Coauthored with Adam Eichen
In today’s fraught and frightened America, the word “democracy” could well evoke the rolling of eyes, a blank stare, or wide-eyed incredulity. Certainly not the pitter-patter of hearts.
But what if Americans were convinced that all we care most about—from our kids’ future to the immediate need for a decent job or safe drinking water—depended on falling in love with democracy? Might more of us at least be open to the possibility of taking the leap?
Something like that happened for us. When it truly sank in that democracy by and for the people is essential to what we most value, our emotions began to ignite. Yet, it’s tough to get to this place, as democracy is commonly cast as shabby—the best we flawed humans can do, but hardly worthy of devotion.
We’ve come to see such an assumption as not just wrong but dangerous, for it dims our confidence in democracy just as it’s never been more necessary. So let’s reexamine additional faulty assumptions about democracy as if our life depended on it—because it does.
Here are three.
One, democracy is out of reach because it requires that humans overcome our self-centered nature.
Think again. Our species evolved in tightly knit tribes in which we became by far the most social of primates, with a finely tuned sense of fairness as well as proclivities for empathy and cooperation. Our social nature shows up in research suggesting that humans are happier when giving rather than receiving and happier when outcomes for others are not extremely different from one’s own.
Of course, humans are also capable of callous disregard, selfishness, and even unspeakable cruelty. But here is what’s now clear: Whether our pro-social capacities show up depends in large measure on the social rules and norms we together create and uphold.
If all human behavior were innate and fixed, we certainly wouldn’t see the vast differences across cultures in crime rates or other anti-social behavior, or in the functioning of democracy. Yet, they are enormous. The US homicide rate is, for example, seven times that of other “high-income” countries. An annual ranking of perceptions of electoral integrity worldwide, by a scholarly project based in Harvard and the University of Sydney, puts the US 55th among more than 150 countries and almost dead last among western democracies.
Surely, therefore, our country’s faltering democracy has nothing to do with fixed human nature, but rather everything to do with human culture, i.e. what we actively create.
Authors of the US constitution seemed confident that we are equipped to create rules for the common good, those bringing forth the best and keeping the worst in check. Otherwise, surely these learned gentlemen would have considered it absurd to establish a republic “to promote the general Welfare,” as stated in the preamble of our constitution. (The question of who was included in the definition of “general welfare” is a huge question, of course, one that fortunately has not been static.)
Two, we absorb in our culture the notion that democracy is a dull, burdensome duty—the bland spinach we must force down so we can get to what we really want, the yummy dessert of personal freedom to do as we please.
But freedom from interference is only the beginning. Stuck there, we could miss a much deeper aspect that only democracy can offer: citizens’ freedom to participate in power. As we move from the narrow, negative freedom of “Get out of my way” to the positive freedom of “I have a real say,” much changes.
We can grasp that while rights and privileges protect us, it is in our duties and responsibilities that much of our power lies. We come to see that fixing America’s democracy deficits—with avenues for each of us—is all about realizing our power.
Therefore, instead of democracy understood as a boring, annoying “you should,” the practice of “living democracy” becomes an exhilarating calling, often able to unlock parts of ourselves that we didn’t even know existed. In democratic engagement one discovers democracy’s inherent passion, dignity, and promise.
Three and finally, a real downer is the lament that democracy is losing favor almost everywhere because, well, it’s failing.
Worldwide, positive sentiment about democracy’s capacity to solve society’s problems is indeed waning. Voter turnout in almost all countries has fallen significantly in the past few decades. And in this country, one in six Americans has become so disillusioned with democracy as to approve of the idea of military rule. That’s up from one in fifteen in 1995.
But is it democracy that’s failing? In our case, it is the lack of democracy that’s taking us down—the growing crisis of concentrated wealth controlling our political choices and its orchestrated efforts to rig rules through voter suppression and gerrymandering of electoral districts.
So, the big threat is citizens’ lost hope for real democracy. But that we can tackle. We can stoke honest hope by committing ourselves to learning about and spreading stories of democracy breakthroughs in states and in cities—from victories against voter suppression to the enactment and success of public financing of elections.
We can join efforts to stop money’s corruption of politics and anti-democratic policies like voter ID laws and other unnecessary barriers to voting. To make engaging easier, our Small Planet institute and our partner, the Democracy Initiative—made up of sixty national organizations representing issues from labor to racial justice to the environment—have created a new tool: the online Field Guide to the Democracy Movement. Here you’ll discover a rich array of organizations leading the way and learn about cutting-edge actions enabling all of us to find our democracy voices.
Millions across the United States and the world are also fighting to claim and reclaim their democracies. In this historic moment, they are uncovering the truth about democracy—that in acting together we realize our species’ highest and proven potential as we replace isolation and a sense of futility with power, purpose, and connection.