We can’t fix ourselves to a better future. We have to generate new thinking and new systems, formal and informal, that will drive better process.
In my work with youth and in education, people talked a lot about dropout prevention, drug and alcohol prevention, violence prevention and the like. I countered with the obvious, if silly sounding, declaration: we will never prevent young people to success. Prevention in these traditional forms is all about focusing on narrow problem sets that we arbitrarily isolate, even as many of the same youth traverse them all. To help them define and find success, we have to create something new, something better, within young people and around them.
Similarly, preventing bad policy, while certainly critical in the short term, won’t build a healthy democracy. Our protests and actions in the streets, while a strong and important exhibition of democracy, could easily be cast more accurately as the prevention of tyranny. Clearly, we need to stay activated, but we also need to make sure we plan and create and build more democratic systems beyond the resistance.
A purely problem-solving orientation, whether called prevention or resistance or anything else, traps us in the premise and circumstance of the problem. Solving one problem gets us to the next, which is probably just an iteration of that which we have already solved. If we want a different future, we must create a different future. We must rethink and reestablish the norms, relationships, and basic political foundations that keep producing the same old problems. Otherwise, we will just keep fixing things, stay really busy, get burnt out, and never really get anywhere. (Check out the work of Robert Fritz for more on this train of thought.)
For starters, for democracy:
- We must perpetually challenge and recreate the norms of who votes and who doesn’t and why. (Long term, we should also probably challenge the justice (solve the problem) of the Electoral College that obfuscates the voice of the voting majority.)
- We must create new relationships among ourselves and with those we elect built on collective responsibility and accountability – which could partially result from success in #1.
- We must own and instill a sense of urgency around democracy as a practice, not as a political system, not as the political arm of capitalism, and certainly not as something inevitable.
- We must find, support, and sustain people who hold these values and help get them into prominent informal and formal community positions and elected office. Democracy needs leaders of people, not just leaders of business or leaders with money.
We can’t all argue in front of the Supreme Court or create our own legislation. All of us won’t run for office. But, every one of us can sign someone up to vote. We can vote ourselves. We can volunteer for a campaign, or serve on a board. Every one of us can write our elected officials, remind them that we are paying attention and that our voice matters. We can write op-eds or blogs or something more thoughtful than Tweets and Facebook rants. Per President Obama’s urging, we can have actual conversations with people who don’t agree with us.
Every one of us can be more democratic in our interactions within our community, our work, or even just with friends. Every one of us can value the collective, can think of others, can be more critical of and reflective on our own isolation, need for confirmation, and self-righteousness.
I believe this is how we create democracy. So, each of us has that power and that responsibility.
Yes, we can create democracy. We don’t have a choice.