As Iraqis go to the polls this week in their starter-kit democracy, maybe we should do a gut check here at home. How is our democracy doing?
The picture isn’t pretty. Washington scandals, a broken voting system, a timid media, and a costly, increasingly unpopular war creating as many enemies as it kills. It’s no surprise that seven out of ten of us believe our country is headed in the wrong direction or that three-fourths of us believe that our “government is run by a few big interests looking out only for themselves.”
Something is seriously off.
We grow up learning that we inherited democracy. It’s two things joined at the hip: elections plus a market economy. With these in place, we’re home free. There’s little for us to do.
But just look around the world. From India and the Philippines to Latin America are societies with both and still their majorities live in misery.
We didn’t inherit democracy, it turns out; we have to create it -– first by recognizing something pretty obvious: Democracy’s core premise is the wide dispersion of power so that we all have a voice. But our market economy is driven by another premise. Its driver is one rule –- highest return to existing wealth, those who own corporate stock. With that one rule, economic power concentrates and concentrates…and concentrates until it becomes so powerful that it subverts the political process.
Today 56 lobbyists –- doubling since George Bush took office—walk the halls of Congress for every one person we’ve put there to represent us.
We have been warned of this danger. Thomas Jefferson warned us. Dwight Eisenhower warned us. Most pointedly, Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned us. “[T]he liberty of a democracy is not safe,” he said to Congress in 1938, “if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism…”
I call the simple democracy-equals-elections-plus-a-market notion thin democracy. It’s thin, frail and failing because it is always vulnerable to takeover by a narrow, self-interested group.
Thin democracy has always been inadequate to serve our interests. But today it is deadly:
Thin democracy can’t solve today’s problems from global warming to global hunger. They are too complex, pervasive, and interconnected to be addressed from the top down. Solutions depend on the insights, experience, and buy-in of people most affected—all thwarted when citizens are cut out and manipulated as decisions get made secretly by the few.
Thin democracy is deadly because it assumes the worse -– that we’re nothing more than selfish little competitors out to get our stuff. This shabby caricature of humans fails to tap our deep positive needs to connect in strong, fair communities and to be problem solvers ourselves.
Thin democracy, ironically, fails to register our destructive capacities, too. From Nazism to Abu Ghraib to notorious lab psych experiments in which normal people set in oppressor roles become brutes, the proof is in: “Nice people” do evil things when conditions encourage it, and thin democracy’s extreme power imbalance is one proven condition.
Finally and perhaps most dangerous: Thin democracy’s materialistic premise that we’re nothing but selfish sheep can’t satisfy our higher selves’ yearning for transcendent meaning. Its insulting premise can’t inspire dedication and sacrifice, so it makes for weak competition against extremists and fanatics—right or left—offering a high moral calling, an uplifting, absolutist vision.
As thin democracy fails, fortunately, and in the nick of time, a more powerful, uplifting idea of democracy is emerging here and around the world. I call it living democracy.
It is not a new formula, blue print, or “ism.” It takes the premise of democracy—power’s wide dispersion—seriously. It assumes that human beings aren’t just shoppers and whiners; we have deep needs to connect in real community and affect that larger than our own survival. Living democracy isn’t something done to us for us; it’s what we ourselves create.
Citizens creating living democracy are removing the power of wealth from governance and infusing the power of democratic values into economic life. While campaign finance reform remains a cynical joke for many Americans, in Maine and Arizona publicly financed elections in just a few years have drawn more voters and encouraged more people to run for office. And last week Connecticut lawmakers made history, voting special interest money out of the system and setting up voluntary public financing. Bringing democratic values to economic life, “fair trade” – the simple notion of a living wage – is burgeoning, already benefiting 800,000 small coffee farmers, and socially conscious investing is going mainstream, leaping 53-fold in two decades. In hundreds of schools, young people are learning democracy by doing it. Living democracy is gaining strength.
As the deadly consequences of thin democracy –- a disastrous war, torture in our name, the post-Katrina debacle, and daily disclosures of cronyism and corruption fill us with shame, let’s dig to the root of our pain. Exposing Bush’s ineptitude and deception isn’t enough. It’s time to reframe the very meaning of democracy and get on with creating a real one.