Democracy in America

Posted: Dec 28, 2001 12:00 AM
A student, for an assignment, looked up the word "democracy" in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition. The following definition appears: 1. a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections 2. a political unit that has a democratic government 3. capitalized: the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the U.S. "The principles and policies of the Democratic party in the U.S."? Hold the phone. Doesn't this appear that Merriam-Webster suggests the word "democracy" and the Democratic party are synonymous? And remember the poll showing approximately 75 percent of Republicans believe there is a leftward media bias, with nearly 50 percent of Democrats also agreeing that the mainstream media tilts leftward? Is the venerable Merriam-Webster guilty of yet another not-so-subtle shot against those dastardly Republicans? "As we say hereabouts, 'Friends don't let friends vote Republican,'" wrote San Francisco Chronicle columnist Adair Lara recently. "If a San Francisco kid comes into the kitchen, looks nervous and says, 'Mom, I've got something to tell you. I'm different from everybody else. I'm ---,' we hope to God he's going to say gay, not Republican ... It's more than not liking them because they are against abortion and want to keep all their money for themselves. It's also just plain fun to hate Republicans. When I do it, I feel that tiny exhilaration that comes from briskly labeling a group of people." And what about the whack against Ronald Reagan in Bartlett's Quotations? The book records witticisms, quips and profundities of public figures. For Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we see 35 entries; for Jack Kennedy, who served just under three years, the book contains 28 listings; and for Jimmy Carter, six. But for Ronald Reagan, who served a full eight years, the book contains just three quotations. And let's not forget Justin Kaplan, the editor of Bartlett's Quotations, who said, "I'm not going to disguise the fact that I despise Ronald Reagan." Bernard Goldberg, who spent 28 years with CBS, recently wrote a book called "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News." And William McGowan, formerly with Newsweek and the BBC, who wrote "Coloring the News," says, "Without counterbalancing influences, the worldview and prejudices of the liberal-leaning newsroom majority manufacture what become philosophical 'givens.'" But Merriam-Webster? -- part of the vast left-wing conspiracy? For "democracy," the American Heritage Dictionary says: 1. Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives. 2. A political or social unit that has such a government. 3. The common people, considered as the primary source of political power. 4. Majority rule. 5. The principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community. Nothing about "the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the U.S." For its part, Merriam-Webster seemed almost defensive about their definition of democracy. In a letter, Merriam-Webster's associate editor Thomas Pitoniak explained, "The sense of 'democracy' in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, which you refer to is not common nowadays, but the word has been used that way and you will find the same basic sense in the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition. The oldest apparent example of this use of 'democracy' is from Henry Clay, back in 1825: 'I am (alleged to be) a deserter from democracy.' You will note that other senses of 'democracy' are shown, some of them much more common, of course. "The purpose of our dictionary is to present meanings of words as people use them, not to establish by fiat the equation of something with something else, or to tell people what words should mean rather than what they do mean in actual English usage. We base our definitions on evidence, nothing more. People often try to draw political inferences from our definitions, as if, say, in this case, we were saying that democracy, in its customary sense, is the exclusive province of the Democratic party, but that is absurd. There is a meaning of the 'democracy' that has referred to that party, just as the word 'Republicanism' has referred to the Republican party. Different meanings of the word 'democracy' are involved here and they should not be confused. Indeed, part of the role of a dictionary is to separate distinct meanings so that they are clear to a user of the English language who wants to understand them. "Part of this confusion about 'democracy' is obviously due to the fact that 'Democrat' and 'democracy' are related as words." Oh. Pitoniak began his letter by saying, "We have received several inquiries along these lines recently, for whatever reason, though I doubt it is mere coincidence." Hmmm, maybe he suspects a conspiracy.