Democratic structure in the 21st century is now so ubiquitous that most people, whether they live in democratic countries or not, have strong opinions about it. Few have a clear understanding of this complex experiment in political self-government or its complicated history. This lack of knowledge has led to much misunderstanding and, worst of all, democracy itself has come to mean anything that we want it to mean, rendering the idea almost meaningless. This would not be so dangerous but for the fact that there is no other political idea as vital for freedom, liberty, and rights and hence our collective and individual well-being.
Despite the importance of democracy few pay attention to this vital political system because they experience the political drama and the system’s own drawbacks as more immediate, and therefore compelling, than the abstract values and the ethical system that it fosters. For instance, numbers, money, or academic grades are easier to count or set goals towards than ideas of the larger good or values such as caring and compassion. Likewise, in politics it is also easier to focus on the concrete— laws, institutions, political parties, policies, candidates, funding, elections and scandals—than to reflect about the nature of society that politics are designed to engender. While religion once helped make the abstract more concrete through stories, myths, rules, rituals, and taboos, today few stories are sacrosanct. Modern societies find that relentless economic, cultural and technological changes require continuous reinvention in order to survive. In this modern political context we need to ask ourselves how we can nourish the (abstract) values and culture of democratic societies and not just focus on the short-term, tangible goals that our affinity groups might care about.
Here is a different way of looking at democracy:
Democracy as Background and Context
Most of us become conscious of our democracy during the election season and in times of political crisis. The rest of the time, unless we are professionally involved in government, we are not very aware of it. Democracy, somewhat like the software in our computers, is hidden and exists in order to support our work and existence. However, unlike computer software, democracy is not a system that once put in place can function on auto-pilot. It is the largest and most complex network of human relationships possible—between diverse groups of people and with their government. Like any relationship between humans who are always growing and changing, a democratic society is in a constant state of flux and needs to be continuously nourished to keep it effective.
A framework borrowed from the arts and urban planning may help us understand how we experience democracy in our minds. Human beings, as social creatures, tend to experience life through a minimum of three cognitive and emotional levels. There is the Foreground—what we are conscious of on a daily basis; the Middle Ground—where our minds go to in times of crisis; and Background—that of which we are mostly unaware. Our democratic political system is the mostly hidden background or context within which our social and political lives take place.
We are acutely conscious of what is because it affects our basic well-being. At this level we are conscious of the quality of our present economic and social conditions: our jobs, our health, hobbies and preoccupations, the presence or absence of economic security, the quality of hospitals and schools, our own status in society, and our relationships and happiness. Since government is vital in delivering services to its citizens, democracy, like every other form of government, is usually judged by its ability to satisfy these foreground issues.
MIDDLE GROUND—WHAT SHOULD BE:
Here we are conscious about what should be, because we believe that we are entitled to respect and dignity. At this level we are conscious of our rights, needs, interests, and aspirations. Are we able to improve the well-being of our families and communities? Are we considered and treated as equals to all sections of society and by the government? Unlike autocratic regimes that make no claims to giving liberty, freedom or rights to all people, democracies are judged on the basis of their ability to satisfy these aspirations.
BACKGROUND—WHAT HOLDS EVERYTHING:
Here we are conscious about our larger context. This larger context affects whether we can influence our environment. At this level we are not preoccupied with our immediate, physical or emotional conditions. Instead, we are conscious of the larger context that we inhabit. Like air for breathing or like water for fish, it keeps us alive and thriving. Democracy being a system of political order provides society with a framework for collaborative decision-making and co-existence.
Democracy does not guarantee predetermined outcomes. The outcomes of democracy are a product of a deliberate process of dialogue and negotiation. Preoccupation with immediate goals can frustrate us and lead us to discount the importance of a slow and deliberative process like democracy. This may lead us to throw out a collaborative process and advocate for unilateral processes promising instant results of our choosing. We forget that democracy is a vital framework, the only political and social operating system that allows all of us, not just the strong and the powerful, to live with liberty, autonomy, and dignity.
Bringing It Together: With Which Awareness Do We Live?
In the foreground of our daily lives, we experience only what is directly in front of us. For example, unemployment, crime, or the absence of adequate health-care are immediate concerns occupying the foreground of our thinking. When something in the foreground is ineffective, corrupted, or contentious we tend to judge the whole system through our experience—e.g. all families are messed up, government is a failure, democracy doesn’t work. For someone who has had a bad breakup or has just been passed over for a key promotion, all of life sucks. Because we are emotionally closer to these foreground events, we are often blinded to what is driving them. Few are as concerned with the background of key issues until it is too late.
At Citizen Demos, we frame the conversation not as who gets what, but how we go about determining who gets what. Solely focusing on distributive justice (who gets what) can undermine the larger political system (the process) even if it is for a “good” cause. Undermining the process has huge consequences: it can lead to cynicism and despair and can deteriorate into a free-for-all, where brute strength and power eventually step in to provide order at the cost of liberty and rights. Even for the “winners,” the loss is great: in the rush to maximize gains in the foreground, we lose the background and context itself.
The challenge in a democracy is to balance the legitimate and pressing fore and middle ground needs while at the same time protecting the integrity of the background structure. Without this balance, frustration with outcomes can lead to cynicism about process and finally chaos which is a breeding ground for populists and demagogues. Citizen Demos exists to build consciousness about (this vital democratic) background and help communities strengthen our democratic culture.