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Jonathan Bernstein

Do Americans Still Care About Democracy?

The concept is so popular that it’s now used in marketing language. But have we really accepted all it involves?

A new era.

A new era.

Photographer: Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency

U.S. citizens should think a bit more about democracy. What brings this on was a quote from Kam Ghaffarian of Axiom Space, after his crew completed a successful, fully private mission to the International Space Station — an achievement he called “part of democratizing low-Earth orbit.” I saw later that the former NASA astronaut Mike Lopez-Alegria, who commanded the mission, also referred to it as “democratization.” 

There’s good news and bad news here.

My first reaction was that this was ridiculous. Lopez-Alegria ferried three rich people to space, and they paid handsomely for the experience. I’ve generally thought that partially privatizing space is a good idea, but c’mon: Wealthy space tourists are much poorer symbols of democracy than (say) Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride and the rest of the astronaut corps — along with the politicians who sent them to space and the voters who elected those politicians. We shouldn’t neglect the role of private enterprise even back then, when the government had the dominant role. The U.S. economic system was among the winners of the space race. Overall, however, there’s nothing more democratic than a polity collectively choosing and achieving a policy goal. And most of those astronauts had very ordinary backgrounds; there’s something sad about a conception of democracy that would exclude Ride and include those with the means to buy their way into space.

On the other hand? I doubt that any of the people pitching private space missions as “democratizing” have given much thought to any of that. They are, most likely, using the word because it’s one that people like. That’s … sort of good news? Democracy in the U.S. has been under attack, including at least some explicit arguments that it’s a bad thing. Some of these arguments aren’t new at all, including the incorrect and ahistorical claim that the U.S. is a “republic, not a democracy.” Even demonizing the word “democracy” itself has deep roots in U.S. history. The founding generation, which looked to Rome as its example, shared a long historical suspicion of democracy despite strongly favoring popular government.

If that’s confusing, it may be because people in the U.S. have not always been careful about learning exactly what democracy is, despite generally being enthusiastic about it. Democracy is broadly a system of government in which the people rule, but that leaves a lot of room for complexity and complications, including the fact that not all of the people can possibly get their way all of the time.

Indeed, figuring out how to accept losing — elections, policy debates, even fights over symbols — while still supporting the underlying process turns out to be an extremely important element of democracy. That’s why democratic rituals, such as presidential general-election debates, can be valuable even if they’re worthless in terms of educating voters. It’s why President Donald Trump’s rejection of election rituals — such as conceding defeat, congratulating the winner and participating in the presidential transition — was such a big deal, even putting aside his overt efforts to overturn the results.

To put it bluntly: Perhaps we can be ignorant of the nuances of democracy — important as they are — as long as we fully support the larger concept, and we accept the basic idea that it sometimes involves losing. Overall, I can’t help but wish that our civic education was a lot more thorough and effective, and that U.S. citizens had a better sense of their own system of government. And I suspect our failures in that regard really are vulnerabilities. But if we still are enthusiastic about democracy, enough to try to use it to sell all manner of things, including private space flight? Maybe that’s a meaningful starting point.

At least I hope so.