I’m a democratic socialist. The ‘democratic’ part is very important to me, and it’s important to a lot of other people too, because when you live in America and identify as a socialist, you have to spend a lot of time explaining that you don’t want to send everyone off to a prison camp. (I, for example, only want to send people who disagree with me off to a prison camp.)
What’s curious about this, though, is that when you talk to people a lot about democracy, you find out that it’s unexpectedly hard to define. Even in a country that was purportedly founded on democratic principles and presents itself as the world’s shining beacon of democracy, it’s difficult to come to a common definition of what democracy means, either in theory or in practice. This isn’t new, of course; the question of who gets a say in how the country is run literally goes back to the founding of the United States. Conservatives are quick to remind us that we are a republic and not a democracy, while leftists are just as quick to point out that the workplace – where most Americans spend the majority of their time – is rarely democratic at all. So even when you devote a large chunk of your life to discussing it, you learn that a common understanding of democracy is as hard to come by as democracy itself.
Enter This is What Democracy Looks Like, a slight but appealing comic from The Center for Cartoon Studies. Its name is drawn from a frequently-heard chant at marches and street protests; it’s subtitled “A Graphic Guide to Governance”. That’s probably a more exact description of this well-meaning pamphlet (available as a free download at Gumroad) than the title, since it’s really about how democracy works in practice in America’s political system than it is about what democracy means, or should mean, or shouldn’t mean. The comic starts with a bunch of quotes from various luminaries and not-so-luminaries that make the point that democracy is hard to pin down, which may be necessary, but doesn’t entirely fill you with confidence about what the pages that follow are going to accomplish.
One of the difficulties I had reading This is What Democracy Looks Like is that it keeps making (g00d!) points that it doesn’t do a lot to support. It is absolutely correct to say, as the comic does, that “at its core, politics is about power”, but it isn’t very helpful that the rest of the text shies away from showing us what that means exactly. It is also very true to say that people often think of electoral politics as the only lens through which the democratic process can be viewed, but it doesn’t do much to correct that misperception by spending the vast majority of its brief page count discussing only electoral politics and the way that government is constructed. It isn’t until we read Hallie Jay Pope’s contribution, “People Power”, that attention is paid to the idea that strikes, protests, and other forms of direct action are just as much a part of democracy as the political process, and that’s a single entry on the last page of the comic. Much time is spent on the fact that people often seem removed and disenchanted from politics, but this doesn’t do much to combat that feeling.
This is What Democracy Looks Like is also very heavy on the hows and not so great on the whys. If you’re interested in the electoral college, the comic will tell you what it is, but it won’t tell you why we have it, or why so many people think it’s damaging to democracy. If you’re interested in the differences between the governments of Los Angeles and Athens/Clarke Counties, the comic has you covered, but if you want to know why their governments are different, or why we favor confederacy and state’s rights over federalism most of the time, you’ll be left in the dark. (It also lets a few eye-rolling claims slip through, such as the howler that the Supreme Court tries to “stay nonpartisan and insulated from political pressure”, which isn’t even remotely true in any practical sense.) And it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t mention that it’s painfully short on any analysis of capitalism and the way it completely distorts and hobbles the democratic process; there’s a brief mention of money in politics and a bit of handwaving in the direction of inequality, but this hardly seems sufficient in a country where lobbying groups literally write the legislation that is meant to regulate their industries. After all, what good is a seat at the table when you can’t afford to buy the meal?
Perhaps this is because This is What Democracy Looks Like is meant to be educational rather than ideological. But that, to me, is part of the problem. For one thing, education always has a political perspective; and for another, all politics, despite the pleading of third-way types, is ideological in nature. You can’t write a guide to how democracy functions unless you have very definite opinions about what democracy means in the first place, and about what direction it ought to be taking the governed as well as the governors. I certainly felt ‘educated’ after reading the comic, in that sort of school textbook way where you probably learned some facts that you didn’t already know, but I didn’t feel ‘informed’ in the sense that I’d picked up anything useful about what to do with what I’d learned.
And, really, that’s fine. This is What Democracy Looks Like does its job if all you’re looking for is a civic-minded guide to the often-perplexing pathways of American governance. t’s professionally done, with lovely art and design, and very civic-minded; calling it unobjectionable would be unfair, and calling it well-intentioned would be unkind. But just knowing doesn’t seem like enough anymore. The times call for something more contentious than a bloodless recitation of the nuts and bolts of democracy; they demand furious disputation of what those nuts and bolts should produce. It speaks gently when what is needed is loud and clear-voiced shouting.