This IS what Democracy Looks Like!

The day before yesterday, I received a call from a friend I went to junior high school with. We hadn’t spoken in decades. Yesterday, my father left a voice mail for me to call him. Throughout this past week, several students sent me emails to organize an impromptu group discussion. Occupy Wall Street was on all of their minds.

Yesterdays’ roundtable went well. Students and faculty commented upon the lack of cohesion amongst the occupy movement. They struggled to come to agreement about what the movement believed in, stood for, aimed at, or intended – a sentiment that seems to be shared by the occupiers themselves.

We all questioned deeply but admittedly uncertainly, what specific conditions of our social world caused this unique form of activism? Could it work to change the world? How?

It seems unarguable that ideas are in the air. People are upset, some at Wall Street, others at Washington. Some seem to be growing upset with one another. All that is agreed upon is the persistence of disagreement.

I believe Vincent Ostrom (1997) would say the protestors are correct when they chant, “this IS what democracy looks like!” Social processes are complex. It is difficult to understand the meanings that motivate democratic actions and lead to social outcomes. But disagreement, competing factions, and intergroup animosity, all stand as points of evidence that group decision-making and collective actions are vulnerable to bias and capture.

Perhaps Alexis De Toqueville (1835) was also right. It was not a sense of unity or a shared vision of solidarity that made the New America exceptional. Aristotle reminds, “[f]or the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing.” Americans learned to get along by engaging one another in, as De Tocqueville termed it, “a delicate art of civil association.”

Early Americans were honest with themselves and with one another. They recognized each others’ different preferences, worldviews and competing interests. They feared the dominance of any particular group to the expense of others. They were forced to think critically, not about how to guarantee their own interests, but instead they thought about how to assure reliable constraints upon individuals and groups whose disagreements could threaten their otherwise functional community. They also thought about how to constrain the interests of those other groups whom they did not even yet know of. They admitted their ignorance and their bias, and they recognized those same traits in one another.

Any occupier’s suggestion for political arrangements that fails to realize that there will always be tea-partiers willing to empower corporate interests; and any tea party suggestion for policies that fails to realize that there will always be occupiers willing to empower government interests – are both equally naive and doomed to failure.

In the past, we learned much about designing fair rules from playing against presumably unfair opponents. Today we retain this distrust, but seem to have replaced uncertainty with prejudice and entitlement. We are no longer welcoming or tolerant to opposing interests, we point fingers and blame others for infecting our otherwise ideal society, our otherwise ideal system of politics, and our otherwise ideal economy. Our current framework places emphasis upon compromise and breeds resentment against those unwilling to amend their ideological preferences. We have forgotten that in De Tocqueville’s America, the forms of compromise that worked were not political bargains, policy trades nor log rolling exchanges; “if you support my bill, I’ll support yours.” The compromises that worked well in the past, instead took form as simultaneous and mutual constraints upon power. Our framework of political economy should begin from the premise that people’s ideological preconditions are very inelastic.

If De Toqueville was right in the structural features of democracy, and his perspective gives insight to causes of these current rabbles, might he also prove useful for prescribing cures to the social problems that have caused them?

During yesterday’s conversation I was puzzled and uncertain, what would De Tocqueville suggest or imply for us to do today? How can these competing, uncertain and ambiguous crowds learn through a comparable process of social interaction? How can they engage within an art of association to develop the skills of constitutional craftsmanship? Perhaps more importantly, how can they learn those lessons quickly?

I believe that something serious can be learned here, but I fear that we are diverting attention from it. Democrats or Republicans, Wall Street or Washington, who’s to blame? These are not the right questions if our social problems stem from the institutional arrangements of democracy itself. They are certainly not the right questions if social change is only possible through fundamental changes to the institutional structures that organize our democratic system. As protests, riots and recessions rage around the world we know that unrest transcends beyond our national confines. Any explanatory cause found within our nation must also be found to pervade beyond those political boundaries.

If only for a moment, I suggest we perceive these occupations without ideology. Let us ignore the reasons or the comments of these crowds and instead merely assess the trend. Watch some YouTube videos on mute. Do not read the placards. Simply ask, what objective social processes are occurring? I suggest that what has transpired gives insight into both what is causing our strife and what may stand to cure it.

Activism aimed to bring about structural change to the arrangements of our society have brought out the worst characteristic responses from those institutions which depend and benefit most from the status quo. Any democracy is no different, no better informed, and no more enlightened or benevolent from those individuals and groups who comprise it. The power of government is different and distinctively unique from the masses of ordinary individuals in so far as it possesses a unique monopoly upon law enforcement to apply violence and physical force without any oppositional constraint. And it is this characteristic feature that has risen to the surface of these events.

By convenient consequence, the individual interest groups of De Tocqueville’s America lacked the abilities to impose their wills upon others. They were too dispersed, they possessed too rudimentary technologies, and they were too in need of peace for productions’ and survivals’ sake. As Tyler Cowen (2011) has put it, they lived within a system of “government by oxcart.” Today’s technologies of force are a horse of a different color, a different beast entirely.

Again, if only we could see these events without ideology. If groups were assembled simply to argue the relative superiority of dragons compared to unicorns, I would be most puzzled to think that anyone, be she an ordinary citizen or a political representative, would think that men dressed in Kevlar and armed with guns could possibly accomplish a good resolution. Such actions literally stomp out the learning De Tocqueville suggested was the source of peace and prosperity.

If no other lesson is learned from these events but for a resonating distaste for police brutality then perhaps it has all been worth it. But, more lessons could be learned by actually performing those peaceful alternative behaviors and interactions. My advice is to simply do more of them. We are unlikely to reach a planned and rational resolution for deep-seated disagreements and conflicts. I suggest we pause such constructivist debates and efforts to design an ideal world, instead we should simply engage in the social behaviors we know unarguably to be good if only because in relative terms they are objectively non-violent and non-harmful to social interaction and social learning.

Those at the occupy zones should consider their opportunities to make, trade, eat, drink, play and live. They should strive to do the things within the confines of their occupied territories that they perceive as those very things that they hope to bring about throughout their ideal society. Perhaps then we will all learn by doing, to recognize that the interactions between police and protestors that we are watching accumulate the internet airwaves, are merely a more potent form of the same relationship that pervades our society between police and citizens.

Learn by doing, and grow the amounts of what we do so large as to decimate in shear quantity and magnitude the efforts of those who would use force against it. Rather than occupying Wall Street let our society occupy every street against the forms of violence that endanger the lives of our friends and neighbors.


Cowen, Tyler (2011). The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low Hanging Fruit of Modern History:Got Sick, And Will (Eventually) Feel Better. Penguin: E-Special.

De Tocqueville, Alexis (1834-40 [2011]). Democracy in America. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Ostrom, Vincent (1997). The Meaning of Democracies and the Vulnerability of Democracies: A Response to De Tocqueville’s Challenge. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.




1 thought on “This IS what Democracy Looks Like!

  1. This was lovely, Dan. For the last 150 years, nearly every major social revolution has produced a handful of seminal images. Given that the most memorable images from the OWS movement all include police brutality, the best bet for a lasting impact is probably in our law enforcement institutions.

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