Reflections on Imagining America: What Do We Mean by ‘Democracy’?

Rachel Backert, ’17, Media & Communication Studies, participated in Imagining America‘s 2015 national conference as an Imagining UMBC Fellow.

Rachel Backert 2What does Imagining America want, really? The Imagining America website says “The members of Imagining America advance a vision of the world in which publicly engaged artists, designers, scholars, and culture workers play critical roles in enacting the promise and ideals of a democratic society.” I certainly heard directors, presenters, and attendees alike energetically reference “democratic engagement” during the conference. I’d love to give them that for Christmas, but no one gave me specifics on “democracy.” I don’t know exactly what to search for on Amazon.

Perhaps we made the collective assumption that conference attendance implied an understanding of democracy. Okay. But can we assume that all attendees discovered the one true Platonic ideal of democracy despite our diverse locations, ages, educations, and individual experiences?

I think not, given the process for turning abstract concepts into usable definitions: First, dig widely and deeply through texts to locate and extract potential lodes of wisdom. Then toss them in the blast furnace of conversation. If the text had too many impurities to be usable, it’ll become a useless heap of slag—you have to dig elsewhere. But if it had a nugget of wisdom, a heated discussion will melt off any impurities and produce a refined definition. Hammer this essence into a tool you can comfortably wield in writing, discussion, and action—your mind may ache, but it’ll become stronger. If your tool doesn’t survive contact with the enemy, repair it at the forge or make a new one. Of course, you’ll find that others use different tools for the same task; tools reflect different origins, materials, processes, and shapes based on their makers’ home, training, colleagues, and experience.

Maybe my metaphor is overwrought, but I hope you sense that defining democracy is a grueling and personal struggle that can’t be ignored even in a gathering of intellectuals. We can’t all simply read the specs on Amazon. We need to craft democracy both individually and together. Let’s all hammer out democracy’s promises, requirements, participants, methods, advantages, and shortcomings.

Contact the author, Rachel Backert, at


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