The Word Democracy

The Word Democracy

Op-Ed Essay by Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Dir. SMSBF

The word “democracy” comes from the ancient Greeks; it literally means “rule of the common people”. Getting to a more perfect manifestation of the word democracy is complex; it is perhaps why – in our nation – we struggle with things such as the role of the Electoral College and what Jefferson meant by “an informed electorate”, to name but two. Understanding these things necessitates an appreciation for systems thinking and what the term “emergent” means. If we don’t understand context; if we don’t understand our history, and don’t at least have a reasonable grasp of what preceded the present moment, then we’ll never understand where we’re going, or how to change the road we’re on.

It ought to be clear, however, that it is through democracy (i.e., what represents the desires and interests of the “common people”) that we have the greatest chance of achieving any sense of justice, whether it’s social, environmental or economic.

So, what is justice? Justice is a word prone to being understood in number of different ways. As a person of the Christian faith, one grounded in the Catholic tradition, the word justice simply means, “giving the other his or her due”. In a moment that demands we “read the signs of the times”, this notion of giving the other his or her due must include the Earth system itself—the thing upon which all life relies. It also means seeing the other as being equal to oneself. And let’s not forget our math: equal means two things are the same, if and only if, they are in fact the same.  This definition implies there is nothing that differentiates human beings, one from the other. We are, as Jefferson stated, “created equal”. At this point, we won’t get into what this 18th century thinker thought constituted the equality of human beings, except to say his view was reflective of a certain context, one that is no longer valid.

We have a long way to go, of course, before we realize the loftiness embodied in Jefferson’s words. And much of the reason we have such a distance to travel is because of the foundations on which our economic system rests. In this system – the system of “homo economicus” – it is necessary that each of us behave as atomized consumers; it is not our shared humanity –the social capital found in the communitarian – but rather the size of our wallets that forms the basis of this economy and, ergo, the egregious levels of injustice it begets.

The journey we travel toward justice is wrought with struggle; it is not a walk in the park, but more akin to the scaling of a mountain. In the struggle for justice, there is perhaps no person from our nation’s recent past who stands-out more than Reverend Martin Luther King. Rev. King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Rev. King’s words are prophetic. If we look over the course of history, it is true that we’ve advanced toward justice, but not unlike scaling a mountain, the journey is made-up of stops for bad weather and passages that are more difficult than others.

It’s also important to recognize that Rev. King understood the brokenness of our systems of economics, and how it is the struggle for justice is, in fact, more surely one of economics than anything else. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, Associate Professor Douglas E. Thompson wrote, “At the end of his life, King had embraced a full-throated condemnation of the American economic system that favored wealth and demeaned those caught in poverty.”

Again, reflecting on my Catholic Christian teaching, economy is defined as, “the structure and organization of productive work or activity in a society, forming the basis for financial support and stability of individuals, families and society.”(1) If there’s any validity to this definition, one must ask whether the US system of economics engenders much “support or stability” to anyone other than those who occupy the highest 1% of the wealth distribution curve. It’s also important to remember that an economy is a complex thing, one that lies at the nexus of the social and political. And when it comes to the political, it is public policy – the laws enacted through our system – that define “the rules of the game”. Fortunately, “we, the people” are those who have the power to write these rules, and we do so through those we elect to public office.

In a few short days, we will have the opportunity to exercise the most basic right we have available to advance justice: the right to vote. Whether we have an overabundance of wealth, or no wealth at all, the one thing that levels the playing field – regardless of its shortcomings – is our election process. Have no fear; don’t pay attention to the noise about the validity of our voting processes. Be rest assured they’ll work as well as they’ve always worked. In other words, there’s no basis in fact to distrust the way in which votes will be counted. Are there efforts at voter suppression? Yes, but we must look past these problems and address them after November 3rd. Now is the time to “lean-in” and press ahead, without fear.

Please, just get out and vote.


  • Vaticana, L. E. (1994). Glossary. In Catechism of the Catholic Church (pp. 875-876). Liguori, MO: Liguori Pub.


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