Let’s be honest: if you answered the question with anything other than “a system of government in which the citizens exercise control over policy and leadership,” then you’re incorrect, and you’re not alone.
Many use the word “democracy” to suggest wearing blue jeans and listening to NPR is democratic. They throw “undemocratic” as an insult to those whose ideas, morals, or policies don’t line up with their personal version of what democracy looks like.
Republicans are undemocratic because they limit illegal immigration.
Democrats are undemocratic because they shut down speakers on college campuses.
While insults may be warranted, “undemocratic” isn’t appropriate.
Let us remind ourselves that while behavior may be immoral or abhorrent, unless they’re staging a military coup it isn’t “undemocratic.”
In his famous book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes this confusion in detail:
“You can use the word democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of human feelings: The feeling I mean is, of course, that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you.”
“We, in Hell, would welcome the disappearance of democracy in the strict sense of that word, the political arrangement so called […] And what we must realize is that “democracy” in the diabolical sense […] is the fittest instrument we could possibly have for extirpating political democracies from the face of the earth.”
“Allow no pre-eminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser, or better, or more famous, or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them down to a level; all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals.”
For “democracy” or the “democratic spirit” (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first sign of criticism. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be.”
Doesn’t that describe our world today?
On a more personal note, I remember a quote given by Tom Hanks, according to Fox News: “…the truth is a lot of Mormons gave a lot of money to the church to make Prop-8 happen,” he told Tarts. “There are a lot of people who feel that is un-American, and I am one of them.”
It seems he took the problem of mixing “democracies” and “democratic behavior” and took it even one step further by confusing “American” with “American behavior.” (This is all beside the fact that America isn’t a democracy in the first place, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
We must be careful in our word choice. Not because they are harmful or dangerous, but because willingly or accidentally confusing the meaning of words and concepts makes it easier for the “bad guys” on both sides of the aisle to take advantage of the ambiguity. Be specific, and particular, in your vocabulary, and you’ll be able to identify those who use the confusion to their advantage.