“Democracy is nothing if it is not dangerous,” declared Carl Oglesby in 1965. As president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest group on the white New Left, he was rebutting liberals who were displeased that communists could freely join his organization. Almost half a century later, Oglesby’s maxim has lost none of its ambiguous sting. Consider two signal events that occurred this past winter.
All over the Arab world, people thronged the streets and squares of their cities demanding popular elections. Dictators responded to their nonviolent protests with tanks and guns—and remarkably, in two nations at least, with surrender. We admire these heroines and heroes, who faced dangers unknown in the United States since the heyday of segregation. But will those elections, when they come, bring to power religious zealots who want to relegate every woman to subservience to men?
In Wisconsin, public union members and their allies protested the new conservative governor’s attempt to abolish collective bargaining. They were standing up for a moral principle that should be self-evident: the right to have a say about the conditions that affect one’s working life. Collective bargaining enabled millions of Americans to hold down reasonably secure, reasonably well-paid jobs; it helped make the United States a more democratic nation. Yet, the governor and the Republican majority in the state legislature were freely elected by the voters of Wisconsin. Don’t they have the right to decide how state workers will be treated?
There is no easy way out of such dilemmas, whether in the Middle East or the American Midwest. Until recently, cosmopolitan Arabs who revered human rights got squeezed between U.S.-backed tyrants and intolerant Islamists. They will now have to build support among millions of people who are understandably wary of abandoning the solace of the traditional for the freedoms of the unknown. Meanwhile, labor activists failed to make an effective case for unions as their movement, battered by the corporate Right, slowly declined. To revive, they will have to make better arguments and mobilize larger constituencies, not just mount big demonstrations.
Democracy, explained Oglesby, is the only system capable of self-correction, of “reflect[ing] critically upon its own foundations. It exposes itself on purpose in order to be itself.” SDS certainly had many flaws and blind spots, but allowing everyone to participate was not one of them. On the Left, we will not always welcome the results of democracy or be happy about the ideology of those who speak in its name. But to be suspicious of popular rule betrays both our principles and our common sense. As some wit phrased it back in the dangerous 1960s, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”