Real Democracy

Posted On: 
Friday, September 7, 2018

Our Best New Jersey is intended as a collaborative platform, where faculty, students and interested members of the general public can share their best ideas and most successful practices with one another. 

The over-arching goal of our efforts, in a phrase, is to light to way to achieving REAL DEMOCRACY in New Jersey. We are fortunate to live in a democratic society and to enjoy the benefits of democratic governance. But we ought not--I think, cannot--pretend that the democracy we live in is perfect or cannot be improved. It is not perfect. And it can be improved. Hopefully, the contributions to Our Best New Jersey will documents our aspiration and continuing efforts to do so.

I choose the phrase "real democracy" advisedly. Democracy means, literally, "rule by the 'demos'" (or "the people"). Lincoln's phrase still captures it best. Democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. A "real democracy," then, is a society in which "the people" not only have power theoretically or in principle. It is a society in which they are actually have power: a society in which they can control their own lives, not only where they live, but also where they work.

Most of us associate democracy with elections and the rule of law. We also often associate it with fairness. Unfair elections and unfair laws are not usually thought democratic. They are certainly not thought just. But democracy is more than just elections and the rule of law. Democracy is about power. In a democratic society, the people themselves have power. In an undemocratic society, they don't. 

Unfortunately, many recent political, economic and social trends have reduced rather than enhanced the power that people have over their own lives. Different people have different lists of the principal culprits in this regard. Some condemn trade, some globalization, some immigrants, some the banks, some unions, etc. Sorting out which features of our society (and our state) reduce the power of the people of New Jersey, and which enhance them, is one of the central goals of Our Best New Jersey. We need to understand what ails us, if we are going to make it better.

Job blackmail and union busting are on my short list of the reasons why the power of people to control their own lives has decreased in recent years. No one should be forced to choose between no job or a bad job. Everyone who wants to work should be able to choose between different opportunity paths, each of which is attractive to them. When the only choice we have is a bad job or no job, we are being job blackmailed. And too many of us are being job blackmailed today--forced to accept low wages, unfair treatment, unsafe work, and other unnecessary outcomes simply because, supposedly, we have to.   

We don't have to! And one of the ways we can make every job better is by raising the rate of unionization in the economy. Everyone who wants to work should have a good job and everyone who wants to join a union should have an option to do so. It is a fundamental democratic principle. 

When the American revolutionaries of 1775 asked King George for the right to rule themselves, he said no.  In response, they declared their independence in 1776 and asserted their "inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" (i.e., freedom and prosperity). What was true for the Americans of 1776 is true for the Americans of 2018. Democracy means having the power to affect the decisions that control our lives, whether at home or at work. Real democracy at work will benefit everyone at the workplace, just as real democracy in the wider society benefits everyone in the society.


Both of these ideas are increasingly being talked about. More and more policymakers and politicians are emphasizing not only the right to form a union but also the right to a job. (For example, see the recent New York Times article by Jim Tankersley on the interest of some Democratic Party circles at least in guaranteed employment.) There is much more to be said and learned. Our Best New Jersey will be a Real Democracy. Join the conversation!

Michael Merrill, Ph.D.
Professor of Professional Practice and LEARN Director
Rutgers Labor Education Center
50 Labor Center Way
New Brunswick, NJ 08901
LEARN: (848) 932-9504
Office:  (848) 932-1890