Citizens, it is up to us to save our democracy

I am a volunteer neighborhood leader in a small city in northern California. For the past ten  years, I have been a part of a group of community leaders who have been working to overcome divisions and improve our ability to work together here in our city. We have been able to create a non-partisan organization that has united all sectors of our community, from conservative evangelicals to liberal secularists, in a common effort to create a better kind of politics in our city. Based on this experience and with a determination to find a way to respond to the growing divisions in our nation, we have a message for you, for citizens like us across the nation.

First let’s all admit the stark facts: too many of us are now divided into adversarial camps with separate sources of information and different leaders working to cement our divisions. Our trust in each other and in our public institutions is low and declining. Our division and the mistrust have made it impossible for us to find the common ground we need to meet our challenges both at the local and national levels. We are unable to help our communities devastated by globalization, unable to address the concerns of our youth including the challenges of gun violence and climate change, unable to create a fair and comprehensive immigration policy or agree on a way to overcome past and current injustices and make everyone feel valued and welcome in our nation.

Fellow citizens, we know that these facts and the current gridlock in our governments are the result of the divisions in our communities and the adversarial camps that we have willingly joined. We know that too many of our current leaders are working to maintain these divisions as a part of their strategy to stay in power. It is time for all of us to take responsibility for this crisis, to step out of our camps, our parties, our interest or issue groups, and take on, in a fuller way, our role as citizens. It is time for us, as citizens, to meet with those who differ from us and work to find the common ground we need to meet our challenges. We don’t have to give up our beliefs and our values; we just need to take on the responsibility ourselves for finding ways to meet, share ideas, and get to know other citizens outside our camps.

Most importantly, we need to take these opportunities to meet with those who differ with us to begin the work to find the common ground we need to get things done –the common ground that our leaders are telling us does not exist. This work to find common ground is the responsibility of all citizens in a democracy. It is the work that we gave up when we organized ourselves, or got organized by leaders, into camps and delegated our responsibilities to distant leaders. This is the work that can restore the fundamental requirement for a democracy: citizens themselves taking responsibility for and engaging in the work to find common ground. When we take up this work, we will reconfirm our belief in our founders’ declaration that “all are created equal”. We will reconfirm our belief that all of us have unique and significant lives that deserve to be respected and that working to include everyone’s voice will give us the best chance to meet our challenges.

And more than this, we will need to use the common ground we will find to demonstrate by our actions that we can work together meet our challenges. We need to demonstrate to ourselves that we can solve our affordable housing crisis; we can find ways to reduce gun violence; we can do something about climate change, and more. It will not be easy to meet any of these challenges, but we will show once again that communities working together in a democracy can accomplish great things. And, it is exactly the experience of working together and getting things done that will really give us a chance to get to know each other and deepen our respect for each other’s gifts and our great diversity. It will re-establish our bonds as fellow citizens that cannot be broken by those seeking to divide us.

The best place for us to take on this fuller role as citizens right now may be in our local communities, in our towns and cities, our neighborhoods, in our schools, our faith-based and community organizations. These are the places where we can meet our neighbors face-to-face, get beyond the partisan labels, get to know each other, and learn how to work together.

Are you skeptical about our ability to find common ground? Are you unsure about our ability to listen to and learn from each other? Do you wonder if we share common values deep down? If we want to maintain our democracy, we have to take on the responsibility now to find the answers to these questions. Our willingness to take on this responsibility to reach out and rebuild our communities may be the only way out of crisis that we now face.

If your community is like ours, as you begin this work, you will find that most everyone is looking for a better and more democratic politics that can bring us together and get things done. Listen to their good ideas, share yours, and you will discover, like us, that there is a wide lane of common ground that will let you accomplish great things right in your neighborhood. And, if you are like us, you will also find that sharing common ground without having the organizations that will allow citizens to work together will not suffice. So, join and spend some time helping build the community and neighborhood organizations that will be the key to engaging everyone in public work. Remember, if you are interested in climate change, housing, homelessness, gun violence, immigration, or any other pressing challenge, then doing the work to build your neighborhood organizations and your city’s ability to work together may be the most important thing you can do. This is the work that will develop the common ground, the commitment, and the engagement we need to meet all our challenges.

If we work together now and relearn how a democracy can work in all of our towns and cities, then we will gradually be able to find and elect representatives who understand this and will know how to restore our ability to work together in Washington. Let’s resolve to make 2020 a year of hope and healing, starting in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities.

A New Year’s Resolution for Our Politics in 2020

This message was co-written by Lawrence Lehr, co-chair of Santa Rosa Together and Hank Topper

We, suspect that most Americans, like us, are experiencing a deep anxiety about the current state of our politics. Despite the fact that we know that we are a nation full of talented and decent people, despite our resources and great potential, for too many years we have not found a way to come together to get anything significant accomplished. We feel powerless in the face of the serious challenges facing our nation.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could make a New Year’s Resolution for 2020 that would help us overcome our divisions and find the common ground we need to meet our challenges? Here, in a small city in northern California, we may have figured out a New Year’s Resolution that could get us started on a path to do just that. Ten years ago, a group of neighborhood and community leaders here in our city noticed that our local politics was getting too partisan and we decided to do something about it. We formed a volunteer organization of community leaders from all parts of our city and set about the work to get more of our residents engaged, give everyone a voice and role, and improve the way we work together in our city. The first thing we learned when we got started is that almost everyone across the political spectrum from conservative evangelicals to secular liberals supported our goals and wanted to help. Over the years of working and meeting together, our diverse group of volunteers have gotten to know each other and we have developed strong relationships that have enriched all of our lives. We have, together, gone about the work of developing our city’s potential to get things done: we have held countless face-to-face conversations to help get people engaged and we have organized many city-wide neighborhood meetings to give people a chance to get to know each other across the city. We have worked to strengthen neighborhood organizations and we have organized conversations on key issues throughout the city in faith-based organizations and neighborhoods to give more people a voice. We have worked to make everyone feel respected and valued as a member of our community.

Now, with our growing ability to work together, we are just beginning to sense the potential that we have to in our city to get things done. We are poised to launch our first ever neighborhood-based planning process to build affordable housing. This bottom-up planning process will allow us to share housing fairly across the city, give neighborhoods the opportunity to design and locate the housing that fits with and strengthens their communities, and build the city-wide consensus that will enable us to actually meet our housing needs. If we succeed, we will experience the power that a more democratic politics will give us to meet our challenges and to aspire to create a great city. If we succeed, you will hear more about us as our reputation as a city that gets things done grows.

So, consider this for a New Year’s resolution: Let’s all step out of our partisan and issue-focused organizations and spend some time getting to know our neighbors, especially our neighbors who have different views than ours. Listen to their good ideas, share yours, and you will discover, like us, that there is a wide lane of common ground that will let you accomplish great things right in your neighborhood. Join and spend some time helping build the community and neighborhood organizations that will be the key to getting to know each other and engaging everyone in public work. You could also help form a volunteer city-wide organization to support and coordinate the work across your city or town to get your neighborhoods organized and to develop the opportunity for city-wide conversations to find the common ground you will need to get things done. If you are interested climate change, housing, gun violence, immigration, or any other pressing challenge, then doing the work to build neighborhood organizations and your city’s or your town’s ability to work together may be the most important thing you can do. This is the work that will develop the common ground, the commitment, and the engagement we need to meet all our challenges.

Of course, focusing on strengthening the ability to work together in the places we live does not mean that the upcoming national elections are not extremely important. We all need to think deeply and choose wisely, and even try conversations across party lines if we can, to ensure that those we elect are committed to helping us overcome the divisions that are paralyzing our nation. But, our divisions will not be solved by our elected officials alone. The fact is that we have gotten ourselves into our current political crisis because we have, too often, let our national parties define our neighbors for us and keep us divided as a part of their electoral strategies. We have let experts and governments make decisions and do everything for us, so we have lost the ability to organize ourselves and get to know each other by working together in our local communities. We have lost our ability to tap into everyone’s energy and ideas to solve problems. If we work together now and relearn how a democracy can work in our towns and cities, then we will gradually be able to find and elect representatives who understand this and will know how to restore our ability to work together in Washington. Let’s resolve to make 2020 a year of hope and healing, starting in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities.

Love Message to the People of Hong Kong

As a volunteer neighborhood leader and a democratic activist in the United States, I want to express my strong support for your efforts to maintain and strengthen democracy in Hong Kong. Your work is inspiring me and democratic activists around the world. I feel personally  connected to your struggle since many years ago, my young children, my wife and I had an opportunity to live and work in China. Through this experience, we got to know many remarkable people, made lasting friendships, and developed a deep respect for the history and culture of China. We always entered and exited China through Hong Kong and we grew to love, and still love, your city and its great vitality.

My experience of life in China also helped me appreciate the freedom and democracy in my home. This experience contributed significantly to my subsequent life-long commitment to rebuilding democracy here in the United States. I came to understand and now share with you the understanding that democracy is essential both to individual freedom and to the prosperity and health of our cities and nations.

I am certainly not qualified and would never attempt to give you any advice on how to conduct your struggle. But, what I can do that you might find useful is help you understand the state of democracy in the United States, counter some of the propaganda about us spread by the CPC, and clear up some of the confusion and doubts you must have about our commitment to democracy given the obvious authoritarian tendencies of our current President. Hopefully you can learn a little from our current experiences, as we are learning from yours.

Speaking as an American democratic activist, I can assure you that we still do have a democracy in the United States. As my ability to write this to you without any fear of reprisal demonstrates, we do still have freedom of speech. And, we do still have the rule of law, the right to vote, a free press, and strong democratic institutions and norms. Most of us are deeply aware that our democracy is a gift given to us by the sacrifices and even lives of countless individuals from the founding of our nation to today. We are proud that we now have, as a result of our recent and ongoing struggles against all forms of racism and discrimination, the ability to include many of our citizens previously excluded from fully participating in our democracy. And, we know, now more than ever, that it is ours, only if we can keep it. The propaganda of the CPC that our democracy is just a false cover for capitalist domination has never accurately described us. While business interests have sometimes been too powerful, their influence has always been met successfully with opposition from other parts of our nation in our ongoing struggle to create a free and just nation.

But it is also true, beyond question, that our democracy is now in a weakened state. It is threatened and under attack by our own authoritarian President and his Party and by foreign powers working to undermine democracy. I won’t try to list all of the facts that prove that our democracy is weak and threatened, but only point out the most telling fact that up to 40% of our citizens now seem to have lost faith in the fairness of our democratic institutions and are currently supporting our own President’s efforts to undermine our democracy. You must find it very strange that the citizens of the nation that first developed a democratic constitution and still has a functioning democracy, would willingly consider abandoning their democracy. You, in contrast, have the support of most of your citizens but lack the democratic laws and institutions that you need to protect your freedom. Perhaps this is because we, unlike you, no longer have the direct experience of living without democracy to remind us of the gift we were given. We don’t envy your position, but we are envious of the clarity that your experience affords you. We are looking to you to help us regain this clarity.

And, maybe, if I could help you understand how we ended up with our democracy under threat, it might help you avoid this same fate in the future. The story of how we allowed our democracy to be weakened is, of course, long and complex. But, the essence of the story will seem very familiar to you since you are well acquainted through your history with the concept of meritocracy. Here, from the perspective of a democratic activist, is our story. Early in the 20th Century, in a rapidly changing world of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, we began to rely more and more on experts, our new university-trained professionals, to manage our modern complex world. We began to view democracy as an outdated idea suited only to a smaller and less complex world. The participation of citizens in public life was reduced to voting in periodic elections to choose professionals to make decisions for them. We abandoned, and not without struggle, the belief in our founders’ declaration “that all are created equal.”  We abandoned the belief that each individual has a unique and valuable experience and a unique contribution to offer to public life that only a democracy has the ability to include. We, gradually, developed into a meritocracy of equal opportunity instead of a democracy that respects and gives a voice and role to all. This led inevitably to growing inequality as our professionals rewarded themselves and to alienated citizens left without the experience in governance they needed to protect democracy. It left citizens divided from each other and ripe for manipulation by a leader promising to solve problems for them.

Now, democratic activists here in the U.S. are faced with the daunting task of rebuilding our democracy and restoring our democratic values. We are applying the hard lesson of history that democracy requires and thrives only with engaged citizens and are now working to develop ways to reengage citizens and create a more democratic politics at the local level in our towns and cities. We are rebuilding and empowering neighborhood and community organizations so that we all have the opportunity to get to know each other and learn how to find common ground and work together. We are developing new practices that can engage citizens to make decisions and be part of public work, new forms of government that support citizen engagement, and a new role for experts as valued advisors of citizens and not as decision makers. It will take a long time for us to rebuild our democracy and relearn the skills we need to resist those who want to undermine our work, but we will persist and we will live up to our democratic heritage.

We hope that our work will convince you that our commitment to democracy is still strong. And we might very humbly suggest that you consider our experience and find a way to develop the organizations and practices that can not only engage citizens in opposing attacks on democratic rights, but also engage them in the work of governance so that they can develop the skills they need to maintain the gains they make and so that they can add their experience and effort to public work. If you and we can do that, we will succeed in unleashing the power and energy of engaged citizens that is only possible in a democracy. As we work here to rebuild our democracy, we will be watching you and we will continue to be inspired by your efforts.

This Is the Speech I Am Hoping to Hear from a Democratic Presidential Candidate

My fellow Americans, today we are a nation divided. The level of trust in each other and in our public institutions has reached record low levels. Because of our deep divisions, your federal government is gridlocked and unable to address the serious challenges we face. We have growing levels of inequality in our nation with some prospering while others are left behind without basic health care or meaningful employment. Because we are divided, we no longer share common sources of information and the same basic facts, making it difficult for us to talk to each other and impossible to find the common ground we need to work together. We have no plan to address the threat of climate change or gun violence. And perhaps even more importantly, our democracy, the democracy that is supposed to give everyone an equal voice in the direction of our nation, is now dominated not by citizens but by the powerful and wealthy. And because we are so divided and vulnerable, hostile nations are now working to manipulate and influence our elections. And, as if that were not enough, we now have a President who thrives on division and works to further divide us and undermine the values and institutions of the very government that we need to meet our challenges.

These threats to our democracy call for something new from all of us. It is time for us in the Democratic party to put aside our partisanship and speak for all Americans. We have got to be for now the party of unity, healing, and change. We have got to be the party that can lead a united effort of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans to restore our basic ability to work together. We will continue to cherish our great diversity of ideas and our disagreements, but at this moment in our history, we are called to unite around the protection of our deepest democratic values, our constitution, and the democracy that makes our disagreement possible.

If I am elected President, I will call on all of our citizens to join a broad non-partisan effort to heal our nation and together we will meet our challenges head on by doing the following:

First, we will call on all of our community organizations, schools, and faith-based institutions across our nation to reach out to groups that differ from them to give us all a chance to get to know each other and build bridges across our divides.

Second, we will launch a major “American Marshall Plan” to address the needs of all of our communities left behind and left out to demonstrate by our actions that in our democracy we respect and value every part of our nation and will “leave no one behind.”

And, third, we will develop a national consensus and implement plans developed by our citizens to address health care, climate change, and gun violence. To do this, we will bring panels of citizens together to work with experts to assemble and provide us all with shared information on the facts and the options we need to address these issues. We will organize face-to-face discussions in our schools, neighborhoods, and faith-based organizations to give us all a chance to get to know and learn from each other and find the best ways to address these issues. Then, we will organize city, state and national citizens’ congresses to provide the opportunity to collect ideas from across the nation and find common ground on a plan to address these issues. Through all this, we will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that money and special interests will have no privileged role in these citizen discussions. Finally, we will take the outcome of these deliberations to our Congress and pass the legislation we need to address these challenges. Working together, all of us, in this process will give us a chance to get to know and learn to respect each other and restore our ability to find the common ground we need to get things done. And, we will begin to learn once again how to put citizens back to the center of our politics.

Fellow Americans, citizens and future citizens, we are under attack from within and from without. We need to face these challenges head on and we need to build a different kind of politics to do that. Our divisions and mistrust and the state of our democracy leave us no choice. Bold plans for new policies that come from Washington won’t solve our problems since we are too divided to trust the messengers. We need to do more than “return to normal” since our normal for too long has been division and mistrust. Today we are all unsure how to act since our regular way of understanding the world does not work. What we need now is something different that will help us address our more fundamental problems. We need to renew the values first set by our democratic revolution and rebuild a democracy that fits today’s world. Restoring our democratic values, putting citizens back at the center of our politics and regaining our ability to work together is our task today. Our victory in this struggle will keep alive the great experiment that started with our bold declaration that “all are created equal.” We will demonstrate once again to the world and to ourselves, the immense power of engaged and united citizens that only a democracy can unleash.

(I finished this essay a couple weeks ago but since then I have been struggling with a feeling that I may have missed something important. Now I realize that, while this is the speech I wish a candidate would give and believe in, I now can see something what I knew all along: none of our candidates will ever give speech like this. They all share a basic political worldview that makes putting citizens at the center of our politics impossible for them to conceive. Our candidates can develop policies for us that they think speak to our needs, but they don’t understand the value, even necessity, of engaging citizens and giving them the power to develop and implement the policies they need. That can only mean that our democracy is in very deep trouble. And it means that restoring our founders’ vision of democracy will have to come from the bottom up with new leaders who will come out of our local efforts to rebuild a democracy. How long will it take for us to produce leaders who might give a speech like the one I proposed?)

Hank Topper, past president and current board member, Junior College Neighborhood Association, Santa Rosa, California

The Policies We Need that our Candidates and Pundits Won’t Discuss

Most of us, including many who voted for Trump in 2016, know, in our hearts, that impeaching or defeating Trump will not be enough to heal the divisions in our nation. We know that Trump’s election was a symptom of deep underlying problems and we know that we won’t get out of this crisis until we have found a way to address these problems. My concern, my fear, is that we do not yet have a good enough understanding of the underlying causes that produced Trump, and, as a result we do not have an adequate plan for addressing them. I live in a small city in northern California where a diverse group of volunteer citizens of all political stripes have been working for the past ten years to overcome divisions, give everyone a voice and role, and improve the way we work together. We have been dealing in our city with the same issues that have divided our nation and now threaten our democracy. As a volunteer neighborhood leader working in that effort, it is clear to me that our national political and opinion leaders, as well as our Presidential candidates, do not fully understand the perspective from the neighborhood level in our city and are not speaking directly to the key problems that we feel have produced our political crisis. In the belief that we all need to work together to find the best way to address this crisis, I will try to articulate the perspective from the neighborhood level in a small city far from DC to add to this vital national conversation.

What are the main problems that we need to address to get out of this crisis? The answer seems obvious to us: our main problems are the deep divisions, the breakdown in trust, and the inability to work together to meet our challenges. Maybe we hold this view since we can still see each other as neighbors. We can imagine that, despite our differences, we do have a lot in common with each other and can find a way to work together. We can see that meeting the challenges we face in housing, homelessness, and climate change will depend on engaging citizens and working together with our government to meet these challenges. We can also see that without trust in each other and the ability to work together, our politics here in our city and at all levels of government will remain gridlocked and we will not be able to meet our challenges.

Our main problem is not health care, not climate change, not growing inequality, and not jobs. These are all crucial challenges that most of us know we must address, but, here at the neighborhood level, we can see that our ability to address these, and all of our issues, depends, first of all, on rebuilding the both trust and the institutions that we need to find common ground and work together. I know this is a position that will frustrate many, but I will ask you please to stay with me a bit longer. I am not arguing that we cannot address the challenges that threaten us. We must. But, if we can understand that our main problems are mistrust and our inability to work together, it would change the way we address these issues. And, if I am right, taking this approach might actually be the only way to effectively address them.

Building a movement now to fight for something like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, given our current divisions and mistrust, can only sound to large sections of our nation and to many of our citizens, like another scheme for power led by mistrusted political elites. This mistrust comes partly from the fact that our political and intellectual elites have been developing policies in Washington that have, consciously or not, benefited them and left many parts of the nation and most of its citizens behind. Too many of us are not ready for new policies and initiatives that we suspect will create more of the same inequality. We are looking for, and don’t know how to get, a new kind of politics that we feel includes and represents us.

That is the danger of Trump’s appeal: he promises to represent those left out, labels our current democracy as nothing but a cover for rule by elites, and offers an authoritarian politics to replace it. The best, and, given our level of distrust, maybe the only way to get past this crisis is for us to work together to demonstrate that is still possible to build a different kind of politics that better reflects our deepest democratic values, a politics that gives everyone a voice, helps us find common ground, and unites us to meet the pressing challenges we face.

Currently, none of the presidential candidates seem prepared to take this approach –not the candidates who call for a return to normalcy, not those who focus on bold new policy initiatives, not those who call for building a movement to challenge the influence of the wealthy and corporations –none of them are offering a plan that focuses on the work to heal our divisions and our ability to work together. They all seem to share the same old focus of gaining control of government and using it to enact policies that they believe will best serve the people. But, too many of us now believe that this approach has not included everyone and has not served us all of us. It has led, instead, to the deep crisis in trust that we are now in. We need to do better.

Ten years ago, we decided to make the issues of mistrust and division the focus for the work in our city. We have learned a lot from this work and are now focused on three tasks. First, we are working to build and empower neighborhood and community organizations throughout our city. These are the organizations we need to get us more engaged and to give us the chance to get to know each other and learn how to work together. Second, we are developing a new process for making key decisions in our city that will provide us all with a common and trusted source of information, give everyone a voice in these decisions, and create the opportunity to learn from each other across the city and find common ground. Third, we are working to transform our government so that instead of doing things for us, it works to support and partner with neighborhood and community organizations to do the work of the city.

What would it look like to make the work of overcoming our divisions and rebuilding trust the focus of our national politics? If we apply the same approach we have taken in our city to the national level, here are eight ideas that we, and all of our presidential candidates, might be discussing as a plan for healing our nation.

First, we would call on everyone to put aside their party affiliations and help to launch a broad non-partisan “Common Ground” effort to reaffirm the democratic vision and democratic values of our nation, to reaffirm our commitment to value and respect all of our diverse and uniquely valuable citizens and their communities and to build a democracy that returns citizens to the center of our politics. We would, together, acknowledge the deep divisions and lack of trust that exists among our communities. We would acknowledge the just anger and resentment of many of our communities that feel voiceless and neglected. We would acknowledge the pain caused by all the forms of discrimination that have excluded too many of us from full participation in our nation’s life. To begin the work to break down barriers among our communities and to engage all of us in the process of healing, we will call on all of our nation’s faith-based organizations, schools, community organizations and governments to join in our “Common Ground” initiative and reach out and get to know each other and to build bridges of understanding among all of our diverse communities. We will all take the time to find ways to visit and talk face-to-face with those we don’t know, especially those who are different from us.

 Second, to ensure the inclusions and the safety of all communities, we will join together to oppose all those who try to divide us and we will work together to overcome all forms of discrimination that exclude any of us from full participation in our national life. We will ensure that the full resources of the Federal, State, and local Governments will focus on protecting and ensuring that all of our diverse citizens and communities feel safe and secure in our nation.

 Third, we will protect the basic right of each citizen to vote and have an equal voice in the direction of our nation, we will enact legislation and constitutional amendments if necessary, to limit the unfair influence of money in our politics, eliminate gerrymandering designed to give unfair advantage to a party, and end all voter suppression.

 Fourth, we will launch a national effort to strengthen and empower local neighborhood and community organizations and provide them with the support and resources that they deserve as the foundation of our democracy. These local community and neighborhood organizations will give every citizen the opportunity to be a member of an organization that has the power and resources to take responsibility for where they live, an organization where we can get to know each other and practice and learn the democratic skills that are only true safeguard for a democracy.

 Fifth, we would all acknowledge the deep mistrust in our governments and public institutions that have not always worked in everyone’s interest and we would acknowledge that our political parties have too often promoted division and mistrust among us to gain power for themselves. We will commit to working to together to transform our governments and our parties so that they can regain our trust and work to support and partner with citizens and their local organization in the work of the nation.

 Sixth, we will begin a major “No Community Left Behind” to initiative, a Marshall plan for America, to provide resources and assistance to all of our stressed communities, both urban and rural, to help them to develop and implement community-based plans to strengthen and heal their communities. We will do whatever it takes to help all of our communities still suffering the consequences of racism and discrimination and all of our communities devasted by the effects of globalization. We understand the value of each community to all of us and we will demonstrate our commitment to our democratic values by our actions to leave no community behind.

 Seventh, to find a way to provide health care for all and to meet the challenge of climate change, we will begin a major, four-year effort to create a national consensus on, and begin the implementation of, plans to address these pressing challenges. While we work to find common ground on this work so that we can engage us all to meet these challenges, we will pass legislation to temporarily extend the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid to immediately provide health care for all and we will pass legislation to adopt a temporary plan to lower emissions of carbon dioxide to ensure that we can meet future goals required to protect our planet once we have our fully developed plan. To develop the consensus and long-term plan for a national effort to address these issues, we will develop a new process for reaching consensus that places citizens at the center and allows policies to develop from communities not from Washington. We will organize informed face-to-face discussions throughout our nation in all of our neighborhoods, faith-based institutions, schools, neighborhood, and community organizations to tap into the wisdom and experience of all of our citizens for ideas on how to address these key issues. The plans we develop will give all of us a role in addressing these crucial challenges. We will overcome the fact that we don’t currently share a trusted source of information and shared facts by convening panels of citizens to work with experts to provide us with the unbiased information and the options that we all will need to have informed discussions on health care and climate change. We will provide opportunities for citizens from all of our communities come together to exchange ideas and find the common ground we need to succeed, culminating in a national citizens congress that will be tasked with making recommendations to congress for legislation. Working together on this major initiative to address these pressing challenges will give us the opportunity to get to know and learn from each other and restore our ability to work together to meet all other challenges.

 And, eighth, we will call on all of our educational institutions from elementary to college and university to restore civic education to the center of all of our schools to reflect our central democratic values. We need to prepare our youth to become the citizens we need and to engage all of our youth in the work to restore our democracy and address our challenges.

 A plan like this would give us nothing less than a chance to build a democracy for the 21st Century. It would require a very significant commitment of resources, time, and effort on the part of all of us. But it is exactly this kind of effort that would give us the opportunity to get to know each other, rebuild trust, and renew the common vision of a shared democratic community that we desperately need. The commitment of our time and resources on major action to address the needs of our communities left behind would demonstrate that we really are committed to a democratic community that leaves no one behind. And our work to find common ground and address our health care and climate change challenges would demonstrate the power and potential of our democracy. As we work on these initiatives, we would learn that democracy is not a spectator sport –It both requires and rewards participation. And we will discover again that life in a democratic community might just be better than life in the anxious and divided world that we now inhabit. If we seize this opportunity, we can turn away from division and build, instead, one of the world’s first truly diverse and inclusive democracies. Given the state of the world, the crisis in our democracies, and the rise of authoritarianism, this would be the best gift we could give to the world.

Lessons from our history might help us heal our democracy

The most basic faith that informed our view democracy from the start of our nation, our faith that “all are created equal”, contained two kinds of equality. First, was the idea that each of us deserves an equal chance to flourish and develop our potential to its fullest extent. Second was the idea that everyone has the capacity to make a significant and unique contribution to our shared common life and, especially, that we can all participate as equals in the shared task of maintaining our democracy. For most of our history, we managed to maintain our commitment to both of these ideas of equality.

Then, around the beginning of the 20th Century, we began to turn away from this belief in and our commitment to the two aspects of equality. This is when we started to sow the seeds for today’s crisis. Our understanding of equality in our democracy shifted towards a focus on everyone’s opportunity to flourish and away from everyone’s capacity to participate in the work and direction of a nation that creates this opportunity to flourish. Our two-sided view of equality was challenged by two reinforcing ideologies. First, the ideology of science and scientific knowledge, with its belief that only trained experts had the ability to manage our society, and, second, the new idea that average citizens, driven by emotion and lacking training, did not have the ability to manage society. There was strong opposition to this departure from our historical view of equality, but with our citizens divided by racism, nativism, and sexism and unable to resist, the broader view of equality was doomed. We then spent about a century until today building a nation based on this narrow view of equality.

We are now living with the results of this turn from our earlier conception of equality. We have created a culture that looks to entrepreneurs, managers, and technologists for answers to our problems. We need only look at who is rewarded in our current culture: our “talented individuals,” successful managers and politicians, stars, sports talents, celebrities, wealthy investors, leading scientists. Our consumer culture and media are overwhelmingly dominated by the rich, successful, and talented. We now see our talented individuals as the source of governance and management in all aspects of our life. There may be disagreements among our elites about how to guide our nation. Our free market and corporate managers look to capitalist enterprises to solve our problems; our liberal elites look to government to manage private enterprise and create policies and programs to spread the wealth. But this difference is really beside the point from the perspective of our democratic heritage expressed in “all are created equal.” We no longer have faith in the capacity of our citizens to participate meaningfully in governance and management. The vast majority of our citizens are now relegated to voting once every couple of years to decide who will run the country for them and professional politicians work with vast sums of money to try to even our voting.

There are three reasons that our abandonment of our original idea of equality was and is a mistake of historical significance. First, taking power away from citizens and concentrating it in our talented and scientifically trained leaders led inevitably, perhaps even unintentionally, to the use of that power to reward the talented and to maintain their position. We now have a new aristocracy, the 10% of us who have now rigged the system to ensure that their children will inherit their position of power and reward. As a result, we now have growing inequality and anger and resentment in communities that feel left out and left behind. In allowing this to happen, we ignored one of the main lessons from the long history of democracy: the lesson that the only real way to prevent the rise of an aristocracy and ultimately a tyranny, is to keep power in the hands of citizens since only they have the ability and the interest to understand and resist attempts to concentrate power in the hands of an elite.

Second, our view of the limited capacity of citizens to participate in the work of our nation has made us passive responders to government initiatives and passive employees of corporations. This has cut us off from the ideas, the energy and experience of that can only come from engaged and empowered citizens. This loss has made the great achievements of a united democracy impossible, and just when we need them. This is exactly what Tocqueville saw in our still limited democracy many years ago when he wrote, “Democracy does not give people the most skillful government, but what it does even the most skillful government is powerless to achieve: it spreads throughout society a restless activity, a superabundant strength, an energy that never exists without it, and which, if circumstances are even slightly favorable, can accomplish miracles.”

Third, and perhaps most relevant to the understanding of our current crisis, taking away the opportunity for citizens to participate in the work and management of our society, undercuts our very ability to maintain our democracy. Citizens disrespected and cut off from participation do not have the opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to maintain a democracy. They are left disconnected from each other and open to division and manipulation. Without active and empowered citizens, we can neither accomplish great things nor can we maintain our greatest accomplishment as a nation: the creation and maintenance of a democracy. Everyone, elites and citizens alike, suffers the same loss of capacity to maintain democracy because no one gets the opportunity to develop the special skills and knowledge they need to maintain democracy. Practicing democracy is what creates democratic citizens. When we stopped practicing democracy, those democratic skills and norms inevitably withered away in everyone.

If we want to learn from our history and maintain a democratic government and a democratic way of life, we will need to restore our faith that, as equals, we all have both the opportunity to reach our full potential and the opportunity participate meaningfully in the maintenance and management of our democratic society. This combination cannot be broken, both are needed to make the miracle of democracy possible. Our task today to escape from the crisis in our democracy is to restore our faith in both aspects of our belief that “all are created equal” and rebuild the norms and practices that make this fuller democracy possible. This work to rebuild a fuller democracy will be, just as our founding revolution, a democratic and not a class revolution. Almost all of our current “expert” elites would rather live in a democratic society with less inequality and more civility. Their expertise will still be valued in the democracy we create. Instead of working for the powerful, they will provide their skills and knowledge to citizens to help all of us work together to find the wisdom we need to guide the nation.

The work to build a new democracy today will be no more difficult than it was for our founders. We have all the resources and methods we need to rebuild a better politics. Experiments with putting citizens back to the center of our politics have been going on around the world and down in our neighborhoods and cities for some time. The work will not be easy and it will take time. We will have to overturn and reform all the practices and institutions that we have built for the past century to create our current meritocracy. We will have to find and develop creative new ways that fit today’s world to return citizens to the center of the decisions and work of the nation. That will be difficult but nothing we can do would be more meaningful and rewarding.

Did our abandonment of democracy contribute to today’s crisis?

It is pretty simple story, but one that very few in Washington can tell. It is the story that can be told and understood in neighborhoods across the nation where citizens can talk to each other, but it gets little coverage in our national media. It is a story that needs to be told because it can help to explain how we got to the current crisis in our democracy and because it can help us find a way past this crisis. Here is how it goes: in the beginning of the twentieth century, we took a sharp turn in the history of our democracy. This is the time when we began to lose faith in our democratic aspirations, our belief in government “by the people”. This is the time when we modified our belief in our Declaration’s radical claim that “all men (and women) are created equal” by adding a crucial limit to the end of this bold claim: equal “except for governing.” We began, instead, to believe that a democracy of engaged citizens was out of place in our increasingly large and complex world. We began to look to experts, professionals, and scientists to provide us with the answers we needed to shape our nation. And our experts and professionals doubled down on this shift by studying us and proving that that average citizens were uninformed, driven by passions, and could never be a source of the ideas and the wisdom we needed to guide our nation. This view of politics soon came to dominate and our idea of democracy shrank from government “by the people” to government “for the people”. Soon citizens were relegated to voting every couple of years to choose who would make decisions for them. Political scientists called this “democratic elitism” and it became the shared foundation for both of our political parties. From the start, there was strong opposition to this elitist challenge to our democratic aspirations but the deep and unfinished business of racism and nativism in our nation kept us divided and doomed this resistance. For some time, despite this turn from our democratic heritage, the new kind of politics worked pretty well and we were able to do some great things with this new approach: we defeated fascism and communism, established Medicare and Social Security, landed a man on the moon, and we grew our economy and prospered. Maybe our national consensus survived enough long enough to get these things done despite the new limits we placed on our democratic values.

But then something happened that began to take this story of our democracy in a new direction. Our new professionals, managers, and experts created a mass culture that justified their power and position and they began to use that power and position to prosper while the majority of us did not. Inequality increased dramatically and whole sections of our nation suffered deep and long-term losses in the new global economy. Too many of us felt powerless in the face of global forces that our prospering elites unleashed. To make matters worse, communities that did not prosper were labeled as backward and incapable of adapting to the modern world, partly because they held on to a different conception of community and democracy.

Then came the next and inevitable steps in this story. Towards of end of 20th century, some professional politicians realized that, with the right approach, the growing income and power disparities, our persistent racism, and the lack of respect suffered by many communities could be turned to anger against and resentment of urban elites, hardened into deep divisions, and  used as a means to gain power. Now we are living in and experiencing the final chapter of this story of our turn from democracy. We are suffering the full consequences of the decisions made many years ago. We are a now nation deeply divided and no longer able to find the common ground we need to address our nation’s challenges. We are a nation whose weakened democratic institutions and traditions are now seriously threatened by an authoritarian leaning President.

Telling this story could make a difference if it encourages us to reconsider some of the basic and hard-earned lessons from the long history of democracy. Maybe the first lesson to remember is the simple and obvious realization that power corrupts. How were we blinded by the value of the new science and knowledge and unable to see that relinquishing power and authority to the holders of these skills would inevitably end up with them using this power to their advantage? How did our experts and managers and inventors convince us that we should abandon our democratic heritage and reward their special talents with power? This is not a new story, just the latest in the long line of claims to privilege that the idea of democracy has always challenged –claims by philosopher kings, priests, warriors, kings, aristocrats, and the wealthy to a special claim on privilege and power. It is one of the fundamental insights of democracy that the best bulwark to any kind of tyranny is to vest power in the hands of those who will most feel the results of a tyranny, citizens. How could we have thrown that lesson to the wind?

And how could we have limited the basic democratic insight of our declaration that “all men (and women) are created equal”? This is the exactly the insight that we abandoned when we began to privilege the contribution of experts over the unique contribution that each one of us can make to public life. John Dewey, who was a witness and opponent to our turn from democracy got it right when he said, “In social and moral matters, equality does not mean mathematical equivalence. It means rather the inapplicability of considerations of greater and less, superior and inferior. It means that no matter how great the quantitative differences of ability, strength, position, wealth, such differences are negligible in comparison with something else –the fact of individuality, the manifestation of something irreplaceable.”

When we privileged our experts, we began to lose the irreplaceable contributions that all of us have to offer to our public life. And we lost the kind of community that is only possible in a democracy where everyone is treated with respect and encouraged to reach their full and unique potential and to use their talents to contribute to our public life. These kinds of democratic communities, whenever they have appeared in history, have always been marked by great periods of creativity, energy, and accomplishment. This is exactly what Tocqueville saw in our still limited democracy many years ago when he wrote, “Democracy does not give people the most skillful government, but what it does even the most skillful government is powerless to achieve: it spreads throughout society a restless activity, a superabundant strength, an energy that never exists without it, and which, if circumstances are even slightly favorable, can accomplish miracles.” We need these kinds of miracles today to meet our challenges. And we will need to return to our democratic heritage to be able to find those miracles.

Finally, we have to realize that the state of the world does not determine the possibility of democracy. The claim that the complexity of the modern world makes democracy outdated is a self-serving myth created by professionals. Sure, when the story of our turn from democracy was first posed at the beginning of the last century, there were a lot of problems with our democracy. Our cities were growing with waves of new immigrants from Europe and from our own south, most of whom never had the opportunity to experience democracy. There was corruption and there were severe problems caused by the rapid growth of our cities and factories. But the decision to turn from our democratic ideals and concentrate power in the hands of experts to address these concerns showed a basic misunderstanding of democracy. Democratic citizens are not born; they are made. Democracy and democratic practices create democracy. People learn democracy by doing democracy. Our nation had grown and urbanized but we did not grow and adapt the institutions and create the practices that would give citizens the chance to practice democracy and become democratic citizens in a new and very different world. We could have put our energy into creating the practices that would have made citizens out of our immigrants. But we did not have faith in the capacity of our new immigrants. Funny how elitism and racism often seem to go hand in hand.

To get out of this crisis, heal the divisions, tap again into the vast untapped resources of our citizens, and restore our ability to work together, we will need to begin the task of rebuilding our democracy. We cannot overcome the divisions and the mistrust in our nation if we don’t create opportunities for people to work together and get to know each other. You cannot give people the respect they need by doing things for them. We have to restore our democratic faith in the belief that real citizen participation in making decisions and real citizen participation in implementing decisions will produce the ideas and energy we need to move forward. Our experts and professionals and their hard-won specialized knowledge will still play a major role in our democracy, but it will be to inform citizens, not make the decisions for them.

Creating the practices and institutions that could give citizens meaningful involvement in the work of our towns, cities and our nation is possible. In fact, the work to create these new kinds of democratic practices is well underway across the world. You may not have heard about all this work, but it is there. It just isn’t recognized because it doesn’t fit with the dominant “democracy is out of date” political narrative. Just take a look and you will see it taking shape somewhere in your town or city.

And now the amazing news. If we can learn from the story of our turn from democracy and if can relearn the lessons of democracy, we will realize that we now have an unprecedented opportunity to write a new chapter in our nation’s story of democracy. Because of the hard work and sacrifices of so many of our citizens who have fought and are continuing to fight today to ensure that everyone is included in our community, we now have, for the first time ever, the ability to create the kind of democracy that our founders could only dream of. If we succeed we will restore our commitment to our belief in government “by the people” and to our declaration’s bold claim that “All men (and women) are created equal” and create the world’s first truly diverse, truly inclusive democracy. That would give us the capacity to do most anything. That would be a gift to the world and to our children worth fighting for.

Draft Presentation to Engage More Residents in the Work to Rebuild Democracy in Santa Rosa

In the summer of 2018, Santa Rosa Together decided to begin a new outreach effort to engage more people and organizations in the work to strengthen our local democracy. This is a draft presentation designed to be used for this outreach. It sums up the experience of the past several years and articulates a new and clearer focus for the work we need to do. 

Introductions: My name is ______. Thank you very much for the opportunity to tell you about SRT and to invite you to join our broad coalition of organizations and individuals. I live in….(a little personal intro________).

What is Santa Rosa Together?

We are a diverse non-partisan group of volunteer community leaders working to get more people engaged and organized, give everyone a voice and a role, and improve the way we work together in our city. We believe that our ability to meet our challenges and create a great city depends ultimately on our ability to engage and tap the talents of all of our residents, find common ground, and work together. We want to create a democracy here in Santa Rosa that can do that. Easy to say; a little harder to explain; much harder to implement.

Why did we get started on this work?

  • We got started with this work because we realized that too many of our community members feel alienated from our politics because they do not feel like they have a real voice and role in the city. We were concerned that our governments and community institutions were not doing enough to support and partner with residents and their organizations. We were concerned that not enough of us, as community members, are engaged and taking responsibility for our neighborhoods and city. We decided that it was time to try to rebuild our democracy to address these concerns and bring us together.
  • The deepening divisions and the gridlock in our national politics have only reinforced our commitment to this work. We believe that working our way out of this crisis will need to begin with efforts at the local level to repair our politics.
  • We are also deeply aware of the difficult lessons learned from the fires that devastated our neighborhoods. All of us witnessed the importance of neighbors helping neighbors and we learned that neighbors getting to know each other and learning how to work together will be the key to our survival in, and recovery from, an emergency like a fire or earthquake. We realized that Improving our local democracy and preparing for emergencies are really the same task.

We decided that we needed to stop taking our current way of doing things as a given.

Our concerns and experiences brought us together starting about seven years ago to look for a better way to live and work together in Santa Rosa. We decided that we needed to stop taking our current way of doing things as a given. We formed Santa Rosa Together because we are convinced that we can and need to do better. We believe that we can find a way of working together in our city that comes closer to our nation’s democratic ideals, a politics that brings people together and works to include everyone in the decisions and work of the city.

Who are we really?

It may help to tell you just a little about the members of Santa Rosa Together. We really are a diverse organization working hard to include all parts of our city. We have republicans, democrats, independents, conservatives, liberals. We include representatives from neighborhoods, churches, businesses, schools, governments, and not-for-profits. Despite our many differences, we have gotten to know and respect each other and we have learned how to work together to reach our common goals. In our own small way, we have demonstrated that a different kind of politics is possible and this experience and the friendships we have developed have kept us going.

What would our politics and our public life look like if it did a better job of reflecting our basic democratic values?

That is the question we asked ourselves and it is the question we are asking you and everyone in our city to join us to answer.

What are the democratic values we share? When we got started with this work, we took some time to remind ourselves of the democratic traditions, values, and practices that we all hold in common. Here is what we came up with:

  • At its foundation, democracy is a way of life and a form of government that treats all of us as equals, that values the unique experience and important contribution that each of us can bring to public life. No matter what tribe, faith, race, neighborhood, or ethnicity we belong to, no matter what our background, our democratic values ensure that each of is treated with respect as equals in our public lives. So, we set out to see what steps could we take right here in Santa Rosa to reinforce this democratic way of life that we all value.
  • Democracy is also a faith in our ability to set aside our tribes and differences, come together, learn from each other, and find the common ground we need to work together to meet our challenges and create a great city. So, we asked ourselves how we could create a politics that gives all of us a chance to meet face to face, learn from each other, and find common ground?
  • Democracy also is a commitment to get engaged, take responsibility and participate in the work needed to create a great city and to maintain a democracy. So, we asked ourselves how we could create organizations that have the capacity to engage all of us in the work of the city? And how could we create a politics that encourages people to participate and that empowers organized residents, gives them a meaningful role, power and responsibility?

The real question for all of us: How could we make our democratic values relevant today in a city of 180,00 residents?

After several years of work and a lot of lesson learned, we are now focusing on five areas to move this work forward. As you will see, each of these five areas will require real change and volunteer commitment. Right now, our coalition is are only capable of small steps in each of these areas. That is really why we are talking to you today. It will take many of us working together in our city to create a better way of working together.

  • Broadening the coalition of community leaders working to strengthen our local democracy
  • Creating strong neighborhood organizations across the city
  • Developing a new process for engaging everyone in making the key decisions on the direction of our city
  • Transforming our local governments so that it focuses on engaging and partnering with us rather than doing things for us
  • Reaching out to our youth and school communities to encourage them to take civic education seriously and prepare our students to join us in this work to rebuild our democracy.

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Letter to My Neighbors

This letter to community leaders in my neighborhood was sent last spring as a part of our neighborhood board’s effort to strengthen our association’s organization and expand our work. About nine months before, in the fall of 2017, fires devastated several neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, all very close to my neighborhood. So that tragedy was still fresh in everyone’s mind the following spring when I sent this letter

Letter to my neighbors, Part 1

For the past year, if you are like me, you have been thinking a lot about both the vulnerability of our neighborhood and the state of our national politics. This reflection has led me to the following, perhaps surprising, conclusion: We all need to rethink our roles in our neighborhood and the role of our neighborhood in our city and beyond. Let me try to explain how I reached this conclusion.

Let’s begin with the fires that have devastated some of our neighborhoods. I think we all came away from that experience with a deeper understanding of the vulnerability of our neighborhood and a deeper appreciation of how important neighbors helping neighbors will be to our ability to survive and recover from a fire or an earthquake. The fires also made me realize on a deeper level the importance of being organized and prepared for a disaster. For years our neighborhood association has been working on disaster preparations at the block and neighborhood level and we have a pretty good idea of what we need to do, but the fact is that we have not been able to sustain this effort long enough to really prepare adequately for a disaster like the recent fires. These reflections on the fires and our vulnerability were first to lead me to conclude that we all need to rethink our roles in our neighborhood: Are we putting the time and effort needed to address the vulnerability of our neighborhood and really prepare for the next disaster?

This conclusion seems pretty straightforward. But I want to also suggest that the state of our national politics is another and equally compelling reason for all of us to rethink our role in our neighborhood. This will be take some more explanation.

For the past year or so, we have all become more aware of the deep and growing divisions in our nation. These divisions have undermined our ability to find common ground and work together to meet the challenges we face. We seemed to have stumbled into a real crisis in our politics that is challenging our basic democratic norms and posing a real threat to our democracy and our democratic way of life. If you are like me, this has added to your deep sense of vulnerability. We now know that we are vulnerable to both natural and political disasters.

If we honest about it, we know that the deep divisions in our nation are mirrored right here in our own neighborhood, in our city, and in our state. They may not be as apparent here in California since we have a dominant majority culture, but they are there. In our own neighborhood, we know that we have not created the kind of community where people get to know each other, especially people with different backgrounds and experiences. We have not created a community where we have a chance to exchange ideas, learn from each other, find common ground, and most importantly, work together. Nor have we created a way for us to exchange ideas and work with other neighborhoods across the city. It is just this lack of a strong community that knows how to work together in our neighborhood, and most neighborhoods across our nation, that has created the foundation for the divisions and dysfunction in our national politics. Since we don’t really know our neighbors, we are all vulnerable to politicians willing to define our neighbors for us and exaggerate our differences to support their own agendas and power. And, most frighteningly, we now seem to be stuck in the status quo with no real sense of how to overcome the political crisis we face.

That we have reached this point in our neighborhood and in our national politics should not come as a surprise to us. Our current political crisis is the consequence of long term trends in our nation that have hollowed out our democracy. We have been moving for a long time now from government “by us” to government “for us”, gradually delegating our political and community responsibilities to our governments and, for many of us, restricting our involvement largely to voting. When we do get involved, we mostly join with like-minded people in large issue-oriented groups and organizations run by professional staff. Our efforts are directed at petitioning and pressuring governments to meet our demands. While there is certainly a place for this kind of involvement, it is clear now that it is not enough because it has led us to become a deeply divided nation unable to recognize the common ground that we all share. We have not taken responsibility for our neighborhoods and communities, taken time to get to know our neighbors and learned how to work together to strengthen our communities. Democracy is a skill as much as a belief and we have pretty much given up on the practice of democracy that we all need to make it work.

Given the state of our politics and the history of the hollowing out of our democracy, it seems clear that we are faced now with the daunting task of rebuilding our politics and reclaiming our democracy. And that brings us right back to our neighborhood, the Junior College Neighborhood, Santa Rosa, California. Rebuilding our politics will have to be done from the bottom-up, neighborhood by neighborhood. If we want to repair our politics, we will have to create democratic communities in our neighborhoods and cities and make them places where we can relearn democracy. This has made me realize that the work we can do, not in Washington, Silicon Valley or Sacramento, and not even down at City Hall, but right here in our neighborhood to strengthen and build a democratic community may be some of the most important work we will ever have a chance to do. We, us, the people who live right here in this small part of the world– are quite possibly the key to finding a way out of our national political crisis. It may actually be up to us to figure out how to adapt our democratic ideals to make them work in the 21st Century. Is that enough reason to convince us that it is time for us all to rethink the roles we playing in our neighborhood? And, don’t forget about our need to prepare for the next disaster.

There may be another, and perhaps more appealing, way for us to view our current situation not only as a response to the natural and political threats to our community, but as an opportunity for us to create a very special place to live and do creative work. Just imagine for a minute if we were able to create a community where we actually got to know and respect each other and were committed to working together to maintain and improve our neighborhood.  A place where people from very different political perspectives and very different backgrounds –renters, homeowners, young, old, all races and ethnicities—all treated each other with respect, listened to each other, found common ground, and worked together. We would celebrate our differences and find ways to learn from our different experiences to create new ideas and do creative projects. Wouldn’t that make our neighborhood a great place to live? And wouldn’t that be the kind of democratic community that would be an expression of our democratic ideals and aspirations?

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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.

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look to democracy 1 13 2018