David Stromberg

Explaining Democracy to a Three-Year-Old

Protest against Netanyahu's judicial overhaul, April 8, 2023.
Protest against Netanyahu's judicial overhaul, April 8, 2023.

This week, after picking up my three-year-old from kindergarten, road closures led our bus to deviate from its usual route. We jumped off at the last possible stop and began to walk toward home. My daughter asked me why we’d gotten off and I explained that the police had closed some of the roads because of the protests. She asked what a protest was and I explained that it was when people tell the government they don’t agree with what they’re doing.

“So why are they closing the streets?” she asked.

“Because they’re scared of us,” I answered.

“Who’s scared of us? The police?”

“No,” I explained, “the Prime Minister. He lives on this street, next to the playground, and he told the police to close the roads so that people don’t get in front of his house to protest.”

She wanted to know more. I said that many people, including us, felt the Prime Minister was doing bad things. “But why is he doing bad things?” she asked. I explained that he didn’t think what he was doing was bad. He thinks he’s doing something good—and many people also think that way—but lots of other people, like us, feel that that what he’s doing isn’t good for everyone. So some people, I concluded, did what was only good for them, and others tried to do what was good for them and also for other people.

This satisfied her for a while as she appeared to mull the whole thing in her head. Later she said, “The Prime Minister does bad things. He’s really a bad man.” I realized that I had managed to get across the idea that we didn’t agree with the government and that this was why we were protesting. But I also realized I hadn’t managed to get across to her the nuances of the issue. When, after the protest, she and her younger sister came home chanting, “De-mo-cra-cy! De-mo-cra-cy!” I asked her whether she understood what democracy meant. She said she didn’t and I realized I had somehowto explain to her what modern democracy was and why it wasn’t as simple as good and bad.

Israeli anti-judicial reform protests in Jerusalem February 20, 2023. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The truth is that my three-year-old is not the only person who doesn’t understand the nuances of modern democracy. Ask people what democracy means to them, and most of them will say its “majority rule.” If they’re American, they might quote Lincoln, saying that it’s “government of the people, by the people.” These are both true statements. But anyone who has ever actually looked into how modern democracy works knows that it is not so simple at all.

In reality, a modern democracy, like the United States, is an extremely complex governing system in which passing a law is actually difficult—often demanding bipartisan cooperation and a measure of compromise that would make anyone feel like they’ve turned their backs on their principles. Modern democracy is really about not getting everything you want and learning to accept that nothing’s perfect, neither elected officials nor their choices. You can only hope, in a democracy, that enough compromises are made along the way that no one is harmed or benefitted too much more than anyone else. It’s a system that aims to keep the playing field as level as possible—maintaining a level of equality—while accepting that this aim will always fall short.

Other people emphasize the principle of freedom in modern democracy, and use this to justify their own views over those of others. That is, they turn the experience of being offended by someone else’s views or believes or actions into a loss of freedom on their part. “I am free to be offended by this person for doing something that I’m against, and if they don’t stop doing that thing, then they are harming my freedom to believe in my own principles.” This is more or less the argument that is used to take aim at the notion of liberalism, which aims to protect people’s right to make choices that don’t abide with other people’s beliefs or convictions. In reality, it is not the right to not be offended that’s enshrined in modern democracy, but the right to offend others without either you or them being personally harmed.

The more I discussed this issue with adults, and not just children, the more I saw that there was a major disconnect between how the idea of democracy is taught to us and how it functions in reality. We’re told that modern democracy is about majority rule, but it’s actually a system that’s also meant to protect minorities. We’re told that modern democracy is meant to empower elected officials, but actually it makes governing cumbersome on purpose, so that no single party or person can enact laws on a whim. We’re told that democracy is about personal freedom, but it’s also a system that forces us to accept things with which we don’t agree.

The problem with the current government isn’t that they are not using democratic means to achieve their ends—it’s that their ends undermine the democratic system itself. Modern democracy is about limiting governmental power. But the government wants to expand its power over its citizens. This in itself is an undemocratic goal—even if it’s pursued using democratic means—and it exposes the true danger this government poses to civil life. Our common conception of democracy is skewed by inherited ideals that don’t actually reflect reality. What we needed is to find a way to describe modern democracy that even a three-year-old can understand. I came up with these three simple principles for a modern democracy:

• Make room for disagreement.
• Work toward compromise.
• Keep the powerless safe.

These are not idealistic principles. They are pragmatic. They assume, for example, that society will always have powerless citizens—which is not a pleasant reality to face. Some might say that empowering the powerless should itself be a principle, but as soon as one group is empowered, another is disempowered, and we are soon faced not with idealistic goals but with difficult realities. Our understanding of modern democracy has to take these difficult, pragmatic realities into account. We don’t need to lose sight of our ideals. But we have to accept that others may not always share them.

This morning, on the way to kindergarten, my daughter suddenly blurted out, “The Prime Minister is a bad man.” She was still thinking about the protest. I realized she might go to kindergarten and say this to some of the teachers or other kids—and it was important to me that she was not unequivocal in expressing the opinions she had heard at home. “You know,” I said, “we think that the Prime Minister is doing something bad, but some of your teachers or other kids might think that he’s actually doing good things. And that’s okay too.” She didn’t say anything. But at least I knew she had gotten a taste of what modern democracy really means—which is living in a world where differences are tolerated.

About the Author
David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and essayist whose work has appeared in The American Scholar, Speculative Nonfiction, Public Seminar, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is editor of "Old Truths and New Clichés" (Princeton University Press), a collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s essays, and a new translation of Singer's canonical story, "Simple Gimpl: The Definitive Bilingual Edition" (Restless Books). His recent work includes "A Short Inquiry into the End of the World" (The Massachusetts Review), the first speculative essay in his Mister Investigator series, and his follow-up, “The Eternal Hope of the Wandering Jew” (The Hedgehog Review). The third essay, "To Kill an Intellectual" (The Fortnightly Review), is now being published in installments.
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