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The author of Seattle's "democracy voucher" initiative holding up a $25 voucher. (Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP)

What Is Democracy, Anyway? Let’s Talk

Above all, democracy is a cultural journey—not an end stage—headed towards widely dispersed power and away from concentrated control

Frances Moore Lappé

With our democracy in free fall, many are terrified, but I’m convinced that there is one thing with the power to turn the tide.

And what is that?

At the risk of sounding corny, or even ridiculous, I believe the one force with the power we need now is “falling in love with democracy.”  I know love can’t be forced, but I also know that to love we must first get acquainted. So, let’s ask, What, exactly, does democracy mean to us?  Is it worthy of our devotion?

That’s the conversation I long for and offer these thoughts as an invitation.

For some, the answer’s easy: Democracy equals a market plus elections.

But I don’t think so. A lot of societies have both, yet too many of their citizens are barely surviving. Take the world’s largest democracy, India. Almost one in four children is stunted by poor nutrition and impure water, often with life-long consequences.

Elections plus a market do not democracy make.

For others democracy is more complex—grounded in a system of representative governance, the separation of powers, including an independent judiciary, and, of course, the right to speak and assemble freely. But in many countries with these constitutional protections officially in place, much of the citizenry isn’t thriving. South Africa is one example.

So, we must dig. What is democracy, anyway?  

For me, it is a culture that lives democracy as a never-ending journey. “Democracy is becoming, rather than being. It can easily be lost, but never is fully won,” observed William Hastie, our first African-American federal appellate judge, adding: “Its essence is eternal struggle.”

For sure, the journey of democracy is unending, but its direction is clear:

First, democracy is a journey away concentrated power. From Hitler and Mao to Big Oil and Facebook—tightly held power has proven to lead humans to justify narrow self-seeking and so much worse—from atrocities all the way to genocide. Psychological experiments now confirm at least one reason: power over others dampens empathy.

Democracy is thus a journey toward the opposite, widely dispersed power.

That walk includes getting big money out of politics, defeating the assault on voting rights and reforms that ensure every vote counts. Already, at state, county, and local levels, a citizen-led movement is changing the rules to create more inclusive and accountable power. A favorite example of mine is what Seattle citizens accomplished in 2015 by passing “democracy vouchers” enabling voters to receive four $25 vouchers they can then offer to their preferred candidates for key city offices. For the first time, regular citizens can run for these positions and most residents can contribute. Now citizens in Austin and Albuquerque are pursuing similar, democracy-enhancing innovations.

Second, democracy is a journey away from secrecy. Vast experience confirms that in a cloak of secrecy we’re more apt to behave badly. Take an example with monumental consequences: Before the big crash of 2008, Wall St. bankers were feverishly pushing risky derivatives on the unsuspecting. Assuming no one was watching, they lived by “a little industry code”: IBGYBG, “I’ll be gone. You’ll be gone,” meaning they knew they could get out unscathed and enriched before their schemes imploded. And they were right.

So democracy is a journey toward the opposite: transparency. On this walk, Americans demand to know whose money is influencing political choices.

Thanks to Jane Mayer’s book "Dark Money" and organizations such as Open Secrets and Maplight, exposing the flow of political money, Americans are learning that what we don’t know does hurt us. We’re demanding to know whose money is influencing political choices. Last year, California passed the DISCLOSE ACT so its citizens will know which deep pockets are paying for political ads. And, in early August , a U.S. District Court judge ruled to invalidate a Federal Election Commission regulation that had permitted anonymity for donors to “dark-money” groups. So far, upheld by the Supreme Court, it’s a transparency breakthrough for democracy.

Before jumping ahead, let me share an amusing story about transparency’s power, or even the thought of it.  At a UK university too many faculty weren’t paying for their “honor system” coffee. But when a clever psychology professor hung a photo of human eyes looking down on them, and the professors paid three times as much for their coffee!

Third, democracy is movement away from a culture of blame.

When it comes to the destructive tendency to point fingers, humans are particularly vulnerable. While homo sapiens have evolved many positive traits—including capacities for cooperation, empathy, and a sensibility to fairness—that make democracy possible, our tendency to push away, or even punish, those we perceive as different is our Achilles heel. Even babies reveal this sad proclivity.

So, we’re easy prey for the powerful who stoke blame to serve their own ends, including more power. From our nation’s founding, for example, many whites have used messages—both hidden and overt—to encourage whites to blame people of color for their ills.  In the last half century their messages, for example, have suggested that government helps undeserving people of color while disadvantaging whites.

Then came Trump and our simmering culture of blame began to boil.

Thus, democracy is the journey toward the opposite, toward a culture of mutual accountability. Finger pointing, admittedly, may be a natural human gesture, but we can acknowledge the deeper truth, put so simply by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” I love that. And here’s my less-eloquent, related thought: “Since we’re all connected, we’re all implicated.”

So, pointing a finger may be okay, but only if it comes full circle. Recall the bankers I called out above? Even there, all of us need to shoulder some smidgeon of responsibility, asking: Where were we citizens when Bill Clinton set us up for the crash by de-regulating the financial industry?

Fortunately, a culture of shared responsibility can be taught and learned.

Certainly, our culture’s progress toward racial inclusion—though painfully unfinished—is testimony to that possibility. Elsewhere, consider Germany. While only beginning to reckon with the atrocities of its colonization in Africa, Germany has issued formal apologies and paid reparations to victims of the Holocaust. Germans teach their youth about the Holocaust and in public places embed pointed reminders of the human cost.  Or consider that after Rwanda’s genocide, many citizens engaged in impressive social learning, helping bridge the cavernous divide.

But the threat of this human tendency “to other” requires constant vigilance. Proof in this moment is the rise of a German political movement scapegoating immigrants.

The great news is that today in America a citizens’ “movement of movements” is uniting a wide range of issue-passions to ensure our society is on the journey toward ever-greater realization of the three conditions laid out here that define democracy for me.

I fear that “falling in love” with democracy could seem ridiculous to those who’ve absorbed the notion of democracy is a boring duty we suffer through to get what we really want, personal freedoms. But “dull duty” is not what I’ve discovered within the rising Democracy Movement. Feeling victimized by a rigged system is no fun at all, but learning and expressing our views and creating fair rules fostering the essential conditions for real democracy? Now, that’s thrilling!

My point is simple. Shedding any sense of democracy as a burdensome obligation, let’s explore together what democracy really means to us, including its role in meeting perhaps our most basic needs beyond the physical: our need power, meaning, and connection. In a word, dignity.

Here are some helpful starting points for that conversation. Then, gaining confidence from our courageous brothers and sisters in the already-stirring Democracy Movement, we might just take that leap of love ourselves.


Note: 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.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of nineteen books, beginning with the acclaimed "Diet for a Small Planet." Most recently she is the co-author, with Adam Eichen, of the new book, "Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want." Among her numerous previous books are "EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want" (Nation Books) and "Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life." She is co-founder of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Small Planet Institute.

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