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 systems own drawbacks as more immediate, and hence 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, even, values like 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 and modern societies find that relentless economic, cultural and technological changes require them to continuously re-invent themselves 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 and repaired 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 we are dependent upon the government in order to maintain 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 being treated with respect and dignity. At this level we are conscious of our aspirations, rights, needs, and interests. We ascertain whether we are able to further the well-being of our families and communities; whether our community and we, ourselves, are receiving the respect and status to which we believe we are entitled; and whether we are considered and treated as equals by all sections of the society and the government itself. 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 the larger context that we inhabit. This larger context affects whether we have agency in influencing 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.
It does not guarantee predetermined outcomes; rather, the outcomes develop from 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?
Because we tend to be closest to the foreground, it is normal to primarily experience and see only what is in front of us. For example, unemployment, crime, or the absence of adequate health care affects us all at a personal level; hence, we are overly conscious of the foreground. 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. Unfortunately, few get as concerned when the backgrounds start deteriorating—until it is too late.
At Citizen Demos, we find it useful to 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 with 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.