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One of the world’s happiest cities – Helsinki, Finland (Photo: Martti Kainulainen/Lehtikuva, via Associated Press)

Are Humans Actually Capable of Democracy?

Frances Moore Lappé

Elsewhere I’ve made the case that democracy isn’t a choice. It’s our only pathway forward, but my claim can provoke some pretty charged challenges. I can hear the fears of the discouraged asking, “Is democracy even possible? Do we humans actually come equipped for it?”

With democratic norms of civility and transparency shattering, it’s no surprise that many of us question whether humans are up to the challenge. To doubters, I can say with some confidence that indeed we are capable: both because we evolved to be emotionally wired for democracy’s key requirements and because we’ve already proven ourselves capable of manifesting democracy…even if imperfectly.

So—first, let’s explore what democracy demands of us: Certainly, the capacity for empathy and cooperation, as well as a sensitivity to fairness are required. And, both the human experience and science now confirm that most of us do come equipped.

First, empathy?

It shows up early in our species. Newborns cry at the sound of another baby crying. By the age of 12 months, babies begin to comfort those in distress and children as young as 14 months spontaneously display helping behaviors.


When we cooperate, our brain’s reward system lights up in ways not unlike eating chocolate. What great evidence that evolutionary selection has long rewarded cooperation, as it helps us to survive. In fact, humans are the most cooperative species. What makes us different from our nearest relatives, according to scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, is our capacity for “shared intentionally,” by which they mean the “ability of humans to learn through other persons and their artifacts, and to collaborate with others in collective activities.”

The Institute’s Michael Tomasello reports that “even very young children have a natural tendency to help other persons solve their problems, even when the other is a stranger and they receive no benefit at all.”  He adds that “there is very little evidence . . . that children’s altruism is created by parents or any other form of socialization.”

On fairness?

Adam Smith, whose views have for two centuries been mis-appropriated to reduce our character to narrow self-interest, in fact wrote poignantly about human feelings for each other. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith observed that we are “in a peculiar manner tied, bound and obliged to the observation of justice.”

Even capuchin monkeys are sensitive to fairness. Really. In one experiment they happily accepted a snack of cucumbers as long as their nearby capuchin buddies were getting the same. But on seeing a neighbor monkey getting grapes while they still had to settle for cucumbers, some said, effectively, “Hell, no,” throwing their cucumber treats right back at their caretaker. Fairness runs deep through our genetic roots.

Alright, so most of us come equipped with empathy, and cooperation and a sense of fairness, but where’s proof that we can put these characteristics to work for democracy?

Certainly, the fact that more than fifty democracies now score higher than ours in “electoral integrity”—covering everything from gerrymandering to voting rights—offers evidence that indeed these constructive dimensions of the human character can be put to work in shaping effective rules defining democracy.

I’d argue also we draw on these three traits every time any society works to create fairer rules governing the creation of wealth and opportunity. Here in America, from 1933 to 1938, for example, citizens backed the creation of Social Security, the right of workers to organize, and the establishment of a minimum wage. All dramatically narrowed the gap between most of us and a tiny minority at the top. More specifically, from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, we cut the US poverty rate in half.

It makes sense to me that our sense of fairness and empathy helped make all these advances possible.

Or take Scandinavian countries, among Europe’s most unequal societies a century ago. Then, citizen movements challenged a thousand years of oppression and built thriving democracies.  Now, voter turnout there is about 80 percent or more, way higher than our 56 percent. And, citizens in these countries have used their voices to diminish the income gap between rich and poor to among the world’s lowest.

An interesting irony is that Americans dismiss lessons from Scandinavia because they see it as “socialist;” but the gap between CEO pay and worker pay there is considerably closer (but still much greater) to what Americans say they would prefer.

Their societies’ greater participation and fairness seems to make them happy, too. Today four of the top five of the world’s happiest countries are Scandinavian.

My conclusion?  Not only is it clear that humans come equipped with key emotional requirements for democracy, there’s also evidence that—if we trust and act on them—it can work.

Warning! In a future blog I declare that while we evolved with traits that serve democracy well; we humans come with an Achilles heel. It is our tendency to skirt responsibility by pointing a finger at those we perceive as different. This dangerous trait also appears to be deeply engrained, scientists find.

But we can take heart, for evidence shows that, with enough courage, humans can tap the three positive capacities celebrated here to keep us out of its trap.

Bottom line, we have no excuses. We can’t blame human nature for our predicament. Rather, our species’ challenge is to build on our strengths and keep the negative in check on the journey of democracy described What is Democracy, Anyway?


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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