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Democracy: More Than A Notion

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lisa Saye
April 15, 2024

When James Baldwin told his mother that he wanted to become a writer, she replied that doing so was “more than a notion.” Her statement is yet another in a long list of commentary proving that a mother’s wisdom remains unmatched. Baldwin in his youth made a pivotal change in his career, but to say that he left the lessons of his youth behind would be erroneous. Youth is never past. It is always within us and always before us. Youth can mean new ideas, new concepts or new ways, whether we are five or one hundred and five.  

Democracy is indeed “more than a notion.” Elections are its corridors and the moans of its citizens are its mandates. As with anything that works effectively, democracy needs certain conditions in which to thrive. It is in this context that public administration enters to make the constructs of democracy a part of everyday life. But it isn’t easy. Shrinking budgets, overburdened tax structures and bias make the job almost impossible to do. Pretense democracies or notion governments add to these woes as they graft the narrative of public service, but in practice purposely mishandle its implementation. A healthy democracy corrects this through the ballot process. An unhealthy democracy chooses not to. Even the economies in notion governments are suspect, subjective and temporary because little to nothing is official. A government cannot fund or sustain a public good like education or transportation based on meme-like pop-up trends, gestures and cliché. Notions may shape-shift and bend toward the closest and most popular whim. It is for this reason that democracy’s metrics must envision future imagery which sees the potential constraints and the many possibilities for the dissemination of public goods. 

The current environment tends to treat democracy as if it were a marginal notion. It is not. The adoption and practice of democracy is continuous and rigorous. It is a shared investment in efficiency and equality. It is ever-green and hopeful, even when it’s burning. By design, unitary power structures are absent of depth, organization, input or collaboration. In these structures, there are no entry points, selection by election is nonexistent and dysfunction contributes to a poverty of governance. To reduce democracy to misplaced mythology gives it the deliberate perspective of fantasy and cosplay and allows for the telling of democracy-adjacent lies. If we accept and practice this type of government we will eventually transfer a great portion of reality over to weaker wills simply because they happen to be the loudest voices in the room. 

One-sided vibe-based arguments will not prevent the collapse of a fragile governmental structure. A partnership does not work when one party expects the other to serve and take orders. A partnership is a constant collaboration of equals. The same can be said for the philosophical essence of democracy. The conjurers of chaos and disunity who have given up nothing for democracy and cannot be counted on to ever do so will never embrace public service, justice or dialogue. And why would they? They prefer instead to operate in a laboratory of indescribable emptiness. Public administrators must prefer to do the opposite in order to heal the frustrated conditions of established disorder. Public service is useless if a country is in denial of the deficiencies that keep it apart.  

Why we began calling governmental limitations opportunities is baffling. Why we continue to do so is equally confusing. For one thing, it denotes a tone of indifference that is counterproductive. It demonstrates a disconnection from the societal anchors that make government effective. Weaknesses, limitations and other light failures of government create structural cracks that can be impossible to fill. Unless we remain actively accessing policy limitations as feedback to inform the planning process we are wasting the public’s time. 

Luckily, public administration helps in providing society with lessons of compassion while also providing part of the answer to the restless policies of division. One way we do this is by removing auto-judgment and resentment and embracing decision points and real order. Public service is not a trial period in some off-world democracy. It is inspirational and it is the enviable balance of policy outcomes. Public administrators understand that they have a responsibility not only to the citizens, but to history itself. Within that understanding are all of the complexities of life within a host of settings, be it in the global north or the global south. For public administrators, we know that where we govern is as important as how we govern. We speak democracy. So, let’s get loud! 

The @No Shun image was taken and titled by Lisa Saye.  

Author: Dr. Lisa Saye served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. She also served as Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Humanities and as Associate Professor of Public Administration at American University Afghanistan. Dr. Saye can be reached by email at [email protected]. 

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