life when the world around us threatens to pull everything apart. Democracy as political equality is unique in its potential to simultaneously connect us to others and combat social injustice.

The watered-down version of democracy answers only the question of “what” with the idea of voting to make decisions. The smooth-and-milky definition of democracy answers the questions of “who” and “why” by declaring that people should have input on decisions proportional to the effect of that issue on their lives. The thick-and-juicy definition of democracy answers the question of “how” by directing people’s efforts towards increasing empowerment and attacking coercion. These successive definitions build on each other, and each is necessary for a fully democratic strategy for social change and a fully democratic vision of social relations.

By connecting our actions with our values we derive meaning from our lives and feel at home in a hostile world. Democracy isn’t a vote, a feeling, a truth, a destination. It’s all the small streams coalescing into, what civil rights activist Vincent Harding calls, the river of struggle for a better world.

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