Should We Look to Democracy for Some Answers to Our Political Crises?

Our current and deepening political crisis has made us all aware of the deep problems undermining our politics, our governments, and even our most basic ability to find common ground and work together. We are all looking for a way out of this nightmare and we are discovering that most of our current political leaders do not seem to be helping.

It might help us to realize that the problems we face — our deep divisions, widespread alienation from our politics and governments, corruption, and control by elites– are exactly the problems that democracy was designed to address. Democracy addresses these issues by creating a culture, norms and institutions that treat everyone as equals, by giving everyone a voice and role, and by helping people find the common ground needed to work together. Democracy has, historically, not only made progress on addressing the issues that prevent us from working together, it has also succeeded in unleashing the energy of countless individuals and produced periods of great creativity and accomplishment.

So, maybe it is time for us to look again at the 3000 years of our democratic tradition to find some way out of our current crisis. The story of democracy is a history of advances and retreats with slow but steady progress towards the goal of finding a way to organize a society that can both prevent a minority from seizing power and dominating and also create a way of life that respects and empowers everyone. It is a tradition that has, over the centuries, continued to evolve. It is still learning from multiple cultures, religions, and diverse practices. Today is has become a world treasure created and maintained by sacrifices and contributions from all sides: from our civil rights movements to Tiananmen Square to the Arab Spring and to the countless other small and large struggles for voice and dignity. Democracy is still a hotly contested way of life always under threat from various forms of authoritarianism and elitism. While it may still be only an unrealized ideal in most nations, it continues to capture the hopes of the people of the world. As Americans living in a nation that has made significant contributions to the democratic story, we are lucky to have the ability to look to our own traditions for insights into democracy

It might also help us to know that we might have been able to anticipate or current crisis since some time ago we pretty much abandoned our place as leaders in the universal democratic story. About the start of the 20th Century, we all, led by our intellectual class, seemed to decide that science and scientific managers could do a better job at directing our nation than its citizens working together. There was a big debate about this then but democracy pretty much lost and we basically went from government “of the people, by the people, for the people” to just government “for the people”.

It is surely not a coincidence that this happened at the time when a large number of immigrants had flooded our cities. The nativist reaction to this immigration and the still dominant racism that kept black and white citizens divided, made it impossible to mount a challenge to the rise of our scientific managers and the abandonment of many of our core democratic traditions and hopes. This change did not go unchallenged then or even now, but the proponents of democracy lost and have continued to lose this struggle to this day.

This shift away from democracy took place not only in our politics. To justify this elitism, we began to adopt a more individualistic culture that downplayed community and emphasized special individuals –our celebrities, stars, geniuses, entrepreneurs, and “successful” people– as the source of progress. Today, we have pretty much taken that view today about as far as it can go, including in our education system now designed to train and justify our meritocracy. It is no wonder that the “average” person might feel somewhat out of place in the life we have created, a place quite far from the spirit of Jefferson’s “all men are created equal”.

But, just to be clear, democracies do not have a problem with experts, with talent, or with people of exceptional character. We have always needed these individuals and they have thrived in democracies. But in a meritocracy like ours, talent is defined too narrowly, the ability of experts is overestimated, and the knowledge and experience of non-expert citizens are underestimated. As a result, it seems only natural for experts to make decisions for us. In a democracy, things are different: the contributions of everyone are valued and respected. Experts still play a major role, but they use their expertise to inform and partner with citizens, not to make decisions for them.

So maybe we do have to rethink this turn from democracy and see if it might not be an underlying cause of our current political crisis. Here are four arguments to support this rethinking of our democracy, or our current lack of democracy.

First, only a more democratic society can realistically address the divisions and alienation that are contributing to our deepening political crisis. Only respect, a meaningful role and voice, and real power to shape our communities can overcome the alienation that is undermining our nation. It is not just about jobs and money, it is, above all, about respect and power. And only more democracy can address this deep need for a voice and role.

Second, we are making a basic mistake when we accept the common wisdom and assume that today’s world is too large and complex for democracy to work. How would we know if democracy might work in today’s complex world if we gave up any effort to adapt democracy to fit the modern world? The world changes so democracy, the infrastructure and customs, institutions and laws that make democracy work, also need to be adapted to fit a changing world. Jefferson was right when he said that democracy would need to be periodically renewed. Instead of following Jefferson’s advice and adapting democracy to fit the changing world, we abandoned it. And, of course, it is not an accident that those leading the abandonment of democracy were exactly the elites who would benefit most from this change either in wealth or power or both. We fell for the most ancient trick in the long history of democracy and gave over our democracy to those who claimed a special access to the truth, our “experts” and our “geniuses”. If we put a fraction of the energy and resources and creativity of our nation into rebuilding our democracy, we could find ways to make it work in today’s world. Democracy always looked impossible whenever it was tried, but it was always a question of priorities and not impossibilities. The fact is that a host of innovative new methods to enhance democracy have already emerged in the shadows. So, we need to recognize that the doctrine that democracy is out of date is really just another in the ageless attempt of elites to hold power.

Third, it is deeply ironic that we are coming close to completely losing our democracy today when we actually have the best chance ever of creating the democracy that our founding fathers could only dream of. Thanks to the tremendous contributions of our civil rights, women’s and LGBT movements, we have made great progress in overcoming the prejudices and practices that have kept us divided and unable to realize fully realize our democratic ideals. The issues highlighted by Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements show that we have a long way to go to creating a fully democratic culture, but the progress we have made should not be forgotten or underestimated. This progress has created an opportunity for us to create for the first time in our nation’s history a deeper democracy and deeper democratic way of life. We Americans might even have the chance to make another significant contribution to the 3000-year-old story of democracy. Hopefully we can see our current crisis as a last-ditch effort of authoritarians and purveyors of all forms of discrimination to stop what they see as a real advance of democracy that is now possible and maybe even likely.

And, the fourth and, for now, final argument for looking to democracy to address our current crisis, think about this: If democracy really does capture our hopes and best fit the needs of us humans, then we should be seeing a real challenge emerging to the widespread turn towards elitism in Western culture. Well, just look, it is there in plain sight. The first and unmistakable appearance of a real challenge to the status quo might have been in the worldwide, diverse and often contradictory, but consistently democratic movements of the sixties. And since then, there have been countless movements and efforts for inclusion, equality, respect and democracy. We have seen experiments, many if not most in other nations, with a more participatory form of governance and a more democratic way of life. We have seen, to mention just a few, the use of broad collaborations to handle difficult problems; the many city-wide experiments of to tackle tough problems with deliberative conversations; the citizen panels convened to find common ground; the revival of neighborhoods and their growing role in cities; the use of the Internet and social media to create bottom up movements and engage more people; the worldwide experiments starting in Brazil with participatory budgeting; and, the widespread “Go local” efforts to develop local control and local power. In response to the decline of our democracies, people have been and are looking for and building democratic communities and practices that treat each other with respect and empower people and give them a voice and role. Not all of this has worked and the often volunteer democratic practices don’t always succeed or stay on track, but something is stirring and it is a sign that our current institutions and norms are once more being challenged by a new wave of democracy that is speaking again to the historic hope for a better way of life. We are set for a new and important step in the story of democracy. This is the struggle taking place now, not in Silicon Valley enterprises, party organizations, or in high profile foundations, but in everyday places like our neighborhoods, towns and cities. It is our best chance to rebuild our democracy and regain our place in the story of democracy. Look around. Join in.

Click here to download a pdf file of this essay:

look to democracy 1 13 2018

 

A Message of Hope from Santa Rosa Together

This election has been a wakeup call for all of us.  It has revealed serious problems with our national community and politics.  In a way, this should not be a surprise.  We have known for some time that we have record levels of mistrust in our governments and in all of our national institutions.  And we have known that the alienation and cynicism with our current politics is widespread across all sectors of our nation.

We now face a difficult task.  The best approach for all of us, both Trump and non-trump supporters, seems to be to support initiatives of the new administration that will help us address our nation’s needs.  And, since most of us understand that we have elected an untested president with many flaws, we should also be ready to work together to defend the basic values and laws of our nation if they come under attack.  We all need to resist any form of discrimination and any policy that works to isolate some of us and further divide our communities. If our most basic values as Americans and citizens are challenged, we must all be uncompromising in our resistance.

But somehow we must, at the same time, finds ways to begin the work to heal our communities and overcome the deep divisions that now separate us. It is the divisions and the alienation in our communities that make it possible for leaders to turn us against each other.  In Santa Rosa, California, we have made some progress in this work to heal our community and our efforts may be worth considering.  For the past five years, a diverse group of volunteer community leaders in our small city has been working to get more people engaged and improve the way we work together.  We created a volunteer and non-partisan organization, Santa Rosa Together, to create a space for us all to focus on strengthening our community and it seems to have made a difference.  We came together around our belief that the lack of a meaningful democracy in our city is an underlying cause for our current division. We believe that we cannot rebuild trust and overcome alienation unless we all have a meaningful voice and role in the work of our city.  And we cannot learn from each other and find common ground without rebuilding our faith in democracy and without creating a politics that brings citizens together to share ideas and find common ground.  Providing a meaningful voice and role and a process for finding common ground is exactly what our democracy was designed to do.  A democratic government and a democratic way of life that respects each person’s unique contribution and engages the talents of all of our citizens is the goal of our democratic heritage, the gift given to us by generations of sacrifice and struggle.  We believe that if we want to strengthen our local community, the best way is for us to reaffirm our commitment to democracy and rebuild a politics that is based on our democratic values.

To renew our democracy, we believe that we will need to first recognize how far from our democratic heritage we have drifted.  For the past century, we have gradually replaced our democracy with an ideology of meritocracy.  Our national leaders across all sectors now consider democracy to be out of date and unrealistic in today’s vast and complex world.  We have gone from a nation that understands the unique value of every voice and the unmatched power of united citizens to a reliance on expertise and “gifted” individuals as the source of all progress.  As a result, we have gradually concentrated power in the experts of our governments and corporations.  The voice and role of average citizens has been reduced to voting every four years to choose among competing elites.  It is, in short, government and organizations for us, not by us. And, as we should know from the history of democracy, this rise of meritocracy and the concentration of power in our elites, despite their best intentions, would lead inevitably to inequality and corruption.  And, with our national culture and discourse so dominated by the ideology of meritocracy, it is no surprise that few, if any, of our national leaders understands the significance of the loss of our democracy and none is prepared to lead the struggle to regain our democratic heritage.  Instead our current political process makes democracy impossible by dividing us into adversarial camps and manipulating our fears to gain power.  In our current politics, we are not given the chance to act as citizens and encouraged to meet across party lines, learn from each other and find common ground.

Our current crisis may seem bleak and hopeless, but here in Santa Rosa we do not see it that way.  We believe that the reality is that we now have the greatest potential in our nation’s history to fulfill the fondest dreams of our founding fathers for the democratic experiment that they launched.  Beneath the surface and contrary to the apparent election results, our nation is now more united than ever.  Thanks to the leadership, struggles, and sacrifices of all those historically excluded from our democratic community, we have made tremendous progress on the work to create the basis for a democratic community.  Our cities and towns are teaming with diversity and in their day to day lives our citizens are building bridges and community as never before.  Many of our local governments are working to find new ways to partner with citizens.  If we can only now just recognize and reject our turn towards the ideology of meritocracy and the politics of division and rebuild a democratic politics, we will create a democracy that will flourish beyond our own wildest dreams. Jefferson was right, democracy does needs to be fundamentally renewed periodically to make it relevant to a changing world.  That is our task today.  It is nothing less than the daunting task of rebuilding our crumbling democratic infrastructure and it will be the task for a generation. It is our chance and our challenge to restore and renew the democratic experiment that has been and can again be our main gift to the world.

What do we need to do?  All of us can start by reaching out to our neighbors and co-workers who disagree with us and begin to build bridges.  Then we need to find ways to restore power and function to our local organizations and our neighborhood level communities.  Neighbors working together with real resources and power to affect their communities could be the foundation for a renewed democracy.  Neighborhood and community organizations can be the schools for our democracy, the place where more of us can get engaged, experience democracy first hand, and develop the skills that we need to find common ground and work together.  If we rebuild our local communities and empower them to solve problems, we can overcome the divisions and alienation that plagues our current politics.  Neighbors who know how to find common ground will be prepared to reject the divisive tactics of our current politics.  Across the nation, many of our cities are already learning how to engage their citizens and help them organize to control their communities.  We can do this.

We also need to find creative new ways to bring all of our diverse communities and citizens together to share ideas and learn from each other to find common ground.  We need to create new processes for making key decisions that give citizens a real voice and role in the work of our towns, cities and nation.  We also know how to do this, to bring information and resources to our neighborhoods to engage more of our citizens in the decisions that affect our lives.  And we know how to organize cross community meetings to share ideas and find common ground.  In Santa Rosa, we have organized a broad Homeless Talk coalition that is now taking the conversation on homelessness out to our neighborhoods and working to develop the kind of process we will need.

And we need to transform our governments, so that they understand that in a democracy they have a primary responsibility to help citizens organize so that they have a voice and role in the work of the nation.  Expert administrators and staff should not make decisions for us, they should help us to organize, bring their expertise to us, and partner with us to address our cities and our nation’s concerns.  In Santa Rosa, with the leadership of our City Council and a new Director of Civic Engagement, we are poised to begin this transformation.

It is regrettable that we have had to experience the deepened divisions and the threat to our core values that our current form of politics and our meritocratic ideology have created.  But if this experience motivates us to work together to rebuild our democratic community and create a democratic politics that helps to bring us together, it will be worth it.  We invite towns and cities across the nation to get organized and join us to rebuild their local democracy to meet this challenge.

A New Proposal from Santa Rosa for Building the Movement We Need to Address our Political Crisis

Lawrence Lehr, current co-chair of Santa Rosa Together, and I have been working together and getting to know each other for the past five years. Lawrence is a conservative and I am a liberal, although we both feel uncomfortable with labels. And, even though we love the current increased level of engagement in our politics, we have not been happy with the current and mostly partisan models for fixing our broken politics. These approaches do not match our experience with the efforts we have made in Santa Rosa to improve the way we work together. So Lawrence and I decided to work together to come up with a new proposal for the work we will need to overcome our divisions and address the crisis in our politics. Our proposal is below. We thought that we needed to go into some depth to adequately explain our ideas so it is fairly long –ten pages.  We know that we need to find a more succinct way to tell this story for a larger audience and we are working on that now. But this we hope this fuller explanation will also be useful. If you like these ideas, we encourage you to share them widely and use them in your local or organizational work. Feel free to revise this proposal to make it better and share your ideas and experiences with us.

Here is a link to a pdf copy of our proposal that you can download.

Seeing Past Our Divides to Build the Movement We Need

And here is our proposal:

Seeing Past Our Divides: A Conservative and Liberal Work Together on a Proposal for Building the Movement We Need to Respond to our Political Crisis

By Lawrence Lehr and Hank Topper

The past year has brought us all face to face with the crisis in our democracy. We can no longer avoid the reality of an increasingly divided nation, widespread alienation from politics, unprecedented levels of distrust in our governments, corporations, and institutions, and an inability to work together to meet our serious challenges. It would have been great if one of our political parties had been able to recognize and respond to this crisis with a positive and inclusive solution. But they could not and they did not. As a result, many Americans expressed their frustration by voting for and helping elect the candidate who seemed most likely to upset the status quo. But we are all, despite how we voted, learning quickly that this election will only deepen the crisis we face. Our new President, whatever his motives, does not have a way forward for America that can solve our national crisis. Instead, we see increasing division at home and growing friction with our friends abroad.

That leaves all of us, no matter how we voted, with the difficult task of both ensuring that our democracy is not undermined and, at the same time, building a movement with a vision for our nation that can finally address the crisis facing our democracy. We are all searching for a way out of the kind of politics that has divided our nation and helped to create the crisis we are in. While we may be encouraged by the growth of engagement and the growing understanding of the importance of finding a way to address our crisis, we don’t seem to have found a clear path forward that can address the problems we face. Do we really think that we can just intensify politics as usual to get out of this mess? We seem to be stuck in exactly the kind of politics that helped to create this crisis. We have got to look to a deeper kind of change if we are going to really succeed. This is the time for all of us to join in a conversation to figure out how we can move forward.

This essay is an attempt to articulate an approach to building a movement that the authors think has the best chance to succeed in addressing our crisis. We know that our ideas are different and may not be popular, but our experience convinces us that it is time for a different approach. We don’t for a minute pretend to think that we are in a position to personally organize and lead the kind of movement we describe below. We are only hoping that our ideas and proposal will help start a broader conversation among all of us across our nation on the kind of movement we need.

Who are we? We are two members of the Steering Committee of Santa Rosa Together, a broad, diverse, and multi-partisan coalition of community leaders that has been working for the past seven years in our small city in California to try to overcome the deepening divisions and the adversarial politics in our city. We decided that to get to the root of this problem in our city, we would need to get more citizens engaged and organized, give everyone a voice and role in the city, and improve the way we work together. One of the authors of this essay is a conservative who voted, if reluctantly, for President Trump and the other is a liberal who voted, also reluctantly, for Hillary Clinton. Despite our differences, our work together over the past years has allowed us to get to know and respect each other and discover the values we hold in common. This shared experience is the basis for suggesting a new approach to the crisis we face.

We both are still having a difficult time understanding each other’s vote in this election. But we are realizing that, despite our shared experience working together, we each are still pulled into partisan worlds beyond our control that make it hard for us to understand each other. In the end, we have decided to trust our shared experiences and work together to find a way out of the kind of partisan politics that separates us and is now paralyzing our nation.

Our proposal for addressing our political crisis has four parts, each discussed below:

  1. Build a broad multiparty movement around a shared vision for America that can restore our common ground
  2. Develop and promote new and existing leaders who understand the need to work outside the kind of partisan politics that has helped to create our crisis
  3. Work at the local level to rebuild and empower the local communities that are the foundation for our democracy
  4. Organize to defend our democracy and our shared values and identify and promote candidates in all parties for future elections that share our vision and are prepared to implement it

Continue reading

The Full Story of Santa Rosa Together

If you are interested in the full story of the first five years of the work we have done to rebuild our democracy and strengthen our community, you can access it through the link below. Our story was published in the National Civic Review early in 2016. I would love to hear from you and learn about your experiences so add a comment or contact me.

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