Author E.B. White On 'The Meaning Of Democracy'

Nov 7, 2012
Originally published on November 7, 2012 4:50 pm



Last night in his victory speech to throngs of supporters in Chicago, President Obama responded to cynics who claimed that politics is nothing more than a contest of egos or the domain of special interests.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won't change after tonight, and it shouldn't.

BLOCK: President Obama's thoughts last night on the messy, noisy, essential nature of our democracy, which brought to mind a lovely piece of writing from E.B. White, an editorial published in The New Yorker in July of 1943. White was responding to a letter from the Writer's War Board, a domestic propaganda machine during World War II. The board had written asking for a statement on the meaning of democracy.

Here's the response from E.B. White: It is presumably our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure. Surely, the board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don't in don't shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; the dent in the high hat.

Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is the letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn't been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It's the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of the morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.

Those thoughts on democracy from E.B. White in 1943. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.