THE BLOG
07/08/2013 04:19 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Democracy Isn't About Voting

I can't help it.

It's in my immigrant genes.

I'm a sucker for the July 4th celebrations in the United States... always have been.

And this year maybe more than ever.

The BBQs, the fireworks, yes... the sales too (I cannot tell a lie), the beach....

Yet as I sit here on July 7, writing and reflecting, as the Independence Day weekend winds down, I remember the celebrations of my youngest days when we stood on the porch of my grandparents' home in rural New York, watching the annual parade go by.

In my mind's eye it is like a movie of an idyllic and iconic America. The veterans -- old and young -- the firemen, the civil organizations, the baton twirlers and the high school marching band, the mayor and the beauty queen -- you have seen it too.

But there was a deeper theme. My grandfather, who escaped the persecution of Czarist Russia, took the day very seriously. He too was a veteran (U.S. Army, WWI) and this was his day. I remember standing with him on that porch as if it were the official reviewing stand. He stood at attention as the marchers went by -- saluting the flags and occasional others. He took his freedom seriously -- very seriously -- and although he was not classically educated, I suspect that his views on democracy were as deep as those of Plato or Jefferson and held with equal passion I am sure.

What is also for sure is that his view of democracy went way beyond a simple "I can vote" and entered into the realm of a full way of life.

I am always careful about imposing an American view into the world and while I share my grandfather's passionate beliefs, I have been wary and maybe even a little PC about overlaying what some see as a Western or even more parochially, a U.S., POV on world affairs.

Yet here's the thing: Democracy is not uniquely American, nor does independence belong exclusively to the U.S. or France or anyone else. Nor is it only about voting; in fact, it's a way of life.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, articulated that way of life in said document: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

What could be more clear. No mention of voting here -- unalienable rights.

More, the continuation of the paragraph, which I reread just now, is incredibly relevant and still revolutionary when applied to the news of today:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Powerful indeed, no? Apply it to current affairs.

And to continue the point, let me share a thought from one of the great freedom fighters of the last century. Listen:


"The spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition of forms. It requires change of heart." Mahatma Gandhi

Voting alone is meaningless - out with the old, in with the new is equally so - unless there is a full and honest and complete 180 - electing a new form of tyranny does not a democracy make....

Yet I was still confused until I read the following...listen:

"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy." Abraham Lincoln

And there you have it. My lesson, my grandfather's lesson, Jefferson's lesson, Lincoln's lesson -- what a simple principle as we try and reimagine parts of the world.

And Plato's admonition that democracy can often lead to tyranny.

What do you think?