Sajed Bhandari

America, Books, Cooking, Muslims and some other things

On Democracy: Accountability and the Limits of Freedom in a Democratic State

On Democracy: Accountability and the Limits of Freedom in a Democratic State

Sajed Bhandari

I have always been interested in politics for as far as I can remember.  As a child, my mom and dad would often talk about politics (mother growing up in a left-leaning Awami household and father serving as a right-leaning, Independent MP in Bangladesh).  I guess neither my addiction to cable news nor my majoring in economics and politics were conscious decisions; they were both expressions of my interests growing up.  Reading about historical political figures, I was enamored with the power, the prestige, the legacy and ability to live beyond death that accompanied their positions in government.  But then in high school, I came across a saying of the Second Caliph, Umar, who said, “The leader of a people is the servant of that people”.  I assume he meant that the leader is bound to serve his people and not overpower them; that the trust given to him by God and by the people required of him to be enslaved by the limitations of public office and the needs of his constituents.

A year ago, I had a chance to work as a campaign assistant on a local campaign in NY.  I have also been working on a few Democratic campaigns (statewide this time) this election season, although I am not putting in nearly as many hours as I did last year because of graduate school and what not.  In any case, over the last year I have been re-thinking the nature of power that comes with holding public office.  Freedom as mentioned in the title and for the purposes of this entry is not the freedom allotted to the governed, rather, it is the individual freedom of the candidate and/or elected official in a democratic state.  Working on various campaigns since I have graduated from college, I came to see all the demands and limitations that are placed on those who run for office.  Running for office forces an individual to forfeit many of his freedoms in search of political power, this being the fundamental trade off and every person wishing to run for office needing to understand it.  Candidates cannot dress as they want to, speak as they want to or act as they want to.  Every public appearance is preceded by decisions of what color suit to wear, where to put the lapel pin, staying silent about issues that are controversial and often speaking about issues that the candidate may not particularly care about.  Many of the individual freedoms we hold as sacred are taken away from candidates in a democratic state; and that is the only way a democracy can function.

Limitations on individual freedoms of candidates exist and are essential because we hold those who seek power accountable.  We elect them, we pay them and because of this, they serve us.  They are our employees.   American politicians in general, and Democratic Party candidates in particular are under constant scrutiny for what they say in public.  Thanks to the media, we are able to hold them accountable for their statements.  This forces many of them to either sincerely change their views about certain groups within their constituency (best case scenario) or keep their views to themselves if they have any real hope of obtaining public office (worst case scenario).  Because of this culture of accountability, most politicians cannot openly denounce all Muslims as terrorists, homosexuals as undermining family values, and Jews as secretly running America and the world.  The far-right protesters and other extremists (Muslim and Evangelical included) can get away with holding signs and speaking openly about such ridiculous views because they are usually not the ones running for office.  Now, there is an assumption being made.  The assumption is that the vast majority of the people will not vote in extremists of any kind, thus preventing extremists from holding office.  This assumption seems to be undermined by certain Tea Party candidates, but overall, as the optimist that I am, I do think the vast majority of the educated electorate realizes extremism is not compatible with democratic governance.

In conclusion, I understand Umar’s statement in the following manner.  Political office is rife with limitations on individual freedoms.  These limitations on individual freedoms exist because there is social pressure to conform to the wishes of the electorate.  This social pressure is accountability in action, reminding the politicians that they are public servants, not masters of the public in a democratic state.  Politicians and leaders do have the power, prestige and legacy.  But forfeiting certain individual freedoms is the cost at which men can govern in a democratic state.

PS:  Make sure you guys go campaign.  November 2 is Election Day.  If you don’t campaign and/or vote then DO NOT complain if the fascists take over.  (For my Muslim friends:  When you guys go out to vote, keep in mind the party that defended the rights of Muslim-Americans on the principle of religious tolerance.  Also keep in mind, the party that used Muslim-Americans as the political bogeyman and that seeks to turn this republic into an autocracy along the lines of that eastern kingdom).


Written by sajedbhandari

October 17, 2010 at 11:34 am

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