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Democracy….to the Manner Born

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

By Lisa Saye
February 12, 2024

@Pretense. Artwork, Photo and Title by Lisa Saye.

Democracy is the ensemble way of governing. One only needs to breathe its air just once to prefer its particular perfume. For as long as it has been a governing choice, democracy remains remarkably original. It stands in stark contrast to artificial institutions that operate around the occasional interests of power. If democracy were a series of images, its characters would need regular revision because democracy is both the past and the present. But, is it the future? Is democracy losing its leaves? Has it become a meaningless privilege? Are all its birds gone—their wings forever folded?

Democracy is a voluntary governmental system. It cannot be forced. It is the balance measure mediating between smaller invisible needs and larger more obvious ones. Democracy is equality’s work-song. For most of modern history, the United States has been democracy’s ideological north. We medalled in it. Our brand of democracy highlighted concern for equality, selection and representation. It has been used to mark the boundaries of government and emphasized when those boundaries needed correcting. U.S. democracy has been an expression among a host of other expressions and a must-have for as long as I can remember. Or was it? Has democracy been a distorted system of reality? Has it been a pretense among all of the other pretenses over the ages? 

Pretense is a regrettable currency. In the pretense landscape, the Constitution becomes akin to a faded photo whose lines are blurred and whose words long erased. Insincere references to the Constitution is a pretense of connection where the user resists accountability. In practicing pretense democracy, we nurse a troubled legacy where democracy is written about, but never practiced. Pretense democracy disallows the expansion of public services to the most needy and stalls the creation and design of policies and programs in real time. In this regard, it is a betrayal of the expectation of effective public administration. What honor could there be in the chaos of pretense? What can be reliably retained as fact or as truth? Perhaps that is exactly the point that this kind of pretense strives to make and hold on to. If this is not the goal of government, then we have a lot of work to do. A sick and fragile democracy is a symptom of other societal and moral sicknesses. Sincere and efficient public service is the enlightened way to move closer towards the democracy we want to see.

Unfortunately, angry and misguided rhetoric is both prominent and weightless in today’s debate. History is Tuesday’s narrative, then it’s Friday’s narrative and so on. You can rewrite history, but you are powerless against memory. Reducing an event to its sentimental opposite does little for those who see it and who live it everyday and where revisionist corroboration is impossible. Revision is defenseless against reality and history is revision’s reality. 

Democracy has always been seen as the line between truth and lie. Over time, that line has been manipulated in word, thought and deed. We see that now. We see how many have mimicked the pure expression of democracy in their own lives by pretending to be friendly, inclusive and supportive. Mythology is the only way to explain it without calling it what it really is. 

Sadly, morality is not inherited and lately seldom has it been embraced. When truth is abandoned in government, public administration becomes satire and not service. Public administration is incremental where advocacy and public service are indistinguishable. It is a currency that cannot be spent. Its administration represents the intensity that democracy requires. When we examine the record, public service is the vehicle for transformation of policy and intent. Public administration becomes confused when democracy remains imagination and not innovation. When that happens, freedom becomes its first deficit, then does every seamless connection thereafter. In this environment, freedom is technical. Technically free is not free. Free is free.

Thus far, democracy has remained somewhat intact after every deliberate attempt to dismantle it. Real democracy guarantees an equal value system for all. It guarantees the franchise of freedom. Democracy is always a revolution in the means of equality. If we are not careful, pretense will make our democracy a tourist site. We must reintroduce truth to the system that owns it. To be sure, our counsel here on earth is brief. As such, our activities as public administrators must be substantive and meaningful within the small margins of difference and behind those doors that for many remain closed.

The @Pretense 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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