E.B. White on the definition of democracy

I’ve recently begun listening to a new podcast: Civics 101. It’s described as the podcast refresher course on the basics of how our democracy works. I thought it seemed intriguing after I stumbled upon their episode on democratic norms. In that episode the authors of How Democracies DieSteven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, offer great insight into questions like which norms are essential to U.S. democracy, and how are they changing today.

The authors found one piece of literature so inspiring they decided to have it conclude their work, and that’s this piece by E.B. White, acclaimed author of Charlotte’s Web. It originally appeared in the Notes and Comment section of the July 3, 1943, issue of The New Yorker.

We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on “The Meaning of Democracy.” It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. 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 of 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. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.

Exploring the meaning of democracy can be exciting. This piece offers a reminder that, although we can often get caught up in thinking in terms of systems and well-reasoned theories, sometimes very important perspectives are found in the nuances of everyday life. Check out the podcast episode for their take on it. Enjoying what’s meaningful to others through listening to their passions is one of the many wonderful things in life. It’s often a window to the optimism that keeps the world moving forward.


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