What is the Meaning of Democracy?

Here’s E.B. White‘s take on “the meaning of democracy” as written in The New Yorker during the middle of World War II:

It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee.

(Hat tip to my Mom, who spotted this in a book she’s reading about Churchill and Roosevelt’s friendship.)

8 Responses to What is the Meaning of Democracy?

  1. Arguably Democracy is about to change alot, due to digital technologies: http://mathoda.com/archives/189

  2. erik says:

    Democracy, great; digital technologies and new forms of coming together, fantastic; capitalism to extremes of deforestation and animal extinction/ill-treatment, not pretty.
    Sadly, that quote was written in the midst of mass-murder by all countries involved – I “vote” for peace, love and understanding…

  3. Shefaly says:

    Ben, your own State Department defines Democracy by consent of those governed. Ironic, eh?

    Like ice-cream, this definition would enable one to examine many forms of democracy:


    Who is to say what democracy really is? Should there be one form? One definition?

  4. Shefaly says:

    Ok, so that ‘like ice-cream’ was the remnant of a sentence begun then abandoned. Sorry…

    We have a rare sunny and warm day in London. I have ice-cream on my mind!

  5. Sameer says:

    Poetic, but dangerous. Democracy is none of those things. It is a system of majority rule that lets the electorate boot bad leaders out of office.

    White’s conflation of democracy with liberalism and the American way is exactly the mistake that encourages us to export democracy to other countries, then leaves us wide-eyed in shock when Hamas is elected.

    Ben, have you read Fareed Zakaria’s Future of Freedom?

  6. Ben Casnocha says:

    I haven’t read Zakaria’s books though I have read his columns and enjoy his commentaries.

  7. I don’t find that the quote particularly conflates democracy with “liberalism and the American way” (anyway, E.B. White was British, so it would be the British way). It does definitely associate democracy with general vaguely warm & fuzzy feelings, but there’s nothing particularly ‘American’ about “the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half of the time”.

    Democracy, in addition to its strict definition, is faith in the idea that majority rule is a good thing because the majority of people can be trusted to make sound decisions (whatever that means according to the person defining ‘democracy’). In this way, democracy is idealistic, optimistic, and populist. Americans being surprised at Hamas getting elected in Gaza doesn’t discredit this definition of ‘democracy,’ it simply shows Americans’ ignorance of Gazan ideals and Gazan populism. Hamas’ subsequent authoritarian rule, after coming to power under ‘democracy’, is another issue…

    • E. B. White was American, born in Mount Vernon, New York. He served in the US Army and graduated from Cornell University.


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