Does democracy work?


I took the train to Los Angeles along with a team of cheerleaders who were on their way to a national competition in Las Vegas. They were both boys and girls, but these girls sat at the table across from mine. I asked if I could take their picture. They asked, “Why?” I said, “So that I could post it on a blog that I share with Vietnamese friends.”  Then one of the girls piped up: “I’m Vietnamese! Do you speak Vietnamese?” I said, “Toi hoc tieng Viet,” and she broke into giggles. “You said that almost right!”

She and one of the others spent the entire rest of the trip — 6 hours, from Richmond to Bakersfield — doing makeup, taking it off, starting all over again.

She herself was born in the US but speaks Vietnamese becuase her parents speak to her in it.


Two more pieces of the puzzle. One, a new play at the Strand theater in San Francisco — one of the ACT theaters, on Market Street. It’s called VietGone and the image is of a motorcycle headed west — this is the bike on which the main character, a young Vietnamese man who left his wife and two kids in Saigon in April 1975, tries to ride west from the refugee camp where he has landed to California. From California he hopes to find a way back to Viet Nam, but of course, at least a that point in history, it is not going to happen. This young man is the father of the playwright, who is trying to tell his parents’ story. It’s a good play. Like Hamilton, it uses hip-hop and rap to engage the audience directly with songs that emerge out of the dialog. It will probably be a commercial success.


The other is a link that was just posted on the VSG list. Part of this program is a good long interview with Bui Diem who was the Ambassador from South Viet Nam to the US during the war. This interview is from 1981.  I found his words riveting. What he says about the impact of the American presence between 1965-1975 explains a lot of what we saw in South Viet Nam ourselves, over 40 years later.

It is part of the Open Vault collection at WGBH in Boston.

When I paste the link above into a new tab, I get to the interview immediately. But the item below is also interesting:

Joe and I are going traveling next week, this time on a completely different tangent, although also in Asia.  I have not decided at this point if I am going to include that trip in this blog.

I put up the title of this blog, “Does Democracy work?” because that question has become louder and louder in my corner of the world. My past posts try to show examples of what freedom of association looks like at the bottom level: the Vermont Workers Center annual meeting, with its fishbowl discussion; the Women’s March, with its organized and unorganized marchers; the Democratic Socialists of America meeting in Oakland, where I put up the photo of people voting; the hotel workers who push the Cal OSHA Board to pass the musculo-skeletal injury standard.

All of these are organizations that are very porous at the base. To join the Women’s March, step off the sidewalk. The regular meetings of the VWC are open to everyone and probably every member would be welcome at the annual membership meeting. True, only members of DSA were able to vote; they were given red cards upon registering at the desk. And you had to have a reason to be at the Cal OSHA meeting, although when Joe and I registered at security we identified ourselves as “Community,” meaning that as part of the public, we had a vested interest in the well-being of workers generally. But the effort in these  bottom-level organizations is to encourage participation, not control access. This has significance for the concept of leadership: good leader is someone who can get a lot of people to do things. But it is enormously time-consuming and hard work: someone like Ellen Schwartz at the VSC is constantly educating, organizing, listening to personal stories, making connections, day in and day out. You can only do it so long before you burn out. And it’s slow. My question is, if the bottom level of a society is organized in these loose, porous bodies that require so much energy and take so long to get something done, does that make such a society just more vulnerable when it is attacked by elements that are tightly, hierarchically organized?



Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

2 thoughts on “Does democracy work?

  1. MIke, thanks for responding. Let me make sure I understand you. Are you answering the question in my post title, “Does democracy work?” with a cautious yes, with the caveat that open groups have to be managed into action groups? Or are you answering the question at the end of my post (sorry to have done something confusing here) does having these porous, open groups operating at the base of a society make that society more vulnerable to attacks by tightly organized, hierarchical action groups? (I am thinking of how the Trump operation swept through -did our open democracy leave us exposed to that attack?)

    Maybe yes to both.

    But since I am not sure I can add pictures to a reply, I am now going to transition to my next post. We are in Kathmandu; I should have alerted you before we left, because I’ll bet you’ve been here and know something about where to go and what to see.

  2. To your question, yes, in my experience, yes. Organized groups are more effective at doing things, especially if they’re not afraid to delegate responsibility to smaller working groups. Large, wholly democratic convocations are great for free-wheeling discussions, maybe getting a feel for issues of concern, giving everyone the opportunity to sound off. But they only represent the people who show up, they legitimate nonsense rants too often, they’re easily manipulated and guilt-tripped. So they need to be managed to be useful, channelled into action groups, and so on. I’ve been wonderfully moved to see flat-out democracy happening before my eyes, but I’ve found it to be a chimera in the end.

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