Home > Campaign for Stronger Democracy > Best Friends of Democracy

Best Friends of Democracy

March 22, 2012

[This post is from Peter Hardie, executive director of the Campaign for Stronger Democracy]

No one admits to being an enemy of democracy. And we are everywhere.

How many parents have used the classic line, “This is not a democracy!” Herein may be the underlying logic that sets a minimum voting age; I probably don’t want my seventeen year old son challenging my parental authority in a more public forum.

The minimum voting age is not sacrosanct, universal, nor entirely cogent; there are some brilliant kids with a keen sense of government out there (e.g. John Hunter on TED Talks).

There are a couple school districts in the U.S. where anyone with a child in the school system has a right to vote for school board members, citizen or not.  That seems sound and sensible.  It would be easy to extend that argument to a host of other constituency matters.

Parents aren’t the real enemies of democracy. Our nation’s history is marked by more reprehensible agents pushing (and legislating) against democracy. You should have heard of poll taxes, the suffragettes, the Fourteenth amendment, the Voting Rights Act. Democracy has never been a straightforward proposition, philosophical service notwithstanding.  There is always a group that could not vote — slaves, former slaves, descendants of former slaves, women, or poor people.

But other barriers keep us out of the public square as well: intimidation, fear, inclusiveness, exclusion, the stress of making ends meet, keeping up with kids or getting an education or fulfilling your life’s ambition. We are challenged to lower the historical barriers that prevent each and every voice from mattering and resonating. We are also challenged to remind each other that each and every voice matters, and to promote and encourage full participation. Communities, nations are not geographic entities—they are purposeful and intentional associations of people– in our case, in need of engaged and involved people of all ages.

Democracy exposes contradictory opinions and views. It reminds us of our collective intelligence and our collective ignorance. We don’t all like each other, and don’t think we should have to act like we do.  We don’t have good practices for sharing airtime, though many of us work hard at it. Sometimes we simply don’t have enough airtime. 300 million voices talking at once?  You can see the problem. For some it is solved simply: elect representatives and let them make the decisions. How’s that working for us?  Not so well, I think.

If there is one lesson most organizers know, it is that democracy is a dual opportunity: to create representative and participatory structures and institutions on the one hand, and, to fully engage people’s hands and voices on the other.  The free-est and fairest elections, a proliferation of open public meetings and hearings, the strictest adherence to one- person-one-vote–these mean little if participation rates are low, and some communities are excluded or marginalized.

Democracy, in this wide angle, is a powerful force away from the two-party sport we mostly watch on television that exasperates and alienates. More importantly, it is one antidote to the fear, cynicism and hate prevalent in some (loud) corners of this nation. Thorough going democracy may be our shot as a nation at understanding and moving beyond our divides of race and class and gender.

We have organizations pulling people into the public arena (volunteering, voting, participating, working, playing); organizations ensuring some ever-widening common currency of information and knowledge; organizations shining a bright light on the people’s business; and organizations ensuring the value and equal share of each voice in the public decision-making. These organizations, aligned in dialogue and action, and connected to broader swaths of the social landscape, can move the democracy dial.

Let’s build a genuine grassroots and grasstops constituency for stronger democracy.  We have some great ideas to do just that.

Stay tuned.

And never mind those remarks about parents.

  1. March 26, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    Thanks for this good reminder of the structural and real-life impediments to participatory democracy.

    I think that one of the most important things we can do in the Campaign for Stronger Democracy is to be innovative about what it would mean to create an “infrastructure for democracy” that is vibrant, life-enhancing and compelling.

    And in the meantime, we have to attend to the barriers — through collaboration, strategic planning and seriousness of purpose.


    • March 31, 2012 at 4:07 am

      Well said, Martha. I sincerely hope the democracy movement can be “compelling” to mainstream America, but I have not seen much improvement in this regard over the past few years.

      Trust in the federal government seems to be at its lowest point in 20 years: http://www.gallup.com/poll/5392/trust-government.aspx

      Our democracy (system of government) is more than just government; it’s our people, media, NGOs etc, and I’m assuming there are some bright spots in civic engagement, but I couldn’t find the national report on the Civic Health Index online.

      I am guessing that people who are not engaged are not engaged because 1) they perceive that government is not listening to them 2) thinking about government is boring or frustrating and/or 3) they benefit more from doing things other than participating in our democracy.

      People routinely get more involved in elections, but that energy dissipates quickly and although the breadth of engagement during elections is high, the depth of engagement is low (give money, post a bumper sticker, host a house party that is far more social than deliberative, etc).

      I look forward to hearing about the action steps that Campaign for Stronger Democracy is considering. I hope they will not just focus on mobilizing Americans but also empowering them to mobilize each other.

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