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Farah Stockman

Democracy, despite itself

Heidi Younger for the Boston Globe

However you felt about last week’s election, there’s one thing we all ought to celebrate: the incredible, improbable ritual of American democracy itself. How amazing is it that we all went to bed Tuesday night without knowing who the next governor would be when we woke up? Yet, as close and hard-fought as that race was, we slept peacefully. We didn’t worry that Martha Coakley would send a militia to attack the vote counters, or that Charlie Baker would ethnically cleanse the towns that voted for her. As disillusioned and divided as we are over politics, we still take it for granted that the bitterest election will end with a gracious concession speech, not a war.

Not everyone has that luxury.

In places like Iraq, elections can determine who wins power and who dies. Legitimacy doesn’t really come from votes, but from having a fierce army.

To be honest, the news out of Middle East has given me doubts about this whole democracy thing. America’s blind faith in democracy looks a little too blind: Rising up against Hosni Mubarak? Go for it, guys. Fighting to topple Bashar Assad? Right on, brothers. What could possibly go wrong?

Even here at home, democracy’s a messy business. It advertises our deepest weaknesses. To China, Russia, and Iran, we look like we’re endlessly at war with ourselves. America’s a place where private citizens broadcast national security secrets; where lawmakers openly undermine the president; where candidates get elected on the platform of undoing whatever was just done before.


To Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, it’s sheer lunacy. How can a nation that cares more about Kim Kardashian than Congress be trusted to elect a government that won’t ruin the planet? Should the Real Housewives of Orange County really get to pick the leader of the free world?

It’s enough to make you wonder how we’ll compete: China’s leaders are making plans for things that will happen 100 years into the future. Meanwhile, our leaders can barely focus on anything past 2016. Think about it long enough and you start to imagine that all that money we spent on the midterm election should have been used instead to hire a really good CEO who could run this place better than a gang of politicians.

And yet, in spite of all of this, democracy works.

Countries that successfully adopt it tend to have stronger economies, better standards of living, cleaner water, higher literacy rates. That’s not just true in Europe, but Africa and Latin America.


Why, exactly, is this case? Why is the outcome produced by an ignorant and fractious mob always superior to what the most brilliant mind could devise alone?

According to Mike Edwards, co-author of “Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn’t Work at All Works So Well,” democracy works because we believe it will.

Our faith makes us act in ways that make the system effective and legitimate.

“If we believe in the criminal justice system, then we show up for jury duty and we go to law school, and we feel afraid of committing crimes,” he said. If we all stopped believing in it, we’d act lawlessly, and the system would break down. Once we believe that the only way to become president is to get elected, a military coup becomes absurd. Once we believe our elected officials will improve our lives, we hold them accountable when they don’t.

This explains why democracy has faltered in so much of the Middle East: There simply aren’t enough people who believe in it yet. It also explains why, despite our divisions, we remain so strong.

As cynical and disillusioned as we are with politics, Americans have a religious faith in the ability of the aggregated masses — no matter how irrational or ill-informed — to produce better results than a CEO or a king. We go to vote like other countries go to temple. Not that we don’t realize how disappointingly human our politicians are, or how short even the best among them will fall of living up to our expectations. We know. But we make that pilgrimage anyway to cast our ballot in a smelly school gymnasium, because we believe that this system is better than any other. In this era of polarization, that unswerving faith in democracy might be the only thing that still unites us. Lucky for us, it turns out to be the only thing that really matters.


Farah Stockman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.