Open Forum

Habits of Democracy


Our recent quadrennial electronic plebiscite for gubernatorial and other statewide offices registered a new wrinkle that is unfortunately a bit of a throwback to “Two Governors for the price of one” or “Pass the biscuits Pappy.” This time, Texas voters were subjected to debates about nicknames on the ballot, ads featuring a candidate as a giant walking through town, Gov. Good Hair protecting Texas from terrorists, racism disguised as humor, and, by the way, “Can I sell my merchandise at your event?”

My critique is not about a particular candidate, but rather about the climate and culture we have created around our political process. What passes for campaigns today are nothing more than marketing strategies in which the approach is the same as when we are trying to convince consumers to choose Coke over Pepsi.

Both major parties (as well as independents) are increasingly contracting out their voter-education and get-out-the-vote strategies. Technology has taken the concept of mass mail and applied it to prerecorded phone calls and e-mail blasts. Polls and focus groups determine a candidate’s “message” demographic group by demographic group with razor-fine distinctions.

The campaign experts appeal to our pre-politicalness: to our anxieties, our fears, and our insecurities. They focus on mobilizing us around our impulses, which are disconnected from our interests and our values, and even from our needs—particularly from the needs of our children, our families, and our communities.

Increasingly, the volatility of the market is leaving low-income and middle-class families trying to navigate turbulent waters on their own. There have always been costs associated with dynamic economic growth, but historically these were buffered by corporations, which shared risks; by the government, which created a social safety net; by unions and churches, which helped mitigate the costs of change; and by the neighborhoods in which all these institutions were imbedded. Today’s changes and disruptions are much more cumulative in nature, and are compounded by a lack of institutions willing or able to help absorb the costs. Rather than strengthen the safety net, our government leadership focuses on ensuring that corporations are assisted in their efforts to keep heads above water. Coupled with the misdirection from campaign experts, this increasing sense of dislocation and frustration with the turbulence of the marketplace leaves people disoriented and vulnerable to the demagogues of hate who tell them their struggles are the fault of immigrants, homosexuals, high taxes, or terrorists. When the media choose to parrot these messages and call them “news,” they exacerbate the problem.

To the extent that issues are addressed in campaigns, the emphasis is on what the “experts” tell us. Do economists think we can afford this program? What do the successful business leaders say about how we should run our schools? Studies show… Statistics indicate… The more politicians rely on technology and experts to chart their paths, the less engaged, the more complacent, the more apathetic, and the more depressed voters become. Or maybe that’s just me.

There is nothing inherently wrong with experts. We have to think about them as Arthur Okun described the market: Both the market and experts have their place, but they must be kept in place.

Democracy should not be a system in which we periodically express our preferences to experts who then implement their own agenda. Nor should it be a series of focus groups aimed at providing the data that will enable the gurus of information technology to overwhelm us with images that activate our impulses.

Properly understood, democracy is a set of practices. It requires skills that enable people to engage one another about their experiences, their hopes, their dreams, and what they expect from their government. The word democracy comes from two Greek words: demos (the people) and krotia (to rule). Krotia means to rule, not to select, to choose, or to merely cast a ballot. Democracy presumes the existence of both reflection and context among its practitioners. It expects people to reflect on their own experiences in the light of those of others, rather than rushing to judgment based on instinct. Democracy presumes that people are clear about their interests, rather than operating based on impulses. The very notion of interests comes from the Greek word interresse—to be among and between. So to really know our interests, we must be engaged in relationships and embedded in communities. Unfortunately, these skills of “public life,” of conversation, of debate, and of compromise are no longer widely taught in our institutions and our neighborhoods. It was in our mediating institutions—schools, unions, settlement homes, houses of worship, and other community centers—that we were taught the habits and practices requisite for active citizenship and a vibrant democratic culture.

These same institutions also helped us understand how our interests were connected to something larger than ourselves, what Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to as public piety. This recognition of a larger vision and reality requires courage and imagination. It requires an awareness and understanding of cultural and historical contexts.

Today the habits of democracy are developed, and our vision is expanded, only when institutions can revive their narratives of traditions and of peoples who have done great deeds and spoken great words. Properly understood, this is what we mean by traditions: the living ideas of the dead. Without context and interpretation, there is no narrative, and no opportunity for people to develop the skills of public life and the trust necessary for collaborative action. The bits of stories that people think they know are void of meaning, and become the dead ideas of the living, or traditionalism. Traditionalism leaves us with words and pieces of stories used to mask agendas and realities that have been fabricated to serve the interests of oftentimes selfish power brokers. In contrast, when we operate and act within our traditions of faith and democracy, we can create our own reality and fulfill the democratic promise.

One of the tenets of the broad-based Industrial Areas Foundation network of community organizations in Texas has always been the Iron Rule: Never ever do for others what they can do for themselves. The Iron Rule isn’t social Darwinism; it isn’t root hog or die. The Iron Rule says that we have to help people develop good judgment and the competencies and skills requisite for effective participation in public life. In the spirit of the Populist Party in Texas, we always believed that ordinary citizens have the capacity to become their own experts, to understand complex issues, and to develop an understanding of their own interests. Our leaders refer to their organizations as “universities of public life,” in which they not only develop the skills of negotiation, debate, and collaboration, but also analyze issues related to public policy and the role of government, educate themselves, and then go out to teach the issues in their neighborhoods and communities.

In the fall of 2005, more than 300 people from foundation-affiliated community organizations throughout Texas and its neighboring states convened in Dallas to develop training sessions on topics such as taxation; the role of the public sector; understanding markets; and globalization and the role of labor. Three hundred leaders then returned home with curricula outlines, transcripts, and compact discs so they could conduct training sessions in the context of stories from their individual communities. They began organizing sessions in their local public schools, houses of worship, and other community institutions. Their goal was to counter the anti-public sector rhetoric of the far right by identifying and linking people from all political parties who identify themselves as moderates and knitting them together in conversations about the interests of their families and communities.

Two subsequent sessions in Texas were organized in January and September 2006, preparing an additional 1,200 leaders to teach civic academies tailored to issues of concern to families in Texas—with a particular emphasis on tax systems and property appraisal caps. At the September session, the former chair of the governor’s Commission on Tax Reform praised the leaders for teaching the commission the intricacies of tax structures during hearings in the spring of 2006. He credited their work for helping dissuade the commission from a sales tax increase in favor of a broad-based business tax.

For these community leaders, the experience of developing their own expertise was transformative. They are no longer willing to passively accept the messages of the experts, the media, and the politicians. What does that experience have to say to the rest of us? The real question is whether we, as people who care about children, families, communities, and a dignified workplace, have the patience to create opportunities and investments in the capacity of ordinary people. Will we invest the time, energy, and money to re-create our democratic institutions: our schools, our unions, our congregations, and our community organizations? The universal that “all politics is local” shouldn’t be translated into NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard). We should accept the challenge of engaging our local political institutions—our school boards, our city councils and our county commissioners—with a global vision of what is requisite for the flourishing of humanity. Saul Alinsky used to say that people who have the capacity to understand both the issues and their own interests will make the right decision the vast majority of the time: creating a democratic culture that makes possible the promise of American life.

Ernesto Cortes Jr. is the executive director of the Southwest Region of the Industrial Areas Foundation.