To Do Democracy: 1) People Need to Participate

Democracy in the United States and around the world is under attack directly and indirectly by domestic and international entities, disparate cultural undercurrents, and systemic dynamics that mostly work below the surface. These issues are generally large social problems whose remediation is beyond our ability to respond individually. We pay attention to news and analysis about issues that we are interested in and may join groups to work on issues that capture our passion. Lack of participation in the basic activities required of a resident in a democratic society is a problem, however, that we can address as individuals. We can choose to participate.

Lack of participation in civil society or in the civic sphere[1] is also a problem that we can address in a number of contexts to support the participation of others. And, it is important that we do so because democracy depends on all of our the voices, the voices of “We the People.” To resolve the very great challenges that we face now and in the fast approaching future of accelerating climate change and resulting social, political, and humanitarian crises we will need to work together.

The disintegration of participation in many facets of American life requires an understanding of the dynamics that have eroded both civil and civic life. I begin this series of short essays to name and describe some of these dynamics and to offer a way to understand their origins, especially how lack of participation benefits those who seek to control the public square for their own advantage. I also suggest some useful tools to become a more active participant in the experiment that is our democracy.

“We always hear about the rights of democracy, but the major responsibility of it is participation.”                                                                                                                                  Wynton Marsalis, May, 2014

This reminder from jazz musician Marsalis makes clear that it is the act of doing that is essential. We all know that democracy is a process and that we should participate. ‘Doing’ is the best word to describe this process indicating action, performing, implementing, achieving. There are many ways, however, in which we are not participating in the process of doing democracy today. Marsalis thinks we can learn a lot about doing democracy from jazz. In Moving to Higher Ground (2008) he describes the interaction and improvisational character of the music he grew up with and writes, “Jazz also reminds you that you can work things out with other people. It’s hard, but it can be done.” But many of us are not even talking about social problems or politics to people whether they are family, friends, colleagues, or members of the same group or organization. This is important since being able to talk with one another about problems and possible solutions is an essential element of belonging to any group or community, or nation and, as Marsalis says, “working things out.” Without these conversations the sense of “We the People” is disintegrating.

Another form of not doing is the lack of participation in elections and civic activities. For example, just less than 25% of individuals gave some of their time to a civic organization in 2015.[2] People voted at a greater rate in the 2016 election with 58% of eligible voters casting a ballot. But that statistic means that only 26% of eligible voters elected the President; 74% did not. So, why are so many people not participating in creating the kind of world they want to live in? Despite the encouraging rise of demonstrations and marches since the 2016 election and increase in mid term voting in 2018, there are numerous forces, including organizations whose sole purpose is to diminish our voices, that persist unabated to undermine both civil and civic life. We need to know about these and put responding to them on our ‘to do’ list as challenges that require a response.

Here are six factors (there are many more, of course) that diminish active engagement in the work of democracy:

1) We are silent or we are argumentative and have coalesced into groups with distinct views of reality that are defended even when evidence to the contrary exists. These positions represent not only different priorities; they are based on different ideas about values that have been presumed to be universal. We do not engage in listening or in conversation anymore, but, as the media frequently describes it, people “go to their corners.”

2) We are discouraged from participation in expressing our dismay or participating in social movements by the way the media generally covers social action events, such as marches and demonstrations. The first media framework is to focus on disruption or violence and it is pretty easy to understand, as we are all familiar with the news dictum that “if it bleeds it leads.” The media focus on partisanship and elections as horse races has also turned the lens on people instead of policies limiting the public’s ability to understand the consequences of elections.

3) We are uninformed and some segments of the population have a limited understanding of basic historical facts, the structure of government, and the process of participation. A recent survey found that 35% of American adults could not name the 3 branches of government and that 21% thought that 5-4 Supreme Court decisions were sent back to the Congress. Even more disconcerting, this report concluded that “college graduates are alarmingly ignorant of America’s history and heritage” and lack an understanding of the importance of, for example, the emancipation proclamation and other notable events in our nation’s history. [3]

4) We are manipulated by political parties, by corporate political action committees (PACS), and industry groups. Both political parties have used gerrymandering to dominate government offices at the federal, state, and local levels creating communities connected by partisanship, but strangely disconnected by geography.[4] We are manipulated by corporate funding of elections as both political parties rely on pacs that bring outside interests and their money to bear on even local issues.[5] We are manipulated by industry groups committed to diminishing “people power.” These well-financed, calculated, and sophisticated efforts of corporations and their allies create and fund citizen or consumer groups whose campaigns support the corporate message, or cast aspersions on their critics, supposedly representing “the public.”[6]

5) We are stressed and busy. A major challenge for many individuals is just the amount of work required to provide for basic needs today. As Elizabeth Warren pointedly asked back in 2004: why is a two-income family more stressed than a one-income family a generation ago? [7] With the ‘gig’ economy and the part time shifts at big box stores, this situation is getting worse. Obviously, corporate capitalism closes down options to participate in community as a lack of time is also built into this system.

6) We are distracted by what Nielsen calls “interacting with media.”[8] Over 50 % of adults watch some form of video each day, either streaming or time-shifted programs, or are listening for a total of up to eleven hours. Our disengaged citizenry has been largely distracted into irrelevance by the ubiquitous screens, focused on cable info-entertainment, social media, games, and streaming fantasies. While we all bear some responsibility for how we spend our time (when we are not working), with sophisticated tactics based on psychology and neuroscience this is not exactly a fair fight.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll start unpacking each of these factors and deconstructing the perspectives and describing the tactics of those whose beliefs or actions depress participation in our democracy. I will ask the critical questions in understanding each of these: who is telling the story, what is the source of their information, whose point of view is being represented, and who benefits and who is harmed, or who wins and who loses?

[1] There is a difference here worth noting: civil society is “the sphere of a person’s public life… manifest through personal choice, expression, and affiliation.” This includes, religious, commercial, cultural groups, etc. Civic society is the ‘sphere of a person’s public life within the state that includes his or her role as citizen, i.e. as voter and political agent.” Both are important as a locus of participation for individuals.




[5] For example, Coca Cola’s pac is called “The Coca-Cola Nonpartisan Committee for Good Government.


[7] Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi (2004). The Two-Income Trap.



Recent Posts


By Jim Smith | August 11, 2019 |

THE MURKINESS OF CIVIL SOCIETY AND SOCIAL CHANGE PART 2   Feminism and New Public Discourse   Modern feminist writers…


By Jim Smith | August 8, 2019 |

THE MURKINESS OF CIVIL SOCIETY AND SOCIAL CHANGE Part 1 This is the first installment of a discussion of the…

The Ghost of “Postmodernism” and Future Social Change

By Jim Smith | July 23, 2019 |

  The Ghost of “Postmodernism” and Future Social Change   ‘Postmodernism’ is a concept that has now been around in…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom – Tenth Installment

By Jim Smith | July 4, 2019 |

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Tenth Installment If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Ninth Installment

By Jim Smith | June 27, 2019 |

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Ninth Installment “The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom – Eighth Installment

By Jim Smith | June 20, 2019 |

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Eighth Installment “A state of shock is produced when a story…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Seventh Installment

By Jim Smith | June 7, 2019 |

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Seventh Installment   “This is the permanent tension that lies at…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom, Sixth Installment

By Jim Smith | May 30, 2019 |

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom, Sixth Installment   This week we will continue to evaluate the…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom, Fifth Installment

By Jim Smith | May 21, 2019 |

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Fifth Installment “To deny people their human rights is to challenge…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom, Installment 4

By Jim Smith | May 15, 2019 |

  Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Fourth Installment “The few own the many because they possess…


  1. Galen McKibben on May 15, 2019 at 6:16 pm

    A couple of thoughts: To fully understand the nature of our capitalistic democracy, we must begin with the 1493 Papal Bull. “Doctrine of Discovery”, which established a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians. That Papal Bull. was the justification for the treatment of the approximately 90 million indigenous peoples who inhabited North and South America in 1492. It is still a part of our system of laws; was last sighted in a case earlier this century.
    We are essentially still colonizers, which depends on a strict adherence to Western World linear, hierarchical approaches to governance, social structures and most relationships. I worry that until we can see our Western World way of understanding the universe for what it is and actively “decolonize”, all our sociopolitical constructs are doomed to determinate into what we have in this country today.

    • JoAnn McAllister on May 21, 2019 at 4:54 pm

      Galen, thank you for the comment. You raise an important question about the long standing point of view of Western culture. And, I agree that we need to become aware of historical ideas and how they continue to shape our behavior if we are to change systems that continue to ‘colonize’ people and planet. JoAnn

Leave a Comment