By Wade Lee Hudson
Increasing authoritarianism calls for deep commitment to democratic dialog. Winning elections is not sufficient. Popular movements with supermajority support are needed to sustain meaningful change. Face-to-face, democratic communities active year-round can counter disinformation, save the planet, and transform our nation.
Democratic dialog involves equal respect — respect for everyone’s equal value as a human being, respect for equality under the law, respect for minority opinions, respect for the right of everyone to have a voice in affairs that affect them, respect for freedom — freedom from oppression and freedom to the means required for a good life. Private institutions such as businesses provide some of those means; the government provides others. How to mix private and public means is the focus of constant debate, but if society respects its members, it must assure they have what they need to be free.
Equal respect involves humility. There are many sides to most questions. When people respect others, they’re open-minded and appreciate the “wisdom of crowds.” No one assumes they have the complete answer. The separation of powers protects democracy by promoting consensus. Pluralism and diversity improve decisions. Democratic leaders help people formulate their own solutions to problems. Spirited, nonviolent activists bring attention to issues and build pressure for corrective actions, but most issues are not black-and-white. Decision-makers must engage in deliberation, negotiation, compromise, and, ideally, reconciliation.
Humility involves compassion — compassion for self and compassion for all humanity, the environment, and life itself. When people are humble, they seek to understand those who hold different opinions. They accept how others identify themselves. They love themselves as they love others. They avoid both selfishness and self-sacrifice. They channel anger and face fear. If they work to increase their income, they don’t do so in order to look down and dominate others. If they’re satisfied with their income, they enjoy life, their family, and their communities — and concern themselves with the needs of others.
Democratic dialog rooted in equal respect, humility and compassion stands in opposition to authoritarianism. Dominating others is justified only when necessary to stop people from denying freedom to others. “Win-win” solutions can work. Our gain usually does not depend on others losing. Mutually beneficial partnerships are preferred — in families, communities, nations, and between nations. When others benefit, we can benefit.
Judgmental arrogance undermines the potential for unity, which is essential for real progress. No individual or tribe holds a monopoly on wisdom, and they should not try to monopolize power. Enlightened leadership does not consist of leaders mobilizing followers to do what the leader wants. Dogmatism is deadly and assumptions of moral superiority are risky. Demonizing opponents as “enemies” is wrong morally and counterproductive politically. We can hold individuals accountable for specific actions without scapegoating and placing total blame on them. Inflaming anger and fear breeds anger and fear. Ending friendships due to differences of opinion, labelling people disrespectfully, and hurling generalizations about others’ character rather than discussing specific actions weakens community.
With methods such as the following — informally (alone and with others) and formally (by establishing new social structures) — step by step, person by person, we can nurture equal respect, humility and compassion and promote democratic dialog.
Self-development. Most individuals want to be a better person, to grow, to be more fully human, to better serve others, to help improve the world. This growth requires acknowledging mistakes, resolving not to repeat them, and forgiving oneself. Deciding how to do so is each individual’s responsibility. With a strong commitment to self-development, we can help democratize our society.
Mutual Support. Human beings are social creatures. Society is a cooperative venture. We help each other. We rely on and learn from each other. We need others to listen to us, especially when we speak from the heart; when we listen to others, we benefit. Especially when requested, advice from peers and mentors can be useful. With a strong commitment to mutual support, we can nurture democratic dialog.
Holistic Check-ins. When group members “check-in” at the beginning of meetings, they can briefly report on their efforts with regard to what they’ve been doing, or thinking about doing, with regard to: 1) self-development; 2) building community, and; 3) political action. These check-ins can help hold members accountable to their commitment to promote democratic dialog throughout society. Verbalizing feelings enhances self-understanding, and hearing others’ report on their feelings can be a learning experience.
Support Groups. Leaderless groups can help members support each other with their self-development. These groups might meet monthly or more frequently. Their focus might be broad, like “spiritual development” or “political activism,” or even broader, like “holistic transformation.” They might be a women’s group or a men’s group, or consist of people from a particular race or ethnic group to support each other with issues associated with their social identity. They might take turns presenting readings to focus their discussions, or they might simply share extended check-ins followed by reflections.
Open Topic Dialogs. Horizontal, self-regulating, self-perpetuating, peer-to-peer conversations. Talk, listen, learn, brainstorm. Speak from the heart. Gather 8-15 people in a circle. Focus on: How can we help improve the world? Participants speak only if they’re holding the “mic,” which may be an object. The Facilitator sets a timer when each person begins speaking. Speakers talk for no more than 90 seconds. If the timer goes off, the speaker finishes the sentence. When speakers finish, they recognize the next speaker by handing them the mic. Speakers respond to the previous speaker, and then shift the topic if they wish. Speakers are encouraged to: 1) be respectful and avoid personal attacks or name-calling; 2) avoid going back and forth repeatedly with the same person, and; 3) call on people who haven’t spoken. People with mobility difficulties can select the next speaker and ask someone to give the mic to that person. The Facilitator convenes the dialog, explains the guidelines, selects the first speaker randomly, and adjourns the dialog.
Transform the Democratic Party. The Democrtic Party is already a multi-issue, inclusive, relatively democratic, national coalition vaguely committed to democratic equality. With sustained effort, Party activists can make it more democratic and transform it into an activist organization more clearly dedicated to democratic equality. The Party, however, is geared to elections – supporting Democratic candidates and backing or opposing ballot measures. In between elections, the Party forgets about its platform. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) could regularly recommend to all Americans that they communicate a specific message to their Congresspersons, Senators, and President on a top-priority, timely issue. At the local level, the Party could engage in year-round precinct organizing, build face-to-face community among its members with methods such as Open Topic Dialogs, and ask members to address the DNC’s monthly recommendation.
Community Dialogs with Elected Officials. On the second Saturday at 10 am, Congresspersons, Senators, and the President could participate in two hour Community Dialogs, whether in person or via video calls. The moderator would be a neutral, well-respected journalist. Speakers would be selected randomly and have 90 seconds to comment or ask a question on any topic. Speakers could ask the audience to indicate support on an issue by raising their hand. The elected representative would then have 90 seconds to respond. Community organizations could distribute literature to participants, who could stay after the Dialog to discuss issues informally. The officials would be responsible for recruiting the moderator, arranging logistics, publicizing the event, and arranging to have it streamed live on the Internet and cable TV. Federal legislation could require all elected federal officials to participate.
Citizen Assemblies. As described by the wikipedia: A citizens’ assembly is a body formed from the citizens of a state to deliberate on an issue or issues of national importance. The membership of a citizens’ assembly is randomly selected. The purpose is to employ a cross-section of the public to study the options available to the state on certain questions and to propose answers to these questions through rational and reasoned discussion and the use of various methods of inquiry such as directly questioning experts. The use of citizens’ assemblies to reach decisions in this way is related to the traditions of deliberative democracy and popular sovereignty in political theory. While these traditions stretch back to origins in ancient Athenian democracy, they have become newly relevant both to theorists and politicians as part of a deliberative turn in democratic theory. Citizens’ assemblies have been used in countries such as Canada and the Netherlands to deliberate on reform of the system used to elect politicians in those countries. There are also examples of independent citizens’ assemblies, such as the 2011 We the Citizens assembly in Ireland that became a template for the Irish Constitutional Convention, which led to a referendum that amended the Constitution to legalize same-sex marriage in 2015.
A Purple Alliance. A Purple Alliance could advance democracy by pushing for new compassionate national policies supported by a majority of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Periodically the Alliance would urge its members and the general public to support a specific bill. Supporters would communicate with their Congressperson with phone calls, emails, text messages, letters, office visits, or by going to a public forum with the Congressperson. In addition, at least once a month, many Alliance members would meet in small Alliance Teams in members’ homes to discuss how to advance the Alliance’s mission and support the monthly action. Many would share a meal and build supportive friendships by socializing informally prior to and after the meeting. So long as they operate in harmony with national policies, each team would be free to design its own activities.
Promoting democracy in these ways could steadily grow the number of individuals who participate in democratic communities. Members of these communities could frequently unite to push for major changes in national public policy dedicated to humanity, the environment, and life itself. This growth could lead to the eventual transformation of our self-perpetuating social system (which we reinforce with our daily actions) into a compassionate community of communities.