Before You Give up on Democracy, Read This!

September 18, 2013

Who doesn't feel like throwing in the towel... with congressional approval ratings at a pitiful 10 percent? For pete's sake, even the much-reviled "socialism" has more than double the fans.

Yet a moment's reflection tells us we can't solve any of our giant challenges without public decision-making bodies that work. So settling for the best democracy money can buy is not an option.

And just as clear?

That we can't we fix our broken democracy without a vision of one that could work. Human beings have a hard time creating what we can't imagine or even name. Of course, our "vision" can't be some pie-in-the sky, fairy-tale democracy. To be motivating, it has to be hard-nosed: grounded in all we now know -- the good, bad, and the ugly -- about nature, including our own.

Here's where we might begin:

First, we stop assuming that the prevailing version of liberal democracy -- elections plus markets -- is the best we humans can do. Then, we appreciate what ecology has to teach us about democracy. It's a lot. Simply put, ecology holds these main lessons: that everything's connected and everything's changing -- with all elements shaping all others moment to moment. We, like all organisms, respond to context.

"Thinking like an ecosystem," we can see therefore that our inherited notion of democracy as an unchanging, political structure -- fixed and finished -- is bound to fail. With an "eco-mind," we realize that democracy's first questions must be:

What are our species' essential needs?

And, then, what specific contexts have proven to elicit our species' capacities to build societies meeting those needs?

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Anthropologists, psychologists, and our everyday experience suggest at least three virtually universal human needs: for connection, meaning, and power (understood as the need to "make our mark.") And to meet these needs, three conditions -- increasingly violated in today's many so-called democracies -- appear essential:

• The fluid, continuous dispersion of power.
• Transparency in human relations.
• Cultures of mutual accountability, instead of one-way blame.

If you doubt this short-list, just think where the opposites have taken us!

These three conditions could become our "lodestar," as we embrace democracy understood as a way of life -- not something we build once and for all, but a culture we continuously create together. I call it Living Democracy. It's not a set system but a set of system values and conditions -- the dispersion of power, transparency, and mutual accountability -- that bring forth the best and keep the worst in check across all dimensions of public life, from our workplaces to our schools.

Living Democracy builds from the insight that today's problems are too complex, interwoven, and pervasive to be solved from the top down. People rarely change by fiat. So solutions require the ingenuity, insights, experience, and "buy-in" of those most directly affected by the problems we face.

The term "living democracy" suggests democracy as both a lived experience and an evolving, organic reality -- "easily lost but never finally won," in the words of the first African-American federal judge William Hastie.

But... are we capable, many might ask?

Didn't human beings evolve within strict hierarchies, vestiges of which linger today in gender, class, and caste power structures? Actually, no. During 95 percent of our evolution, humans lived in highly egalitarian tribes, anthropologists tell us. We kept them that way through "counter dominance" strategies because we humans thrive best when we work together, not under the thumb of one strong man.

And what does an emergent Living Democracy look and feel like?

In learning...we afford "arts of democracy" -- i.e., listening, mediation, negotiation, and more -- priority equal to reading, writing and "rithmetic." Students engage in practical community problem-solving through, for example, what the Maine-based KIDS Consortium calls "apprentice citizenship." From environmental restoration to teaching younger kids bike safety, children in hundreds of schools are getting a taste for how good it feels to make a difference. Now, in dozens of countries, children are also learning the art of mediating disputes among themselves instead of simply running to an authority or fighting.

In economic life... Seeing through the fiction of a mechanical, autonomous "free market," an "eco-mind" sees the possibility of democratic system-rules creating values boundaries that keep power widely dispersed and markets fair, open, and aligned with nature's laws. (Perhaps the "free market" could then be redefined as one in which all are free to participate because it is kept accessible by fair rules.).

And we go beyond "fair distribution" to also embrace "fair production"; for it fulfills the core human need for agency. Fair production suggests opportunities for people to participate in co-production via cooperatives and other forms of co-ownership. And, even now, they're hardly marginal: Coops of all types worldwide enjoy many more members -- a billion!--than there are people with shares in publicly traded companies. Cooperatives produce 20 percent more jobs than do multinational corporations. In rural India, for example, they meet 67 percent of consumer needs.

In political life and civic life... Living Democracy means rules that prevent the influence of concentrated private wealth and corporation in campaigns and lawmaking, along with election rules barring advertising and ensuring candidates' fair access to media. But fair elections and formal political decision-making accountable to citizens -- not private interests -- are but the beginning. Living Democracy means multiple avenues for rewarding engagement.

One is the "Citizen Jury" that in the Global South has, for example, brought diverse interests together to come to judgment on the direction of agricultural development, leading to strengthening ecological farming. Another, the "Deliberative Poll": In Japan in 2012 this practice helped move the government to adopt the goal of ending all reliance on nuclear power before 2040; and in Texas, a Deliberative Poll used by utility companies helped the state become a leader in wind power. A great source for exemplars of Living Democracy is Participedia.net.

In Living Democracy, citizens also become active co-creators of knowledge, as, for example, citizen water monitors responsible for gathering water quality data now in 77 countries. Citizens also contribute to community well-being by sharing their knowledge and monitoring well-being, such as Nepal's community health volunteers.

In these arenas and more, Living Democracy is showing up worldwide. But it can't spread quickly as long it's invisible. So, let's remember that we humans, too, are shaped by our ecological niche -- especially our social ecology. To further the world we want, we can start consciously creating forms of democracy creating the conditions proven to enhance species' thriving -- and thus to the well-being of all species.

Adapted from Ecomind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want and from the Solutions Journal article "EcoMind or ScarcityMind: Where Do They Lead?"

Photo: American Flag of Faces. Image from Creative Commons.