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Living Democracy


Edited in 1992 from the writings of

Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Martin Du Bois


"Democracy is not what we have.

Democracy is what we DO."


(Note: The chart "Alternate Conceptions of Democracy" was published with this article.)


Around the world, people are throwing off tyranny. Meanwhile, here at home it feels like democracy isn't working. Voter turnout sinks, public debate gets nastier, and our democracy seems stymied in the face of mounting social problems.

Americans have long thought that, with our democratic system, all we had to do was elect the right leaders and they'd solve our problems for us.

But now many people feel America's leaders "have blown it" and that the political process itself - driven by wealth and media professionals - holds citizens in contempt. A cycle of disaffection has begun, feeding on itself: The more citizens withdraw from public participation, the more politicians ignore them. The more irresponsible the politicians act, the more citizens withdraw in anger and hopelessness.

We believe this self-destructive cycle arises from an incomplete understanding of democracy. More important than its forms (like elections), democracy needs to be viewed as a way of life, a civic culture in which people creatively participate in public life. We call this vision of democracy "living democracy."

We believe that without such living democracy, without the active participation of citizens, the unprecedented challenges of the 21st Century cannot be met. But our research has encouraged us: we've found that millions of Americans are awakening to one of the key insights of living democracy, a very simple, powerful truth: Today's problems cannot be solved without the involvement of the people most directly affected.

Solutions to social problems can't just be fabricated by computers and experts. Wise, workable solutions need the insights that emerge from diverse perspectives and experience. They depend on the ingenuity of those involved, who know the problems most intimately. And they require the kind of commitment that comes when people know they have a real stake in the outcome.

Only an active citizenry is both accountable enough and creative enough to address the root causes of today's crises. And millions of Americans are doing just that, creating, here at home, a new American revolution in democracy. They are discovering how to do democracy as a rewarding way of life that encompasses their schools, workplaces, community initiatives, media, government, religious groups, health care, and human services. Through living democracy, they are developing their own power, with others, to solve real problems.

In the process, they are rethinking power and self-interest and learning what we call "the arts of democracy."



To act on their values, citizens need power. But to many Americans, power is bad. It's always corrupt, coercive, self-serving.

But in living democracy, power is seen as a dynamic, enabling relationship, not a one-way force. After all, power comes from a Latin word meaning, simply, "to be able." Understood this way, power is no longer a zero-sum concept. As one person or group gains abilities, another doesn't necessarily lose. In fact, as one becomes more able to shoulder responsibility and solve problems, many others gain from these accomplishments as well. The concept of power becomes one of mutually expanding horizons.

This differs from the long-held Western view of powerholders who get all the credit and blame, and victims who are powerless but innocent.

When power is understood as derived from relationships among people, not from authority over people, suddenly the categories of actor and acted-upon are no longer mutually exclusive. Each person's action influences the actions of others. From this insight it follows that no one is ever completely powerless. People can learn to identify, claim and build upon their individual sources of power.

A relational approach to power alters the practice of politics, making it more interactive. Politicians and organizers become less concerned about selling solutions to passive voters than they are about discussing perceptions, concerns and values with their constituencies. Charismatic leadership becomes less valuable than enabling leadership which brings people together to develop the capacities of everyone involved.

There's an interesting way this approach is being used in the field of human services. One Hollywood shelter and support program for street kids with drug problems goes beyond therapy to empowerment. Instead of saying, "we're going to save these helpless, lost youth," they involve the kids in decision-making. A three-person Youth Council helps govern the shelter. Its elected members serve two-week terms. They not only represent their peers as issues arise but share responsibility for working out the consequences when rules are violated.

Most politics sees public life as a fight over power. Living democracy, which sees power in terms of enabling relationships, approaches public life as an opportunity to expand the power of all concerned, to transform people's sense of themselves, to strengthen the bonds between them. Citizens who live their democracy are discovering power in their own knowledge, in their determination, their vision, even their humor. And their power increases as they practice the arts of democracy.



The idea of self-interest is also being re-thought by those who are bringing democracy to life. It's no longer selfishness. It's no longer something to be squelched. It involves the full range of things that matter to us, that we legitimately bring to public life.

A citizen in rural Pennsylvania caught the thrust of this new view: "My self-interest includes all the things I really care about. But how can I achieve it unless others are also able to achieve their self-interest?"

In this new, richer concept self-interest embraces our commitments to family, heritage, country, faith, health, favorite pastimes, and personal goals. It includes our need to feel useful to others and to be respected. Self-interest also includes our strongly felt commitments to the larger world - such as to a restored natural environment or an end to needless hunger. It is related to who we are at our very core.

We can't get very far with our self-interest by ourselves. Not only do we need to work with others to get what we want, but what we want evolves as we interact with others. It seems that some of our deepest human needs cannot be addressed outside of public life.

Citizenship doesn't demand that we give up our interests for the sake of others. It means learning to see our self-interests embedded in other's self-interests. Whether we're concerned about environmental health and neighborhood safety, or effective schools and job security, we can't achieve our political goals by ourselves. We each depend on the needs of others being met as well.

In this light, we see that selfishness - narrow preoccupation with self - can actually be an enemy of real self-interest. Looking out for ourselves alone can undermine the community and natural environment upon which we depend. A truly self-interested person, on the other hand, wants to live well and fully in a community and environment that work. That requires creatively merging the self-interests of all involved. And that is an art worth learning.



Citizens of a living democracy are not born. We learn the arts of democracy - just as we learn sports, history, or reading. We learn by experience, training and practice.

The arts of democracy are essential to effectiveness and pleasure in public life. Like all arts and sports, we enjoy them more as we learn to do them well.

If we focus on learning democracy, then individual and group progress is more important than success or failure. Failure becomes just as much an occasion for learning as success. Cultivating human capabilities becomes the centerpiece of action, not just victory on an issue.

The democratic arts are capacities that citizens cultivate in order to act with power, wisdom and effectiveness in public life. There are dozens of them. We find it useful to place them into four categories - communication in public dialogue, the resolution and management of conflict, thinking, and group facilitation. These categories are not distinct, but weave through each other to create the fabric of living democracy. Here are some examples of democratic arts worth learning:

Active Listening - When the leadership of a citizen group in Baltimore first visited their Senator, the politician smiled, pulled out his yellow pad and said, "What can I do for you?" The leaders replied, "Nothing. We're here to find out who you are, what you're concerned about, and why you ran for the senate. We think understanding each other's points of view will produce a better public relationship over time."

Active listening has no pre-set agenda. It probes for the speakers' self-interest and values. It allows the development of public relationships based on a mutual recognition of legitimate interests and values. It senses beyond what is said to what is not said. It reflects back what is heard and allows both the listener and the speaker to find greater understanding through the listening process.

Citizens in North Carolina began a community outreach program called The Listening Project. They went door to door just to listen. When a middle-aged white man declared that what bothered him were the rowdy black teenagers, they didn't argue or label him a racist. They listened. By the end of the evening, the man had himself re-thought the problem: It's the lack of jobs and recreation for youth, he realized.

In public life, as in private, we discover that listening can be a tool for helping people think through their own reality and solve problems.

Public Dialogue - Dialogue is not debate or casual conversation. It is open public talk about what matters most in the larger world, about what's happening in our shared "commons." In public dialogue we learn as well as teach. Dialogue is the basis of political imagination, for, as Benjamin Barber notes, "Political talk is not about the world; it is talk that makes and remakes the world." ("Public Talk and Civic Action: Education for Participation in a Strong Democracy," Social Education, Volume 53, Number 6, October 1989)

Public dialogue requires conscious commitment to exploration: to asking why - why do you and I think as we do and toward what ends? It requires attention to creating an environment (even mutually agreed upon "rules" to insure full participation) in which differences are used as occasions for examining underlying assumptions and sources of information.

Dialogue encourages participants to risk asking new questions and listening to points of view they do not share. Through dialogue, our values take shape and deepen.

Dan Kemmis was instrumental in reducing the divisiveness of Missoula, Montana's politics. He and a fellow alderman who opposed him on an important issue were embarrassed about the way citizens became so confrontational. They each agreed to invite two other people to talk about how to do things differently. Soon the group grew to a dozen from each side and was calling itself the Missoula Roundtable. They struggled to master the art of dialogue.

Slowly they developed the confidence to tackle an issue together. A proposal to build a ski resort threatened Missoula with years of divisiveness. They invited citizens from both sides to talk in a way that "does the least harm to the community" and to jointly collect needed data. The situation resolved when everyone realized there wasn't enough snowfall to warrant the project. Had Missoula remained polarized, much bad blood might have been generated before that vital piece of information was discovered.

Subsequently, explains Dan, "because of the culture of the Roundtable, [candidates] agreed to try to run campaigns that do as little harm as possible." After such a campaign he became Mayor and created the Mayor's Roundtable, to which he now brings big and divisive issues.

Through dialogue, we learn that effective communication can be a positive, creative form of power.

Creative Conflict - In West Berkeley, California, a new zoning plan was stalled. Workers were worried that low-wage service companies were replacing higher-paying manufacturers. Their interests clashed with environmentalists, who were applauding the departure of polluting industries. The City Planning Commission brought the two sides face to face. Self-righteous positioning gave way to real dialogue which, after many tense months, generated a solution no one had thought of before. Their hard-won consensus was so solid that, when it came before the City Council, every citizen who testified spoke for it. Speechless, the Council passed it immediately.

Creative conflict requires critical, constructive, honest, open confrontation. This is difficult for most of us because it "disrupts easy explanations, it challenges values, and it often places people under public scrutiny." (Mitchel Thomashow, "The Virtues of Controversy," Bulletin of the Science and Technology Society, Vol. 9, 1989, 66.) And conflict can so easily turn ugly, most of us have learned to avoid it.

Healthy public life depends on creating spaces - from classrooms to public hearings - where we can come together to overcome our fear of conflict by experiencing its rewards. In such environments we can "confront each other critically and honestly over alleged facts, imputed meanings, or personal biases and prejudices...." (Parker J. Palmer, "Community, Conflict and Ways of Knowing: Ways to Deepen Our Educational Agenda," in Combining Service and learning: A Resource Book for Community and Public Service, Vol. I, National Society for Internships and Experiential Education, pp. 111-112.)

The rewards of creative conflict include clarity and learning. Each side comes to better understand how and why the other side feels as they do. And each becomes more clear about their own values and ideas in relation to the views of others. Everyone becomes more involved in and more knowledgeable about the issues. Since good solutions depend on accurately defining problems and on avoiding jumping to conclusions, conflict can increase the quality of problem-solving by helping us see the whole picture. Conflict becomes truly creative when, in addition to heat, fighting generates light and energy to find new options.

Negotiating interests is a major part of creative conflict. Negotiation means moving beyond pre-set positions, knowing what you're willing to compromise and what you're not - and being able to reach beyond compromise, when possible, to win-win solutions that meet the shared interests of all parties.

Because people are different, conflict is inevitable. Groups become more confident and powerful when they welcome conflict and make creative use of it.

Political Imagination - Political imagination is the capacity to actively suspend the "givens" of life, to see things from new perspectives, to create new possibilities.

For example, in public life we are often called upon to put ourselves in others' shoes. Political imagination helps us suspend our own views and see another's viewpoint. It helps us accept the reality of diverse interests and values and, given these varied perspectives, to acknowledge that ambiguity is inevitable.

Active listening demands that we exercise our political imagination. English Professor Peter Elbow at the University of Massachusetts uses a tool he calls "the believing game." Anybody who feels that an idea is not being understood by the others can require that, for, say, five minutes, everyone work as hard as possible to believe, develop and strengthen that idea. During those five minutes no one can criticize the idea. But, much more than that, everyone must search for its virtues - whether or not they actually believe in it.

Political imagination also involves the capacity to suspend current social and political arrangements and to "re-image" the future. The world is not static. It is remade daily by our choices. To know today what we must learn in order to create the world of tomorrow, we must be able to imagine that future world. This motivates us and enables us to set goals.

In Kentucky, the Local Governance Project helps citizens develop a "vision for the future of their communities." At one of their gatherings citizens were invited to design a front page of their county newspaper as it might appear in 1994 and 2012. In Morgan County, the newspaper for the year 2012 heralded the end of smokestack industry and roadside dumping, clean streams, theaters and galleries flourishing in countywide arts districts.

With political imagination, we expand our understanding of what is and what could be.

Reflection/Evaluation - To improve in public life, we need to continually incorporate the lessons of our experience. Every meeting, every discussion, every significant public event becomes an opportunity for evaluating changing power relationships, the effectiveness of our actions, even our goals.

We can ask ourselves and each other: How do you feel about what happened? (Answers to this question need to be one word emotions; no intellectualizing.) What worked? What didn't work? What could we do better?

Some citizens groups use evaluations to build up their members' leadership strengths. They try hard to avoid letting criticism demoralize people. In Brockton Interfaith Community, organizer Scott Spencer explains that after any action they always begin by encouraging people to evaluate their own performance first, before anyone else makes a critical comment. Acknowledging our own mistakes is easier for most of us than hearing others' criticisms, and fosters self-awareness, as well.

Successful reflection consciously builds a collective memory from which we can draw over time. Group memory can also be built from group rituals and from consciously rekindling memories of efforts of those who have gone before us or of "the way things used to be." Group memory can root us more firmly into our history and into our social and biological environments.

Public Judgment - Public judgment emerges only in hearing other points of view, thinking through the clash of values and perceiving the ground from which differences come. Public judgment differs from simple public opinion, which is the undigested mass of private thoughts about issues and controversies. Public opinion is what gets "polled" in surveys that register only our knee-jerk reactions.

Organizations such as the League of Women Voters and the National Issues Forums encourage in-depth citizen discussions of key public issues. The dialogues they sponsor make problem solving possible and help citizens accept the consequences of decisions. Such dialogues enable public judgment to emerge.

Trade-offs that are forced on people by experts, politicians and others are understandably resisted. However, when citizens themselves have weighed the alternatives and made the decisions, the trade-offs are their own, and they can better accept the consequences.

Public judgment involves learning to be discriminating. A barrage of information hits us daily. What is useful? What sources can we trust? To answer these questions, we must explore the values behind our opinions and those of others. Issue positions turn out to hinge largely on how we define our underlying values. They provide the framework from which we form our judgments.

One of the most powerful examples of public judgment in America comes from Oregon. The nonprofit group Oregon Health Decisions engaged thousands of homemakers, businesspeople, officials, nurses, physicians, social workers, teachers, ministers and other citizens from 1983-1991 in an interactive series of discussion meetings, review committees and "health care parliaments" to wrestle with difficult public health care policy decisions. They struggled with the trade-offs between curing and prevention, and the inevitable rationing of expensive health care services. A consensus emerged that these life-and-death decisions were community matters, not to be left simply to experts or market forces. They had to be made by the community, consistent with community values. Twenty thousand volunteer citizen hours went into compiling an unprecedented priority listing to guide the use of limited public health dollars - 800 "condition / treatment pairs" weighted by cost, benefit and other factors. The idea is catching on and citizens in other states are now experimenting with similar massive efforts at facilitating public judgment.

Public judgment is the process of communities generating community wisdom about community affairs.

Accountability - On a brisk fall evening in 1991, 600 people from the Sonoma Faith-Based Organizing Project gathered in a large auditorium to hold county officials answerable to the demands citizens had made throughout the year. The sheriff and the head of the housing authority sat uncomfortably on the stage. Six-foot high "report cards" were propped up at center-stage, spelling out in large letters the grounds on which these officials would be marked. As leaders of the Organizing Project called out and entered a letter grade on each count, the crowd was delighted. Both officials received straight A's, except for one "incomplete" to the Housing Authority for stalling on a key request for low income housing...

An activist welfare mother told us citizens have to learn to press politicians about specifics. "It's not about flowery speeches. It's about 'What are you going to do right now?' and 'When shall we hear from you about this?' and 'Why haven't you done this?'"

Living democracy requires that we learn to create systems of accountability, to ask those difficult questions, and to expect and get answers from those we empower to work for our communities.



Within the most vital citizen organizations we've encountered, learning is emphasized more than winning. They do weekly training sessions, have ongoing study activities, share their reflections, write up power analyses of their region, discuss case studies, maintain loose-leaf training manuals that are always being updated, practice with role plays, and are always learning in countless other ways.

We even found cities who train their citizens. For example, Seattle resident Ellen Steward told us about her city's Department of Neighborhood, which actually organizes community councils and empowers grassroots organizations:

"The Department has had a series of training workshops for people in leadership skills. In a couple of nights, you can learn how to run meetings, resource development, evaluation, how to negotiate, how to develop membership and write newsletters, etc. And all free of charge for community people, in different parts of the city. It's part of the empowerment process."

Schools are also getting involved. Through movements for cooperative learning, community service and democratic education, some American schools are returning to their original mission: transforming a diverse population into citizens who can communicate and make decisions together. Students are beginning to consider the public questions that will affect their future and the processes of social change they find most compelling. They are doing democracy while they learn it. The Amesville [Ohio] Sixth Grade Water Chemists, for example, tested the water in their town creek, and learned communication, negotiation, planning and judgment in the process.

At the Institute for the Arts of Democracy [which became the Center for Living Democracy], we are networking all these activities, spreading the word on all the good work that is being done, and developing training materials to enable everyone to learn the arts of democracy.



Living democracy opens new possibilities for America and the world.

It's not anti-government. In living democracy, citizens are not seeking more government. They're not seeking less government. Instead they are developing appropriate and effective roles for government - made accountable to citizens' real concerns.

It's not anti-market or business. In living democracy, the marketplace and business are not the enemy. Instead, citizens ask: How can the market and business be made to serve our community's needs and values.

It's not about simple volunteerism. In living democracy, individual volunteerism is not considered The Solution. Rather it is considered a means of building citizen organizations and citizen skills in order to reshape our communities ever closer to our values.

It's not about ideology. In living democracy, citizens are seeking practical solutions, freed from fixed dogma. They're letting go of the notion that there is one formula to fit all communities, all societies. They're experimenting to find what works. They are trusting their own experiences and insights, free to change as they learn new lessons.

These citizens know they don't have a democracy. Democracy is something they are doing, as they rebuild themselves and their communities and go about solving today's unprecedented problems together.


Edited by Tom Atlee for Thinkpeace, Vol VII, Nos 2&3, July 24, 1992

Much of the material in this article was published in 1994in much expanded form in The Quickening of America by Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Du Bois. These ideas have sincebeen further developed and published in a number of publications by Frances Moore Lappé, including Democracy's Edge and Getting a Grip, and Doing Democracy: Ten Practical Arts, all of which you can learn about at the Small Planet Institute.
Doing Democracy is a downloadable booklet form of the section of The Quickening of America devoted to the arts of democracy. Democracy’s Edge explores living democracy in the US sector by sector—from food to media to security and more. Getting a Grip (now in two editions) is a condensation of Democracy’s Edge.
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