Discovering what Democracy Means

Category: Democracy
Last Updated: 16 Jun 2020
Pages: 5 Views: 93

Democracy is most simply and conventionally defined as the type of government wherein the power rests in the people, or at least, majority of a nation’s citizens. A government that allows people to vote and choose their leaders, a Constitution that is created exactly to protect the welfare of such people, equality in the access of power and universal recognition of rights and liberties are principles that characterize democracy as a government and as a political theory.

Bill Moyers believes in the power of “we”. He believes in the principles of equality and liberty. He believes in all principles that speak of democracy. However, there is something different about Moyer’s portrayal of democracy. His speeches, shows and works, all suggest not only a man who knows and believes in principles but also a man who is passionate in his advocacy of bringing these principles into actuality, not by inciting revolt or actual participation in a revolution but through reflective words that inspire and incite the dignity and humanity in man.

Bill Moyers starts Discovering What Democracy Means (2007) by defending social scientists, artists and scholars, and arts and humanities as teachers of the mind. While the Congress is being skeptical about allocating funds to arts and humanities, doubting its actual and practical contribution to the society, Moyers’ answer is simple: “They are worth listening to”.

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How are they worth listening to? Moyers doesn’t present the Congress with a ledger of beneficial consequences, because surely he can show none. But he cites a series of quotes from such public thinkers, pointing to these quotes as something that would have taught the members of the Congress the questions shared by the people, and would have put their minds in a position to judge the status of the society in relation to the people’s capacity and reservoir of creativity. At one point he intimated that arts and humanities bring the good in people, even at least in their fantasies:

“They would have heard the filmmaker David Puttnam tell how as a boy he sat through dozens of screenings of A Man for All Seasons, the story of Sir Thomas More’s fatal defiance of Henry VIII: “It allowed me the enormous conceit of walking out of the cinema thinking, ‘Yeah, I think I might have had my head cut off for the sake of a principle.’ I know absolutely I wouldn’t, and I probably never met anyone who would, but the cinema allowed me that conceit. It allowed me for one moment to feel that everything decent in me had come together.”” (Moyers, 2007)

This quote may also be interpreted as putting premium on vicarious experience. After all, a person is not expected to experience everything that can be experienced in one lifetime. Arts and humanities provide a medium for allowing people to experience more than what their limitations (imposed by reality and self-impressions) allow them to experience. It allows people to feel a sense of empowerment, or a sense of pride that they can do much more or know much more than what they routinely experience and perceive every day.

If viewed in light of the above quotation, this interpretation also says that the Congressmen would have had a wider world view, and therefore better understanding of humanity and its interactions if only they allowed themselves to be taught by arts and humanities.

This is Moyer’s meaning of democracy. It is more than being concerned with the improvement of the lives of each individual; It nurtures individual freedom and ability. In other words, democracy should be more than a government structure; True democracy also uplifts humanity. In this sense, Moyer’s democracy can be equated with the principles of humanism.

Moyers, taking from Cleanth Brooks of Yale, identified both the enemies and allies of democracy. The enemies of democracy are identified as the “’bastard muses’ propaganda which plead, sometimes unscrupulously, for a special cause or issue at the expense of the total truth; sentimentality, which works up emotional responses unwarranted by, and in excess of, the occasion; and pornography, which focuses upon one powerful human drive at the expense of the total human personality” (Moyers, 2007).

To counter these, the allies of democracy must be cultivated. These include “the ‘true muses’ of moral imagination,” which not only arms us “to resist the little lies and fantasies of advertising, the official lies of power, and the ghoulish products of nightmarish minds, but also open us to the lived experience of others—to the affirmations of heightened consciousness—to empathy” (Moyers, 2007). Is Moyer speaking about the media?

Moyers think that the media have left people to become mere receptacles of information, which unfortunately has been corrupted by pundits and biased, conceited, politicized opinions, and newsfeeds pervade the society. All are fronts for specific political interests, creating principles that are anti-democracy.

It is only through liberal education that a person can be liberated from circumstances that are beyond his/her control. Moyer believes that people have been institutionalized in a way that each person has become locked in a separate reality, parochial loyalties and fixed self-perceptions, and everybody becomes a stranger to everybody. Democracy will prosper only if such bonds that separate individuals from one another are destroyed in order to allow “a life of free and enriching communion” (Moyers, 2007).

The present crisis does not involve the existence of problems, issues or lack of policies. The problem is the lack of conversations about the real meaning of democracy—that it is not merely a means of governance but a means of empowering and dignifying people so that they can truly attain freedom, both morally and politically. An entrusted democracy is not true democracy. Moyer thinks that it is time for the people to repossess democracy.

Bill Moyers ends his speech by praising Woodrow Wilson for being advocate of democracy. This is quite a surprise for someone like Moyers who is passionate about espousing democracy in its “deeper” meaning. Woodrow Wilson, based on some of his actions, manifested an undemocratic leaning. It was he, for example, who brought to the US the Federal Reserve which controls or creates monetary policies that some would describe as undemocratic. It was he who brought troops into Mexico and who took the US into WWI.

His idealism favored a top-down structure of society controlled by the elite. Lastly, Woodrow Wilson is also known for his support of the Ku Klux Klan, a domestic organization in the United States having national scope and is known for doing acts of violence to further “white supremacy”. What could be a better manifestation of anti-democratic sentiments than a person’s support for the freedom and equality that were the legacy of the forefathers of the United States?

Moyer’s sentiments against the media, the government and the “enemies of democracy” as well as his discourse about the need to discuss the meaning of democracy, and take it from the hands of the elite are well and good but the problem is that he offers no solution in order to help the people and the society to move forward from its current undemocratic and lamentable state. Moyer’s words may have inspired many but the time when such inspiration will be turned into something more tangible is yet to come.


Moyer, B. (2007). Discovering What Democracy Means. Retrieved 01 May 2009 from

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Discovering what Democracy Means. (2016, Aug 22). Retrieved from

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