The Common Good
November-December 1995

Democracy's Lifeblood

by Frances Moore Lappe, Paul Martin Du Bois | November-December 1995

Practicing the Art of Active Citizenship

Narrow focus on campaign finance reform can blind us to a deeper reality: Democracy is more than elections, even more than government itself.

The notion that democracy is simply a structure of government must be challenged. Our experience and our research convince us that solutions to America's worsening problems will continue to elude us until democracy becomes much more than a structure of government, until it becomes a culture-a culture of participation in decision making.

This is true for at least three reasons.

First, the roots of today's most serious problems-from the environment and education to crime and health care-involve each of us. Solutions involve our attitudes, our behavior, and the values that govern our actions; they are therefore inconceivable unless we ourselves, in large numbers, are motivated to change. For better or worse, most human beings are so motivated when we feel a sense of "ownership" in devising solutions.

Second, there's growing evidence that the best solutions draw on the experience, insights, and creativity of those who contribute their direct experience of the problem-whether it's breast cancer patients guiding doctors on care, people with disabilities designing how public funds can best be used to assist them, or citizens confronted with crack houses coming up with effective strategies while the police continue to fail.

Third, greater participation is necessary to re-form prevailing "public myths"-those large ideas that govern our common life. These myths include the following: Ordinary people don't count much. You can't fight city hall. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer-always have, and always will. We have to choose between the environment and economic security, prosperity and equity. The races can never get along. Democracy is about government. Democratic principles do not belong in business, schools, or the media. Government is the enemy of our well-being. (The share of Americans who perceive government as the biggest threat to our well-being rose from 16 percent in the 1950s to more than two-thirds by the '90s.)

These myths substantially limit our sense of the possible. They all converge toward one outcome: Americans feel pretty powerless. Yes, we can vote. But voting, by itself, is not an experience of power. It doesn't provide us with the experience of struggling with other citizens, working through tough issues. It doesn't demand that we ourselves learn new skills. It doesn't encourage us to overcome our deference to "the way things are." It doesn't build belief that there are solutions. And if there are no solutions, voting is not meaningful (which is perhaps why large numbers of us fail to vote).

Our public culture changes in response to our direct experience, what we observe over time, and the constant onslaught of images we receive every day through the media. Even the most thorough reform will not inhibit the power of America's highly concentrated corporate sector to influence the messages Americans receive daily through the media-from both direct advertising and the subtle influences on the programming it finances.

How, for example, did the notion that "welfare causes poverty" gain mainstream credibility? Conservative foundations funded the writing of Charles Murray's Losing Ground
and the media campaign surrounding it. That book became a media phenomenon that was influencing legislation a decade after its release. Its impact is no accident; it was carefully planned and corporate-financed, augmented by hundreds of other efforts that use popular media as tools to shape public culture.

Public ideas shape legislative choices at least as much as who's financing a given representative's war chest. In order to work-maybe even to be enacted, but certainly to create a more life-giving democracy-campaign finance reform must be embedded in a process of deep cultural change. Such change must draw Americans into public life in new ways.

Citizenship-we're coming to understand-is a learned art, not a born-into state. Without developing the arts of effective citizenship through active practice, we as a people may simply never have the skills and wisdom necessary for designing real solutions. Only through participating in decision making do we gain the confidence needed to rethink the public myths that now sustain the power of concentrated wealth, and to let go of our deepening cynicism about the possibility of change itself.

CREATING NEW POWER

Without an appreciation of our own power-understood as our capacity to act effectively on our values and legitimate interests in the public world-we cannot challenge the myths that block any significant moves toward great equity and freedom.

So what specific strategies have the most potential to help regular Americans appreciate their own power and draw more and more people into the problem-solving process themselves-so that we all can experience and build power in our schools, workplaces, media, and community decisions? The answers are being created in communities all across America.

Not very long ago, we walked into a large meeting hall in northern California buzzing with talk and dotted with colorful balloons. We saw middle-class whites, Chicano and Chicana farm workers, and some African Americans taking their seats. All were members of the Sonoma County Faith-Based Community Organizing Project. They were gathered to hold county officials formally accountable to the demands these citizens had made throughout the year.

On stage were two officials, both looking a bit uncomfortable. They were to undergo their first performance evaluation by their real "superior," those who pay their salaries and depend upon their effectiveness-regular citizens.

Six-foot high "report cards" were propped up in the center of the stage, each spelling out in large letters the grounds on which these officials would be marked. As leaders in the Organizing Project called out and entered a letter grade on each count, the crowd was delighted. Both officials had earned straight As, except for one "incomplete" that went to the Housing Authority for stalling on a key request.

The Organizing Project had succeeded in securing the local government's cooperation with virtually all of its goals during the year. It was a moment of pride for those assembled, and of relief, no doubt, for the public officials.

Why did these officials show up that night? Because these citizens had built a relationship with them over the preceding year and had earned their respect by being willing to cooperate in finding solutions to problems. And, of course, the citizens were able to "grade" the officials because they had gotten previous commitments from them and had observed them closely.

But these citizens clearly see their role as far more than demanding performance from elected officials. They feel responsible for setting priorities and turning their goals into reality. They see themselves as resources, full of insights and capacities to help make things happen. Holding themselves accountable becomes as important as holding officials accountable. So that night we witnessed one modest example of citizens creating the kind of two-way accountability that lies at the heart of a democratic culture.

No single example is telling. But multiplied thousands of times throughout our society, they begin to create new expectations. In hundreds of cities-from Chattanooga's citizen visioning process that achieved 85 percent of its ambitious plan in eight years, to Healthy Communities collaborations now in 150 localities, to the statewide "consensus councils" of North Dakota and Montana-citizens are experimenting with new forums for getting involved in planning their futures. In many, citizens are learning to hold themselves and officials accountable for producing concrete results from their collective ideas.

Simply changing the rules governing political contests doesn't teach us to build such relationships. It doesn't do much to reduce the distance between us and "them"-those "up there" who are making decisions. Just getting money out of politics, in other words, doesn't teach us that if money is out, we've got to be in.

So we must recast the challenge: It's not simply how to fix one portion of our broken political system, but how to create a democratic culture.

In addition to our own direct participation, this challenge of deep cultural change suggests three primary strategies: One is to make visible the profound cultural changes already occurring but still invisible to most Americans. (We social animals learn best by watching others.) These largely invisible democratic breakthroughs we call the "quickening of America," because quickening suggests not a full-fledged birth but the first stirrings of new life.

Where are some of these first stirrings of a more democratic culture?

  • In 20 years the number of community development corporations nationwide has multiplied more than tenfold.
  • Congregation-based citizen organizing (like the Sonoma County Faith-Based Community Organizing Project) has grown dramatically in recent years, now involving as many as two million Americans.
  • In at least nine public housing projects nationwide, tenants are now the managers. Results include dramatic reductions in drugs and crime.
  • In four major industries, businesses owned by their workers rank in the top 10. And worker-owned businesses are outperforming market average.
  • Grassroots environmental groups-now 7,000 strong-are tackling tough issues of industrial pollution, in some cases creating new mechanisms for holding companies accountable.
  • More than 170 newspapers nationwide are reconnecting their own mission to the health of the community, creating new forums for citizen problem solving that are often termed civic journalism.

To nurture a new, more effective democracy, these stories and thousands like them must become more visible in order to become more numerous. They must become widely recognized as holding powerful lessons about "what works," and about the essential role of regular citizens in public life. We each participate and spread the word.

The second strategy of deep cultural renewal is to build more powerful links among democratic innovators, thereby enabling them to learn more directly from one another. We're continually amazed that often even within the same field, or in the same city, many citizen problem solvers are not aware of others. We can all devote more resources to sharing the lessons we're learning.

Finally, we can vastly increase and improve the opportunities for citizens to learn the democratic skills-what we call the "arts of democracy"-that make engagement in public life rewarding and sustainable. More and more organizations are devoting resources to training in skills that range from negotiation, active listening, and creative conflict to mediation, evaluation, and mentoring. We can support and expand such training opportunities.

Thus to move toward a society that works-a true culture of democracy-we must be fomenting and nurturing change in the experience
of millions of ordinary people. Although they remain largely unreported in mainstream media, hopeful changes are building in human service agencies, schools, workplaces, even in the media and government itself. Regular citizens are creating the foundation of what we term a living democracy, one making possible a wide variety of new, liberating public ideas.

Perhaps the most important of these ideas is that democracy can be successful when it engages broad masses of people-and deliberately builds the concepts and skills that make for effectiveness-in key decisions regarding our vital interests. This concept revolutionizes the civic culture, changing the expectations of citizens and "leaders" alike.

The growing success of thousands of such efforts suggests an important lesson: Campaign finance reform, to succeed, must be embedded in deep cultural change. Campaign finance reform will fail if perceived as yet another platform someone is trying to sell. But successful reform can emerge out of the felt needs of millions of Americans.

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ and PAUL MARTIN DU BOIS, a husband-and-wife team, direct the Center for Living Democracy in Brattleboro, Vermont. Both are best-selling authors with decades of hands-on leadership in social change organizations. Their most recent book is
The Quickening of America: Rebuilding Our Nation, Remaking Our Lives (Jossey-Bass, 1994).

This article is a shortened version of an article that appears in
Social Policy magazine, Fall 1995.

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