By Duncan Autrey
October 20, 2022
I've been saying this for a long time now:
"Democracy is struggling."
It's not just that people are attacking our institutions, losing confidence and questioning their integrity. It's not because people have felt the need to use protest, violence and property destruction to get their voices heard. It's not just because we are deeply polarized, nor because divisiveness is a global problem.
These are all symptoms of a far deeper problem.
Our current form of representative democracy is inadequate to meet the needs of modern America. People do not believe that their voices are heard, and the truth is they aren't. Here are ten reasons why politicians fail to represent us (and always will) from the book Rebooting Democracy by Manuel Arriaga.
Democracy (the idea that governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed”1) was an amazingly transformative and valuable contribution to humanity. It has brought us far and conferred an immeasurable benefit to all of our lives, and it merits our highest efforts to both protect and improve it.
And, our current system is no longer up to the task of adequately representing our diverse human and U.S. American population. To start, the system is not representative. An elected politician can't realistically represent us if our only input is one vote. However, the main problem is that we use a system based on “winning or losing.” When half a population (right or left) can "lose" an election and then rightly doubt whether the "winners" will care about their concerns, we have a problem. This win-lose and us-them dynamic creates rivalrous behavior. Rivalry traps us in a cycle of fierce resistance and protective disdain. It is tearing us apart and makes our government utterly ineffective at doing just about anything.
The truth is: We all win, or we all lose.
We need an omni-win democracy
Democracy is due for an upgrade.
We need to develop a win-win (omni-win) democracy that considers and serves everyone. People need to be able to have direct input into the decisions that affect their lives. A great democracy would be able to make decisions that are workable for almost everyone. Even better, democracy would be able to harness the generative power of diversity, polarities, and conflict itself and use that power to improve our collective capacity to meet everyone's needs. Here's the best part, this idea is not a fantasy.
We already have the tools to create an omni-win democracy.
What's more, we don't need to win any election to change our political culture, and we don't even need to change the laws.
We only need to demand that elected representatives actively seek thoughtful, inclusive and ongoing input from their constituents on the issues that matter to them. The people (not politicians and lobbyists) should be the ones who discuss and deliberate on the nuances of policy. Elected politicians need to know what people actually want, so they can truly speak on their behalf.
Fortunately, we already have the tools to facilitate participatory citizen dialogues where the diversity of perspectives of any population can be heard and considered. We already have the tools to help people with divergent views deliberate together in finding mutually agreeable solutions. We have methods to develop systems for easeful conflict resolution and ongoing collaboration. We even have the tools to turn divisive polarization into a generative system of collective thriving.
These changes are not only better and possible, but they are also essential.
An Omni-Win Democracy is Necessary for Our Survival.
The significant challenges we face as a planet, species and nation can only be "solved" with everyone's input and participation in the solution. What's more, these challenges are persistent, or at least long-term. They will never be “solved” by any single vote or election. They will require our sustained attention and collaboration.
We don't lack experts or knowledge, but we lack the capacity for effective communication across our differences. Almost every challenge (debt, immigration, climate change, healthcare, terrorism, racism, economic inequality, species depletion, ecology and ocean collapse, etc.) will be easier to address if we can work together and harness the diversity of perspectives to find the best solutions.
So, what would this look like?
Deliberative democracy and participatory processes bring diverse groups of people together to review information about a topic and engage in facilitated conversations to find a way forward that everyone can get behind. Participatory processes and thoughtful citizen engagement would ensure that people have straightforward ways to communicate and provide input into the issues that affect their lives.
There are tons of processes and organizations that can heal divisions, reach mutual understanding, deliberate on challenging issues, generate creatives solutions, make decisions and support ongoing communication. Here is a concise list of examples of the processes and tools: Convergent Facilitation, World Cafe, restorative circles, polarity thinking, reflective structured dialogue; and here are some organizations with these skills: Essential Partners, Mediators Beyond Borders, Art of Hosting, National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation, Co-Intelligence Institute, Mutual Gain and the Consensus Building Institute, among many others.
This Conflict Literacy Framework (that I helped co-create) provides an overview of many processes and how they relate to political and social conflict.
The two defining and unifying features of all of these processes and organizations are 1) a commitment to include and consider all perspectives and 2) a structure that ensures those perspectives are heard, understood and integrated into mutually agreeable solutions. It takes both effort and skill to incorporate all the needs revealed by those with dissenting opinions, but a result that leaves no one behind and meets everyone’s needs is invaluable. If we don't find a way to include everyone in our political discussions, we can expect people to continue clamoring for attention through protest, resistance and violence.
I can imagine at least three “easy” ways to bring greater deliberation and participation into our political system without needing to make massive structural changes.
Politicians can convene citizen assemblies or citizen juries (a semi-randomly selected and representative sample of a population) to engage in deliberative processes to make informed consensus recommendations to solve complex public policy problems.
We can begin to incorporate dialogue processes and consensus-building tools into all stages of the policymaking cycle. Policy can be developed by engaging with stakeholders to discover mutual interests, basic needs and shared goals. Policymakers can use consensus and conflict resolution processes to weigh various options and find approaches everyone can live with. After legislators decide, it is possible to design conflict resolution systems that engage stakeholders in the implementation, reflection and ongoing improvement of the public policy.
Another option would be for politicians to engage in deliberative dialogue processes amongst themselves. I love to imagine our political leaders committing to taking the time to work together to find mutually agreeable approaches to the decisions they need to make. That seems like a tall order in today’s political environment where there is resistance to debating or talking about issues.
That means that it falls on us, the actual citizens, to insist on more thoughtful and inclusive decision making. Culturally, we need to stop expecting and asking individual politicians to find answers to our challenges on their own (with lobbyists). We need to start expecting (demanding) them to seek out and listen to what people want. We need to seek opportunities to engage in dialogue with those we disagree with. We must urge our elected leaders to support thoughtful and informed deliberation and to earnestly seek ways to integrate the various perspectives of their constituents into win-win solutions. We should simply demand that they prioritize solutions over power.
Why are we not doing this already?
Honestly, I don't fully understand why using processes for deliberative dialogue, and participatory democracy tools are not already ubiquitous. I've long assumed it's either because people simply don't know that it exists. Or maybe they do know it exists, but they don't believe it's possible. Lately, I'm beginning to think that people have simply learned to accept the status quo majority-rule democracy as not only expected but as the best or only way. People seem to believe that this is as good as it can get. Even though we've all felt the pain of being on the losing side of democracy, and even though there is nearly a global consensus that “shit ain't working,” people don't seem to be ready to imagine that something could be better. The attitude seems to be that "Voting is democracy. Some win and some lose, so toughen up. At least it's fair."
The truth is that voting is the lowest form of democracy, the bare minimum. It's a great starting point, and it's a valuable method when you're in a pinch, but the way that it leaves a large portion of "losers" and is unable to manage complexity and nuance is unacceptable.
How do we make the change?
Why can we more easily conceive of a catastrophic event ending life on this planet than even small changes to our current economic order?
— Slavoj Žižek, in The Pervert's Guide to Ideology
First, we need to open our minds to the benefits of including all voices and the value of seeking solutions that benefit everyone. (This, by the way, is called omnipartiality.) As the above quote implies, it is not easy to imagine these changes to our current political order entrenched in rivalrous win-lose dynamics. It may be easier to consider the converse. We cannot (don't want to) achieve sustainable change by eliminating opposition. That path leads to domination and genocide, or, at best, stagnation and polarization. Simply put, if you exclude others, they will exclude you.
Once we recognize universal access and participation are necessary, we need to demand that our politicians listen to us, all of us. We can ask them to convene a dialogue, hire a facilitator or start a citizen assembly process. Individually we can make a personal and public commitment to listening to one another. This website provides an excellent toolkit for learning how to do that.
An initial commitment to finding mutually agreeable solutions to important decisions will pay off significantly over the long term. The next level of evolution for our democracy would be to design conflict resolutions systems that support an iterative cycle of deliberation, decision-making and reflection, and that would allow us to keep refining and improving how we respond to ongoing challenges in ways that meet the most needs of as many people as possible.
The psychologist, Piaget, taught that a fundamental principle of ethics is to design games that others want to keep playing with you. Since we, and no one else, are co-designing the game we're playing, and since it is us who are co-creating the future for all of us, it is worth asking: Is this a game you want to keep playing? Do you think we are effectively engaging all the players? Do you believe we're building the future that you (and others) are hoping for?
I guess not.
It seems like there is a lot we need to fix, but there is only one thing: We need to move from win-lose processes to omni-win processes.
Fortunately, you are not alone. There is a growing collection of people and groups calling for the necessary evolution of our democracy and the development of an omni-win culture. These range from political philosophers, online communities, advocacy groups, anti-corruption movements, and conflict literacy initiatives arising in the professional fields of dialogue, facilitation, mediation and conflict transformation.
I've realized that I need to be proactive if I want to see these communities work together to bring these changes to our democracy. This is my work from now on. I'm calling it the Omni-Win Project. If you want to get involved, schedule a call or send me an email (my first and last name @gmail.com). If you want to stay tuned or are interested in finding out about future projects, workshops, events, community building opportunities and my next podcast, subscribe to this Omni-Win Visions blog and sign up for my newsletter.
Yes, democracy is in crisis. The sense that you are not being represented is real. It's time to insist on true democracy.
Coda: What about the other problems with our democracy?
I recognize that there are already ways that public opinion is already being sought and considered to influence their decision-making between elections. These include lobbyists, town halls, polls, letter writing, public comments, listening sessions and, occasionally, formal commissions and task forces. None of these are adequate. They are one-way channels of communication, meaning that they do not allow for informed deliberation and reflection that comes from back and forth dialogue. They privilege the loudest voices and special interest, meaning that they are not truly participatory nor inclusive. They focus on opinions that for or against an issue, so they obscure complexity and nuance. They are unstructured and lack professional facilitation, so they are unable to arrive at decisions. And they are all ad hoc and short term, meaning they lack the transformational power that comes from sustained reflective communication.
There are also obvious problems with the way our current representative system works; we should also address that. These include the electoral college, gerrymandering, lack of term limits, filibuster reform, voter restrictions, voter mobilizations, and corruption incentivising politicians to prioritize keeping power over solving problems. (Read this. Watch this.) While we need to address these problems, we need to think far beyond these corrections. Our current democratic system is inherently flawed because it relies on elected officials to represent people without an effective means of listening to them.