Still Doing Democracy!

Too many of us are isolated and detached from our neighbors and our local, state, and national institutions. But how do we become re-engaged in the daily work of doing democracy when the social and political landscape is full of conflict instead of conversation. Still Doing Democracy! Finding Common Ground and Acting for the Common Good offers a framework for understanding and a set of crucial skills for participating in a wide range of political, civic, and cultural efforts as an effective agent of social change. JoAnn McAllister and Jim Smith outline a process of analysis, reflection, and action and provide tools to help us find common ground and act for the common good. With knowledge and skill we can work with those who may have different experiences and different priorities while staying true to our own values. These are skills we need to be effective engaged citizens in today’s fragmented and polarized culture.


Table of Contents


We the people in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity...”

                                                 The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution

We ask what these commitments mean today. We introduce ourselves and share why we think these are the most important questions we face today.

Introduction – Effective Engaged Citizens Needed Now More Than Ever

"The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life." 

Jane Addams, 1892

This cautionary note from Jane Addams alerts us to both the fragility of change and the importance of our consistent and continuing responsibility to be engaged in creating our common life. Engaged Citizens participating in collective movements have been the energy of social change throughout history and, especially in the last several decades in the United States. Too many of us are alienated from local, state, and national institutions and fail to play a substantive role in creating our common life.


Chapter 1. Engaged Citizens, Social Change, and Social Movements

Words like freedom, justice, democracy are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.

                    James Baldwin

We begin with a simple premise: a democratic society is the collaborative creation of its citizens who share basic commitments to one another and to the greater community. Yet, the meaning of the concepts upon which these values are based are not understood or they are interpreted quite differently depending on the group you belong to, or your personal beliefs. Even who is included in “we the people” remains contentious to this day.

Chapter 2. Understanding the Social, Political, and Cultural Conversation

A) How We Know? Why Do We Have Different Beliefs and ‘Truths

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”

                                              attributed to The Talmud

What is it to know? What shapes individual, group, societal, and cultural knowledge? A humanistic philosophy and social science perspective on human nature expanded with insights from evolutionary and neuroscience studies help us understand why we have different perspectives about the world and why what we believe is ‘true’ divides us.

B) How Do We Learn About Each Other? Listening to Stories

"The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions: Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinion?”

                                                    Terry Tempest Williams, 2004

We tell stories to make sense of the world. We have learned from cognitive science and moral psychology research that we seek patterns to create a picture of the world, including who we are, that is, our identity and sense of self. We need to learn to inquire about the lives of others and to listen to their stories if we are to understand how they perceive the world.

C) How Do We Understand the Political Paradigms that Divide Us? Analyze the Stories

The question is”, said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

 Lewis Carroll, 1861

Political, social, and cultural belief systems are shaped by the same dynamics that shape our individual perceptions. In these stories words can mean so many different things depending on the context, the point of view, and who is seeking benefit, or have dominance over who.

Chapter 3: Being an Engaged Citizen

"If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people."

Virginia Woolf, 1948

To be an effective participant in civic life and social change it is important to know who you are, to know your own story. Are you clear about what you believe and what matters to you? Are you aware of your own biases – implicit and explicit? Do you speak and act from your values, or do you react from unexamined biases? How do you listen to the experience of others? How do you engage in the task of mutual learning? How do you connect and collaborate across perceived and real differences?


Chapter 4. Analyze the Foundations of our Societal Myths

“We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.”

                                                                       Louis D. Brandeis, 1941

In order to effectively challenge and change our situation one of the first steps is to understand why we are here and how we got here. We need to understanding myths and beliefs that sustain conditions that undermine our basic democratic values. We deconstruct the primary social, political, and economic paradigms that perpetuate the crisis of inequality, the decline of democratic engagement, the polarization of views, the breakdown in civil discourse, and neglect of the common good.

Chapter 5. Analyze Current Issues and Develop Effective Responses

Those who profess to love freedom and yet deprecate agitation are those who want crops without plowing. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

                                             Frederick Douglass, 1857

To develop effective action strategies, we continue to develop our analytical skills turning our attention to current issues – voting rights, mass incarceration, healthcare, tax reform, and protection of the environment - to demonstrate how societal myths work against the promise to protect the ‘general Welfare’ and what we can to do change that. We also adapt Bill Moyer’s Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements to analyze a current issue where collective action has coalesced into social movement.


“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, if you listen carefully, you can hear her breathing.”

Arundhati Roy, 2008

What, we ask, is our Response-Ability as citizens of a democracy that offers us so much choice in a world where so many have so little choice in their lives? The concepts of compassion for self and others as we connect can guide the way in which we respond and how we utilize our enhanced skillfulness as Engaged Citizens.

 Appendix – Case Studies and Citizen Activist Stories

"All it takes is a few good people to keep you sane."

 Chris Rock

Stories of engaged citizens making a difference in our lives.

If you think an Engaged Citizenry is important in meeting today’s challenges, please contribute to this effort with a tax-deductible donation at our fiscal sponsor.