What do we mean when we say "democracy"?
Examining where, how, and for whom democracy shows up in culture can point us toward where and how we need to engage new conversations about reclaiming our democracy.
In many political communities there is a constant and voluminous conversation about saving democracy, democracy reform, and pro-democracy movements in America. Those conversations are often dominated by wonky, process-oriented reforms and by deeply politically engaged professionals and communities. But how does “democracy” show up for the rest of America?
Some new research from my friends at Harmony Labs show us the way toward these culture gaps and points toward opportunities for us to tell the story of democracy, what it could mean, and why we need it to mean more.
I encourage you to dig deeply into this post, but the core takeaway is anchored on when and how we talk about democracy — and when we don’t:
Certainly, voting is an important cornerstone of a healthy democracy, but the idea of democracy in America seems to be anchored around Election Day, and Election Day only. That means that every two years, we have to recreate, reconstruct, and rebuild pro-democracy narratives in America over and over again….
Right now, we talk about democracy when it’s time to vote — but how can we tell a story of democracy that’s ubiquitous, with a much larger narrative about America, one that is talked about all the time? It’s clear from this quick look at democracy in the news that democracy isn’t a singular idea that audiences spend their time thinking about. What they do engage with — and what might be able to move them — are the fundamental components of democracy that reflect their core values.
What I see is both political parties taking people and our civic duty for granted. It should be no surprise that so many people are disengaged from our collective civic life. If politics and democracy are just about power (and often other people’s power), we will never rebuild faith in a system of self-government or move toward the full participation we need for it to be its best. We have to shift how we talk about politics and democracy to being about people and about being useful, to a conversation about civic duty and service, and to a broader understanding of self-determination and consent, civic duty and deliberation. And yes we need to build institutional power and that does mean winning elections, but it cannot only be about elections — how we get to that point has to be about people and service first and a much expanded cultural idea of what we mean when we say “democracy”.