Democracy is in a crisis. These authors see a Living Democracy, with individuals taking a personal, active role, as a way to revitalize the system.
by Dean Button, reprinted by permission from the Ecological Economics
Bulletin, January 1996
ucked away on the side of a mountain just outside of Brattleboro, Vermont, Frances Moore Lappé (Diet for a Small Planet) and Dr. Paul Martin DuBois have recently established the Center for Living Democracy. Here, they gather and disseminate information detailing what they describe as the "hidden revolution" taking place throughout the United States. This "revolution" consists of the growing number of Americans who are actively cultivating a deeper, more informed and engaged brand of democracy. Their latest book (The Quickening of America: Rebuilding Our Nation, Remaking Our Lives, 1994. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers), is not only a collection of examples from around the country of individuals and groups already in the midst of rebuilding their own communities, but an introduction to what the authors advance as the practical arts of democracy. Recently, I spent some time with them to learn more about the promise of a Living Democracy.
Q: If asked to identify the most pressing "crises" facing America, most of us would probably list crime, poverty, drugs, violence, environmental degradation, etc., but you believe there is a more fundamental "crisis" facing America - you call this the crisis of democracy. Could you explain what you believe to be America's crisis of democracy?
Frances: Each of these problems that people refer to as the issue - for us - is symptomatic. They reflect a decision-making process that is fundamentally flawed. In our society, public decision-making - typically - doesn't incorporate the people most directly involved in the problem.
So beneath "the issues" is the crisis of democracy itself. We mean by this that our understanding of democracy is very limited. It's simply understood as a structure of government, as what happens as a result of what elected officials do. So understood, it is incapable of solving our problems because our biggest problems - crime, poverty, the environment - reflect behaviors, attitudes, values, expectations that all of us - daily - engage in. They, therefore, cannot be changed without our involvement. This is really the whole message, the philosophy, behind the Center for Living Democracy. We are furthering the transition of our culture from understanding democracy as simply a structure of government to understanding democracy as a way of life.
Paul: We're talking about something more than simply a decision-making structure or process; we're talking -and I really dislike this word - but we're talking about a paradigm, an understanding, if you will, a set of expectations about where we look for answers, what definitions ought to be included within our answering process, for most problems in the world. What we don't seem to have, very often, is a great deal of dialogue between people who are not going to solve the problems they're most concerned about on either side until they open up to their opposites.
Q: Democracy as a "way of life." I know this incorporates a wide range of issues but could you give me a sense of what's involved in transforming democracy into a way of life?
Frances: That's a big question.
Paul: You know what I really want to say?
Frances: The short answer?
Frances: I like that.
Paul: Now let me elaborate: growth, personal development, but... but fun! It's probably reasonable to say that a fair portion of the ecological economics community is concerned with the necessity for what I would call social change. Especially in this culture, this society, this economy. What an awful lot of healthy people have come to understand is not only their place within society, but their need for their own interest in both the narrow sense and broad sense - to be engaged in that very large portion of their lives that is outside their bedrooms and outside their living rooms. A huge portion of their lives. As soon as they begin to feel that there is some way for them not to remain powerless, or not to remain voiceless, but to become engaged... one of the things we keep hearing from thousands and thousands of people across the country is that indeed it's fun, and it's about personal growth as well as community growth. "The world is better and I am better in it" is a very simple way of putting what they're discovering. It's about time that more people start discovering the fun of public life.
Q: I suspected that might be the case - not only that people are finding it fun, but also personally empowering. I'm curious to know the extent to which you're finding that an involvement in "public" life serves to transform the individual's "private" life as well.
Paul: The reality is that it does translate in very, very powerful ways. What we say across the country is that "you can never put the genie back into the bottle." Get people engaged and, by God, once they are people happily engaged, even unhappily engaged, they still find that engagement is better than powerlessness; better than that sense of being voiceless. Look up Theresa Francis' story in our book - there's a great example.
Frances: I would just jump in with one caveat. I think that the common image of engagement in public life is one of people getting knocked around, yelled at, ostracized from the community for being - for God's sake - an activist, and engaging in conflict which, for all of us is unpleasant, some more than others. So we're learning. What we're trying to communicate is that the point is not just getting involved, its getting involved in a certain way.
I think that all the stories in our book represent this evolutionary process of citizens' groups coming to understand that we're not born with the skills that make public life rewarding. It's like anything else - if you're not skilled at doing it, it's not much fun! I never enjoyed playing tennis because I could never get the ball over the net! If you can't do it well, you just say, "Forget this!" I think our society has never taken seriously developing people's capacity for engagement in constructive criticism, engagement in constructive conflict or public speaking. Americans are more afraid of public speaking than they are of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge! So the question is: how do you coach people, mentor people, provide training so that people find public engagement rewarding? And I think that's what the groups we've highlighted in the book have all attended to, that cultivation.
Frances: Yes! Consciously. Consciously. And that is one of the things that is different. One of the things that is very different from, say, thirty years ago where engagement meant rallying people to come out and carry their signs, but they were really just cannon-fodder for the leadership that had the blueprint, the plan, the manifesto. I think that a deeper understanding has evolved which recognizes that nothing will change unless people themselves are changed. And you don't get change simply by carrying a placard. The story that Paul alluded to earlier - of Theresa Francis - she went from being someone who had never participated in any sort of public life outside her workplace and her church. She learned the skills to sit down and negotiate with the CEOs in her community. You can imagine the depth of change in character it takes to move that distance - for her and the CEO.
Paul: And then she told us, "You know, I have terminal cancer, yet this is the happiest time of my life!"
Frances: Can you imagine? She went from being a victim, feeling voiceless, to not only affecting her future but, in her case, definitely improving the life of her whole neighborhood.
Paul: That's a large part of what we mean with that phrase, "rediscovering public life." The truth is, we all live in a public world, like it or not, aware of it or not.
Q: You state that ecology - with its emphasis on relationships and change - is the metaphor of our time. Could you talk a bit about that?
Frances: Take the hole in the ozone layer, for instance. Through an awareness of the ozone hole and global warming - to which we each contribute and from which we each will suffer - the lessons from ecology of our interconnectedness, and of the impacts our behavior - not only on ourselves and each other, but the natural world as well - gradually become more understandable to us.
Paul: We each play many roles in this public world: as worker, consumer, viewer, employer, supervisor, client, voter, opinion giver, student, service recipient, critic, contributor, leader, participant. Even many roles we think of as private - parent, for example - have vast public consequences. Personal choices we make daily - what we eat, where we shop, how much we drive - have far-ranging societal, economic, and ecological consequences.
Frances: What we're trying to do here at the Center, at least in part, is make it easier for people to realize how much they can and do, in fact, shape "the commons."
Paul: The implications of this denser, more horizontally focused view of public life are enormous.
Frances: Becoming conscious of exactly how much of an influence our choices really do have helps us realize how urgent it is to stop blaming each other and start looking for practical solutions.
Q: In your book you focus a great deal of attention on work at the local, or grassroots, level that brings together "ordinary" people who talk from their own personal experience and knowledge about a particular issue. These "non-expert approaches" appear to be producing very promising results.
Paul: Absolutely. What we see across the country are people who are learning to come together who have previously defined themselves as absolutely opposed to each other. The abortion controversy is one example where people have learned to come together to find that they have common ground in preventing unwanted births, for instance, or working with adoptees. We're seeing this over and over again in a variety of areas where people who formerly considered themselves enemies are learning to communicate with one another. What we're discovering is a hidden revolution. Here at the Center, we're trying to make visible what is largely invisible throughout the country, given the biases of the media these days, or the (in)capacity of the media to cover these kinds of stories.
Q: As long as we're on the subject, I'm wondering how the media, which is controlled by very powerful commercial interests, can really be expected to serve the interests of the community?
Paul: Well, for some time now, newspaper readership has been declining across the country. The newspapers are, obviously, quite concerned about that. At the same time, everyone from public officials to the average person on the street is complaining about the quality of the news, the sound bytes we get, the news we don't get, the education and information we really don't get, and the focus on sex and violence.
Frances: I think there's a great deal of soul searching going on within the media. People are feeling trapped by the pressure of the bottom line. Yet, many people who became journalists did so because they believed in the mission of journalism - to create and sustain an informed civic culture. The whole justification of shielding journalists from prosecution for protecting sources, for example, was based on the notion that they are the Fourth Estate and that journalism is a public good. Yet now, as many will admit, it's been reduced to a vehicle for selling. I think there are many within the industry - we've met them - who came into it because they believed in its original purpose. Here at the Center, we're about to launch the American News Service, which is a news service written by professional journalists providing the media with leads and stories about innovations in democratic problem solving.
Q: Good news stories?
Frances: Not in a simplistic sense, no. We focus much more on analyzing citizen-led initiatives addressing some of the toughest problems we face.
Paul: We've met with dozens of journalists from major newspapers across the country. We've talked with the staffs and hosts of over forty radio shows, as well as the producers and hosts of a variety of TV programs. One of the things we're finding across the country is that there are literally thousands of stories they don't know how to access, don't know how to research. These are very, very different stories - stories of people successfully learning to deal with their problems. Democratically. Constructively. Collaboratively.
The media people we've talked to stress an interest in this type of in-depth material, but tell us that they just don't know how to cover it; they don't have the time or resources. Therefore, the American News Service will. These stories take a little bit more research, a little bit more work, a little bit more "contextualizing."
Frances: One interesting example relates to the environment. Just before you arrived, I was working on a story for the News Service about the consequences of the Right to Know Law, which was passed in 1986. Here, less than ten years later, it's had an amazing impact. President Clinton recently said that this law, which makes information available to citizens about what pollutants are being deposited into the environment, resulted in a 43 percent reduction in toxic emissions. It's allowed citizens to make corporations accountable for what they are spewing into their communities and workplaces. For us, no matter how many laws are on the books, it ultimately depends on whether we as citizens take the responsibility for insuring that our environments are safe. I think that the networks that have sprung up are really helping to foster that kind of citizen involvement and corporate accountability.
In one very dramatic example in southern Texas, a small, largely Hispanic community in Houston took on one of the largest chemical companies in the country and negotiated an agreement to institute citizens' audits of the pollution control equipment. This citizen review process has been written into the company's permit to operate in Texas. This kind of initiative, based on the power of knowledge, as we highlight in our book, is really what the living democracy concept is about: citizens taking more responsibility and placing a limit on what the market will allow.
One of the continuing crises we hear a lot about is the economy and economic decline. What we've seen is that economists seem more and more unified in the notion that the market really is the measure of all. Ultimately, what we're talking about in a Living Democracy is that there is a very practical role for an educated citizenry to play in identifying the values and setting the boundaries within which the market operates. In other words, there has to be an openness to an understanding that for a market to work well - in the service of values - here has to be a dialogue among citizens concerning the context within which the market can work.
Q: So many of the issues involved in the conflict between resource depletion and our preoccupation with what Herman Daly calls "growthmania" inspire a great deal of emotion and tend to be very provocative, even incendiary. I'm wondering whether it's as simple as nudging journalists toward these kinds of stories or if there may be a limit to what this highly commercial medium will cover?
Paul: But the stories we prize so very often, with regard to the environment (or any subject really) are not the simplistic, almost childish fairy tales that pit good against evil. There's a lot more to it than that. We're finding, more and more, that it's a matter of collaboration and constructive behavior on all sides, often driven by some very basic needs and a learning of new skills.
It may take the corporate world a very long time before they find that nonthreatening. It begins with the supposition that no one is an enemy. People do, sometimes, turn out to be enemies in the process. Some people turn out to be racists, or whatever; but there are enough people desperate for solutions - people of good will and good heart - who are willing to devote themselves - partially because it's in their own interest - to learning the skills of collaboration. Indeed, there is this ground swell or hidden revolution of problem-solvers across the country. That's the only hopeful sign that we can see in what many people feel is a deteriorating society.
Q: You speak frequently of the practical arts of a living democracy. Your use of the word "art" is very deliberate, isn't it?
Frances: To us, "art" sounds pretty important, something we take seriously, and that's exactly the point. We want to elevate the notion of democratic practice to something that's highly valued, prized; something that's actively sought by and cultivated in each of us.
Paul: But it doesn't have to mean something exclusive, something that only people with talent can do.
Frances: We also like the idea of "art" because in order to practice it you have to draw upon a wide variety of faculties, not just one or two.
Paul: And art can be learned and developed over time. There's no end point to the learning. The same is true in a Living Democracy. It has no end point. It's always in flux, fluid, in development.
Q: The interest you place on grassroots level or bottom-up strategies as opposed to top-down, expert-driven strategies is well articulated throughout your book. But I'm concerned that it could easily be manipulated and used, in part, as a justification for budget cutting, a further unraveling of the social safety net, and deregulation of important environmental, consumer, and workplace safety laws. I'm sure that's not the interpretation you intend. What's the role of the federal government in a Living Democracy?
Frances: I think that one of the greatest obstacles to problem-solving, generally, in our culture today, is the demonizing of particular sectors of society. Today the government - particularly the federal government - has been demonized. Rather than being able to dispassionately construct what role is appropriate for our government in this highly complex society, as far as national policy is concerned, it becomes almost impossible once you've decided a priori that the federal government is the enemy. The percentage of people in this country that identify the government as the biggest barrier to our welfare has risen from 16 percent in the 195Os to, I believe, 67 percent - approximately two-thirds of our population - in the latest polls I've seen. That's the result of a very deliberate effort to target negative attention on the government.
It's not that the Center for Living Democracy knows ahead of time the appropriate role for government on any given issue. But we do know that within such a complex society there certainly is a very important role for such national structures. Only if we get over the notion that government is the enemy can we constructively begin to determine as a people what is appropriate.
In a society where there are so many more environmental hazards than there were twenty years ago, it's certainly not shocking that we need greater effort at the national level to protect us from the hazards that didn't exist before. I think we should look at this from the point of view that our government ought to act as a vehicle of our interests, not as our enemy. This is, of course, the tragedy of today. We see the dismantling of environmental legislation when the majority of people are opposed because the anti-government ideology has so taken hold.
Paul: We are less concerned with the role of the federal government, or any government, than we are with bottom-up ownership of the institutions that affect the lives of virtually all Americans. Maybe I've said enough there, but that leads to another thought. When I think about the economic communities, environmental and ecological communities, and I think about that as an African American, I almost immediately want to bear witness to the near total absence of minority populations within not only these movements, but their considerations.
Whatever it is that any of the so-called experts - or the various specialists and people deeply concerned about these issues - want to do by way of social change, at some point they're going to have to recognize that they have to learn to talk to each other. They also have to incorporate a great many more people who are not part of them at the moment; people who often say, with absolute justification from my point of view, "Why should I bother with any of your concerns. They're not part of me and I have nothing to do with them. What difference does it make to me? I'm trying to eke out a living!"
What we're really talking about when we talk about a living, vibrant democracy is all of us owning the policies and institutions that impact our lives. That's part of what we mean when we say, "Democracy is something we do, its not something we have."
What we're doing with this vision, which is being made real in thousands of communities and institutions across the country, literally, is spreading that sense of engaged ownership. You can't be an owner, properly speaking, responsible to yourself as an individual or to your own family, until you become a knowledgeable owner. Suddenly, in that perception, we've linked education, becoming informed and the information revolution to a sense of growing power. What those two, linked together, spell to us is the words "responsibility" and "accountability." I want to put all those words into the dialogue because they begin to define this new sense of an engaged democracy.
Q: Tell me about the television show you've recently finished putting together.
Paul: We've been working with the people who put together Hoop Dreams on this project. It's a pilot called the Grassroots Journal. It's a half-hour show to be shown on Public Television stations around the country with a 60 Minutes-type format: three stories that have to do with practices that demonstrate collaborative, democratic problem solving in a variety of areas; and an interactive segment having to do with learning tools and how people can get them.
Frances: It really is unique because it has this very strong interactive element that encourages viewers to see what's taking place in each particular story and then ask, how does this relate to my situation. We ask people to send in stories about their own communities so the interactive element is quite strong.
Q: I have to tell you that I finished your book feeling quite hopeful. But I'm interested in what your response would be to skeptics who might point out that in the face of an intensifying global economy combined with the sheer number of people who will need employment, and international free trade agreements that seem to be designed to end-run local-level efforts to protect the environment and a sense of community, that a Living Democracy is good as far as it goes. But the momentum working against it is so overwhelming...
Paul: My first reaction is entirely pragmatic: its the only thing we've got going...
Frances: ... show me an alternative.
Paul: Yes, that's a very good way to put it: show me an alternative. Every alternative that anyone has ever thought of has been tried - and failed - except that we've never really tried democracy!
For more information, or to become a member of the Center for Living
Democracy, contact them at (802) 254-1234. Or visit the Center's home page
on the World Wide Web at: http://www.sover.net/~cld.
The Ecological Economics Bulletin is published by the International Society for Ecological Economics, P.O. Box 1589, Solomons, MD 20688. (410) 326-0794. email: buttoncbl.cees.edu