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 are 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. Participation in the basic activities of being resident in a democratic society is a problem, however, that many of us can address as individuals, as well as, of course, as members of local or national groups.

Lack of participation in one’s civil society sphere or in the civic[1] dialogue upon which a democracy depends is a problem each of us can address as an individual with regard to our own participation. It 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.

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 benefit from controlling the public square, and offer 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 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 talking about social problems or politics to people whether they are family, friends, colleagues, or members of the same group or organization. This is an important issue 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 2016 election with 58% of eligible voters casting a ballot. But the shocking fact behind that statistic is 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 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 actions committees, 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 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.



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  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

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