Trust in democracy is tumbling. In 1995, one in fifteen Americans said they’d approve of military rule. By 2014, the share had swollen to one in six. Note this frightening crash of confidence preceded the compromised 2016 election and a president who seems particularly fond of autocrats.
Whoa. It sure seems like the right time to re-center on one truth: Only democracy can meet essential human needs, even beyond the physical.
That’s a huge claim so here’s my case.
In addition to our need for water, food and shelter, plenty of evidence suggests that—to fully thrive and for some of us to thrive at all—our species needs three things:
One, a sense of agency: knowing we have a voice—real power in our lives.
After all, we evolved as do-ers and problem solvers. Social philosopher Erich Fromm in his illuminating The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, calls this trait simply our need to “make a dent.”
Autocratic governments, by definition, deny citizens opportunity to make that dent—to create our own futures.
Two, we need meaning—to feel that our lives count for something beyond our own survival.
Autocracy can offer us limited meaning through identifying with a “strong man,” but only democracy enables citizens to create their own meaning within communities they choose.
Three, we need to feel connected to others
Without community most of us whither. So, in our deeply compromised democracy the plague of loneliness has become a greater health threat than obesity.
Unlike autocracy, real democracy encourages citizens’ coming together in their communities, including for common action to challenge and strengthen their democracy.
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Bottom line, only democracy enables us to experience a sense of personal power, meaning, and connection in ways no other system of governance can. Of course, by “democracy” I do not mean a finished state. It is forever a work in progress.
And, here’s the really great news:
The very work of furthering democracy enables us to experience these positives as well. That’s why I’ve ditched the notion of democratic engagement as my dull duty, drummed into me as a “you should” in a high school civics class.
No, the work of democracy is a “we can!”
It’s not a chore—stuffing down the blah spinach in order to earn my yummy dessert of personal freedoms. No, engaging in quickening the path of real democracy—where we each have a voice—is thrilling. In in every corner of our country a rising Democracy Movement is opening avenues to experience that thrill--advancing voting rights and limiting the power of money in politics.
So, both democracy as a form of governance and democracy as an unending journey toward its realization--even beyond the political--make it possible to experience these human essentials: personal power, meaning, and connection. Together they are the essence of human dignity.
In a word, then, democracy is dignity.
So, democracy as a choice among options. It is the only pathway to meeting essential human needs, and thus our only choice for creating the world virtually all of us want.
No matter how dark the moment, this truth is for me an ever-shining lodestar.
And don’t miss watching the companion video to this article - one of Frances Moore Lappé’s Thought Sparks Video Series in which she opens her heart about what fortifies her in this scary time. Each week for nine weeks or more, her Small Planet Institute will release an informal 2-to-5-minute video in which Frances shares her often-surprising, liberating takes on hope, democracy, and courage.