I worry about my country. Yes, some of that worry comes from the state of our electoral politics. But the truth is that I worry more about the one-dimensional democracy we seem to be creating. What do I mean by this?
I think of democracy as a complex effort which requires the sustained participation of many citizens and stakeholders, and public and private interests. Democracy is successful when all citizens accept the obligations that come with citizenship, that is, the need to define problems and develop solutions that will promote the general welfare of all citizens, not just narrow self-interests. Democracy must be supported by transparent, inclusive public processes, and sustained by the idea that we are better together than apart. Contrast this view with the way that many Americans now see democracy (as something that elected officials and government staff do in their unseen roles, or, that they themselves participate in when they vote every couple of years).
In recent times, we seem to have simplified democracy into something narrow and one dimensional — a system that does not require much of us, except for getting to a voting booth now and then. We vote for someone we hope will do the work for us, but then become judgmental and cynical when things don’t turn out the way we we’d hoped. The truth is, getting someone elected to office is only the beginning. But we seem to have less and less of an appetite for things that take time, that are complex, or which require us to be with people we don’t always agree with.
Don’t get me wrong. I find voting to be a sacred act when one lives in a democracy. Many people have sacrificed deeply or died to ensure we have this right. But for all the energy and money we spend to get one person elected to public office (nationally, millions of hours invested and over $5 Billion spent this election season), I wonder what else we could have done had we used some of that time, money, and energy to solve the problems we say we care so much about.
What problems might we have solved if we spent some of this time and these resources digging in, organizing people, and working in cooperation with those politicians we elected to office, to address public problems? How much progress might we have made already if we had put the money we now invest in political lawn signs and TV ads into civic leadership development, active citizenship training, organizing and collaborating across the political spectrum? My imagination runs wild.
Elections are Not the Only Fix For Our Problems
It is a good time to think about the limitations of electoral politics to solve our public problems. Believing that an elected official, or even a group of them can solve the pressing issues of our day is magical thinking. If we want real change, we also need to own our own role as change agents and policy makers. To sustain democracy as a fair and just system and to create solutions for the common good, more citizens need to get involved.
We can start by teaching, practicing, and sustaining democratic practices in the places we are familiar with – our homes, businesses, schools, non-profits, government institutions, congregations, clubs, etc. We can do this by modeling the best democratic practices whenever we lead others, and by providing people with the spaces where they can be heard and valued.
The places we know and are familiar with provide great opportunities where we can practice “changing the world”. Once we are willing to lead in a more democratic way inside our own sphere of influence, we will have the confidence and authority to work in the civic arena. This allows us to practice politics right where we are. After all, the word, “politics” is derived from the Greek work politikos, which means ‘of the citizens’ or ‘pertaining to public life’. Civic/political work does not have to be heroic to have value.
We Have A Model That Builds the Skills of Civic Leaders, Citizens
These ideas may sound like “pie-in-the-sky” to you, but leaders using the Civic Governance model have been able to model democracy and active citizenship in business, non-profits, government agencies, unions, and a religious congregation. And when leaders work to learn civic skills and apply democratic practices inside organizations, their outcomes typically improve quite markedly. Civic Governance/Civic Organizing© provides the model, skills and disciplines that allow people to renew democracy one person, one act, at a time.
A First Step to Healing Our Country
Citizens can help to heal our country by asking themselves:
- “What is my role in what is working well in this country? What is my role in what is not working?”
- “Whose responsibility is it to fix what is not working?”
- “How can I model a better way of being a citizen in the places where I do have some authority or ability to influence decision making? Can I create a new approach to managing people grounded in democratic ideals and through my own role as a citizen?”
If you find that your answers to these questions are complex, that you believe you do have a role in the health and viability of our democracy, and want to be a part of a more positive approach, contact me, and let’s talk. Join others that are not satisfied with complaining, blaming or simply standing on the sidelines. It is time for a new imagination around renewing democracy. It requires each of us to step up and own the fact that we are the answers to the problems that we seek.