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Democracy Is Not a Choice

When power moves into the hands of a few, decent people commit unspeakable acts.

People hold banners during a protest in response to violence erupting at the white supremacist rally those organized by racist and nationalist groups in Charlottesville, at Federal Plaza Square in New York City on August 14, 2017. (Photo: Selcuk Acar / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

As we enter 2018, one thing is clear: just as we need it most, Americans’ commitment to democracy seems to be fading. Frightened by President Trump’s lies about the prevalence of voter fraud, a majority of Republicans say they’re open to the idea of postponing the 2020 election. Even more disturbing, one in six of us now say we’d settle for military rule.

It’s time American patriots face a hard but liberating truth: Democracy — governance accountable and responsive to the people — is not a choice; it’s the only pathway to protect life on Earth as we’ve inherited it and to realize humanity’s potential. The reason is simple. Only democracy can call forth the best in us, while keeping our worst in check.

We need only look at what history has shown time and again to elicit the worst. It is democracy’s opposite, showing up in three conditions.

First, concentrated power. From Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia to Maoist China, when power moves into the hands of a few, decent people commit unspeakable acts. Moreover, concentrated economic power itself saps the life out of a society, document UK social epidemiologists, as it correlates with a vast range of social and physical ills, from homicide to mental illness. Tightly held economic power also typically translates into political power, leading to the oxymoron “privately-held government.” In ours, a fraction of 1 percent of Americans gain vast influence by footing most of the billions our elections now cost.

Second, secrecy. Before the 2008 financial collapse, bankers were feverishly pushing risky financial “products,” and among their creators a favorite slogan was IBG, YBG: “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.” The traders knew they would be out the door before their schemes went south. Wall Street bankers are human, after all, and when we believe no one’s watching, we’re vastly more likely to behave badly. Thus, the danger in the Trump administration’s penchant for secrecy, from the president’s failure to disclose taxes to the GOP’s unwillingness to make proposed legislation available for open debate.

Third, a culture of blame. Finger-pointing is a tool favored by authoritarians and self-serving politicians and community leaders everywhere, and unfortunately we humans are highly vulnerable to its allure. A proclivity to prefer those like us and to distance ourselves from those perceived as different shows up even in infancy. It brings real harm for those directly excluded, but also for whole societies deprived of the contributions of those blocked from their full flourishing.

Humanity doesn’t have to stay stuck in the dreadful grip of these three negatives, for democracy embodies their opposites: the dispersion of power, transparency in public affairs and a culture assuming mutual accountability for outcomes instead of playing the blame game.

On this last point, we acknowledge that humans may not be able to eliminate “othering” entirely. Only democracy, however, can defend the voices of all as well as foster an understanding that welcoming diversity is not just a matter of basic fairness and avoiding harm. It also enhances human creativity, innovation, and our problem-solving capacities.

And there’s more.

Besides keeping harmful human proclivities in check, these three positive conditions defining democracy are essential to meet humanity’s emotional requirements for thriving: our need for connection with each other and the earth, for meaning in our lives beyond our own survival, and for a sense of personal power — what philosopher Erich Fromm called our need to “make a dent.”

Preventing many Americans from even imagining real democracy is a belief that humans are capable only of self-interest. But even Adam Smith, often used to justify narrow self-interest, wrote that humans feel “in a peculiar manner tied, bound and obliged to the observation of justice.” And, as the most social of primates, our deep sensitivity to fairness is accompanied by strong capacities for cooperation. Researchers observing the brain activity of subjects competing and cooperating find that cooperation stimulates the brain’s reward-processing center in ways comparable to eating chocolate and other great pleasures. Indeed, Homo sapiens are unique in our capacity for “shared intentionality” — forming goals together and cooperating to achieve them.

Finally, we can resist another misconception dimming our confidence in democracy: the oft-repeated refrain that we are a “divided people.” Hardly. Consider our widely shared sense of betrayal about a “rigged system.” Eighty-four percent of us believe that money has too much influence in our elections. Despite our real differences, a 388-question study comparing views of people living in red versus blue congressional districts or states found “no statistical differences” in two out of three cases.

So we can resist anti-democratic demagoguery dividing us as we reinforce the truth that democracy is essential to fulfilling our deepest human needs and potential. We therefore reject Winston Churchill’s snarky comment that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

No. Democracy is noble. And today, in the actions of millions stepping out, many for the first time, to save and advance our democracy — whether by resisting voter suppression efforts or by pushing positively for public financing of elections — we hear a clear message: Democracy is not a choice. It is an essential calling, one worthy of our devotion and sacrifice.

This is an adapted excerpt from the book Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want by Frances Moore Lappé and Adam Eichen (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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