Democracy Is in Danger, but Not for the Reasons You Think

Congratulations, Earthling voter!  Your party has won the election!  The Good politicians you elected will enact Good policies, to make Good things happen and help the Good people live Good lives.  Your planet’s democracy is saved!  

You claim this government in the name of your party!  Hmm!  Isn’t that lovely, hmm?

…Or is it? 

Dun dun duuuuuuunnnnnn!

Now that I think of it, isn’t there still a whole party full of other voters who disagree with those policies you wanted?  In fact, there are enough of them that they almost elected some Ungood politicians.  

And your best plan for preventing those voters from electing those Ungood politicians was to… hope that your side had more people than theirs did?  That seems risky.  You had to give a lot of money to the Good politicians in order to help them win, and it almost wasn’t enough.  That’s frightening.  

After all, Good policies are very important.  You can’t let them fail just because so many people don’t agree that they’re Good policies.  

So how can you reduce the risk of electing Ungood politicians?  How can democracy work if people vote for Ungood things?  

You might silence the Ungood voters, preventing them from spreading their ideas and beliefs and from working together effectively.  After all, what’s the point of having rights like the freedom of speech and assembly if people are just going to use them to advocate for Ungood policies?  

To save democracy–that is, the system that governs based on the voices of the people–it seems you need to take away the voices of the people who want the Ungood things so that people are only allowed to talk about and vote for Good things.  The less freedom people have to talk about whatever ideas and values they want, the more democracy will thrive!  

Maybe some Good politicians can make Good laws about what ideas people are allowed to talk about.  I’m sure they will still allow you to voice your complaints when the Good politicians are not doing a Good job.  After all, people in charge of running countries are well-known for welcoming criticism.  

[CAPTION REDACTED]

The real threat

…If you’re reading this at all, you have probably spotted the irony already, but many other people on your planet have not.  

The real threat to democracy is not the people who oppose your policies and whose policies you oppose in turn.  The real threat to democracy is that the only way you know how to deal with political disagreement is to crush the other side with propaganda and votes, instead of working with them to come up with policies that neither of you object to.  

The Earthling understanding of how democracy works is missing critical pieces, and humans are trying to fill in the gaps with something that very much resembles… well, let’s just say it resembles a political system that barely resembles democracy at all.  

I realize that Earth has not been doing democracy for very long.  I’m not here to ridicule.  I’m merely here to warn you that Earth won’t be doing democracy for very much longer if you don’t take a step back and reflect on what you’re really missing. 

The work of democracy

Most of the work of maintaining a healthy democracy happens before anyone votes for anything, whether that be a political candidate or a policy.  

The work of democracy consists of talking with people: learning about their needs, wants, and fears.  It consists of working together to brainstorm solutions that will satisfy, if not everyone, then as close to everyone as theoretically possible. 

These solutions may be policies, individual efforts, community efforts, or some combination of all three.  When you get creative together, you can practice skills that help communities change, adapt, and thrive while holding onto what is most important.  You can come up with outcomes where no one is cheated or abandoned.  This work is what democracy requires, and you will need to do it consistently.  

Only when you do this work will you see trustworthy politicians.  Politicians will know they cannot get away with the mere appearance of effectiveness, because the voters will recognize what an effective policy looks like versus one that is useless (or harmful).  Instead of hiding behind empty abstractions and platitudes, candidates will run for office by expounding on their skills of policy negotiation and implementation.  

If your country’s people are worried about the outcome of an election and what it will mean for your democracy, that means you haven’t been putting in the work.  

Proceed with caution: Relationships under construction.

Friends on the other side

“The work of democracy sounds like a great idea,” you may say, “but it will never succeed, because the people on the other side do not want what I want.  There are no solutions that satisfy them that are also acceptable to me.”  

Consider this, though… how much do you actually know about those other people, and what they really want?  

You have heard about the people on the other side from your politicians and your news media, who profit from playing the role of “protecting” you from the enemies they tell you about.  Their jobs depend on you believing that the people on the other side are evil, that you cannot negotiate with them–only overpower them through superior numbers of votes and sheer force of personality.  

You have heard about the people on the other side from your friends, with whom you maintain a shared bond of trust and esteem by expressing contempt for all the same people and by refraining from questioning the shortcomings and misdeeds of your own side.  

You have even heard about the people on the other side from the other side’s own most obnoxious people, the ones who loudly and publicly express contempt for your side because they have only ever heard about your side from their politicians and news media, their friends, and the most obnoxious people on your side.  Most are merely lashing out from fear, but some of them are genuinely selfish and mean-spirited, and the greatest harm they do is making it look like their entire side is like them.  

You know the ones.  There are people on your side who do nothing but take cheap shots at the other side, but you dare not criticize their shallow reasoning or their toxic approach because that would be a betrayal of your side, so you have to defend them or remain silent.  Otherwise, people on your side would accuse you of showing respect and consideration to people on the other side, people who don’t deserve it.  

After all, being a jerk is a good thing when it’s done by people who are Good towards people who are Ungood.  You have nothing to learn from Ungood people, and they would not learn from you, so you might as well take out your frustrations on them in the hopes that they’ll eventually decide it’s not worth standing up for what they care about.  That always ends well for all involved.  

…Aaaany decade now, it’s going to end well…

You have been taught to fear these people, and they have been taught to fear you.  What are you going to do about that?  Are you going to steamroll them and justify their fears?  Are you going to continue allowing politicians to play you off against each other forever, while nothing gets done and people on both sides are seriously hurt?  Are you going to let democracy decay into an endless shouting match?  

Steamrolling people makes for very bumpy roads.

“But how do we start doing the work of democracy in the current political climate?” I can only assume you are wondering.  

Well, I’m glad I assume you asked.  

The work of democracy is easy once you know the trick.  We must dispel the fear that both sides have for each other.  We can dispel this fear by learning to understand each other’s values, as well as our own.  Through this learning process, we establish mutual respect and trust.  

I am here to make this process easier, by facilitating communication using a toolbox of foundational concepts.  With these concepts, we can describe as simply as possible what matters most.  

Universal values

Here we will take a look at concepts that enable us to understand each other.  People’s individual desires and motivations are varied and often complex.  However, their values regarding how to run a society are simple and easy to understand.  We all face the same fundamental liabilities, and we value overcoming those liabilities.  

We value triumphing over scarcity to achieve prosperity.  

We value triumphing over disaster to achieve safety.  

We value triumphing over stagnation to achieve vitality.  

We value triumphing over conflict to achieve harmony.  

People don’t disagree on these fundamental values, no matter what planet they’re from.  What we disagree on are the best ways to fulfill those values, which values to prioritize over others, and what risks and costs we’re willing to accept as a society. 

That’s not a problem when people are only choosing for themselves, but dealing with some problems calls for policies that affect communities, regions, or even all of society, and that’s a source of political conflict.  People disagree with some tradeoffs and don’t want to be forced to make ones they don’t like.  

To a certain extent it’s unavoidable that some people’s preferences will be overruled.  When we do end up compelling someone to make a tradeoff they reject, we should compensate them to offset any costs imposed on them.  That’s why people whose property is taken through eminent domain are supposed to be paid a fair price for it.  

We should also take measures to mitigate risks that people may be involuntarily subjected to.  If a community fears that an excavation project will interfere with their groundwater, we might offer to install sensors to monitor the water quality and commit to supplying free fresh water to the community in the event that their fears come true. 

Furthermore, we must avoid getting fixated on a particular result.  If we get too set on one way of living our lives we may one day become desperate enough to sacrifice others to maintain it.  There are almost always opportunities to fulfill our values even if the outcome is not exactly what we had in mind.  Is it great wealth that we desire, or is it the ability to do things we enjoy, and the esteem of people we respect?  

When you spot the light at the end of your tunnel vision, it means you’ve probably already passed many other, better lights.

No matter what, though, we must never stop collaborating to seek mutually beneficial outcomes.  The more that we work together and the more creative we get, the fewer tradeoffs we need to make.  Next we will look at how to consistently find these win-win opportunities.  

Constructive principles

Now that we know the sorts of things we all want, it’s much easier to figure out how we can work together to achieve them.  We just need to start with constructive principles: 

If we want prosperity, we need to work together to practice investment.  We must spend effort and resources in ways that yield returns of more resources.  We can then spend those resources to get even more resources.

We can invest in people by giving them financial stability, education, and the community support they need to make something of themselves.  

We can invest in infrastructure by maintaining roads, plumbing, and electrical grids.  With these systems, everything becomes more efficient, so we can do more with what we have.  

We can invest in technology for harvesting energy sustainably, growing food without harming the environment, and even extending our lifespans.  

However, it’s also critical that we don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.  Ramping up productivity can overclock our systems and deplete subtle resources that are difficult to recover.  We need to spend resources mindfully on things that are meaningful and sustainable, rather than wasteful.  Prosperity must be cultivated, not merely consumed.

If we want safety, we need to work together to practice preparation.  We must learn about the physical world and use that knowledge to decide in advance how to respond to misfortune.  We can equip ourselves with the resources and skills we will need.

Through science, we can learn to predict natural disasters, diseases, and accidents.  We can set up preventative measures and contingency plans in case our infrastructure fails.  By conducting practice drills, people will know what to do to stay safe during a disaster and rebuild important systems as quickly and smoothly as possible.  In the process of rebuilding them, we can upgrade those systems so that the next disaster is less of a shock.  

We should assume that people will behave differently in response to new policies, instead of designing policies as if anything we don’t intend to change will remain as it is.  

We don’t even need to specifically predict a problem in order to prepare ourselves for it.  We only need to ask ourselves what would happen if something that we take for granted were to become unreliable, like internet access, or warm weather, or wheat crops.  

If we want vitality, we need to work together to practice transcension.  We can challenge ourselves to surpass our limits and become more than what we are now.  Learning new skills will stretch our brains and show us how far we can extend our abilities.  Pushing the boundaries of knowledge and creativity lets us peer across the edge of the unknown. 

Developing greater discipline and broader minds will help us face problems in the future, but it is also its own reward.  Contributing to something larger than ourselves, finding an ideal to stand for, a role to play for our community or even for the world, is more fulfilling than an endless series of personal goals.  The more capable we are of living for principles rather than only for our desires, the more alive we are, in some sense.  

If we want harmony, we need to work together to practice ethics.  Getting creative lets us find ways to reconcile our values and build healthy relationships.  

The first step, though, is to be honest, and the first people we must be honest with are ourselves.  If we don’t admit our true motives, or the times we fall short of the expectations we hold for others, we will see ourselves as unquestionably righteous and will regard negotiation and compromise as failure.  

For example, imagine that two neighbors get into a feud.  One neighbor practices the trombone, and the irregular sounds greatly annoy the second neighbor.  The second neighbor retaliates by filling their yard with garish lawn ornaments that the first neighbor despises.  The first neighbor reacts by planting trees that drop leaves and seed pods into the second neighbor’s yard.  The second neighbor plants flowers that trigger the first neighbor’s allergies, and so on.  Each neighbor may have a right to do what they want on their own property, but they’re still making each other’s lives miserable, and not being neighborly at all.

“Wah wah wah wah waaaahhhhh,” says the sad trombone.

The neighbors need to reflect on what they do and consider whether it is to make themselves happy, or to make their neighbor suffer.  A truce that halts the vindictive actions on both sides will benefit both neighbors; that doesn’t take ethics to establish.  The practice of ethics comes in when things that genuinely make one person happy might bring irritation for their neighbor.  

Ethics involves exploring options.  Is the first neighbor willing to give up playing the trombone because it annoys the second neighbor?  Can the first neighbor find a quieter instrument they enjoy just as much, if not more?  Can they continue playing the trombone but make it up to the second neighbor by sharing baked goods?  Can they coordinate with the second neighbor to practice trombone when the second neighbor is out of the house?  Can they practice elsewhere?  Can they soundproof a room to practice in?  Can the second neighbor wear earplugs or headphones?  

After the brainstorming phase comes the negotiation process.  You might ask, how reasonable is it to practice the trombone in a house with neighbors who can hear?  How reasonable is it to be annoyed by a neighbor practicing the trombone?  Who, if anyone, deserves compensation for changing their behavior?  

These are valid questions, but this level of ethical reasoning is insufficient for a harmonious society.  Just like the other constructive principles, practicing ethics is about going beyond the minimum obligations.  It shows us opportunities to foster goodwill and friendship, which entails humoring people and accommodating their sensitivities even when you’re not obligated to.  

Not every negotiation needs to end in a quantifiable transaction.  If you show you’re willing to go out of your way for other people, they’ll do the same for you, in their own fashion.  That’s much more valuable than getting things our own way all the time.  After all, we can’t do everything by ourselves.  It always helps to have people looking out for us.

How do we make this happen?  

Building a healthy democracy starts with standing up for those constructive principles.  Ethics will be particularly important, because the main obstacle we face is ideological conflict.  

Don’t settle for a solution that makes winners and losers, even if you’re one of the winners.  Stick up for the people in other groups who feel threatened by the policies that your group promotes.  Talk with them and explore the possibilities.  Learn what they value and what they fear, and think about how you can both get what you want.  Show them that your side has reasonable people, that negotiation is possible.  Talk with the people in your own group, and suggest modifications to accommodate people from other groups. 

And if you get stuck, ask for help, from me or someone like me.  

As you do this, politicians who exist to “protect” people from each other will quickly start losing their appeal, because people will realize protection is not what they need.  People will demand politicians who seek out the constructive possibilities, negotiate terms, work out the plans, and implement them conscientiously.  

Politicians will cease to be the authority and instead become a profession like any other.  They will act as the experts of integrating input from a wide variety of sources and reconciling conflicts.  Democracy will thrive, and humanity will turn its talents towards more constructive pursuits.

Eventually, at long last, we will have a world we can all be proud of.  

Final thoughts

Maybe you humans will end up destroying each other.  Maybe the fabric of society will unravel, or you’ll use nuclear weapons on each other and drive a mass extinction event.  Or maybe you’ll be stuck as you are forever, in an eternal ideological stalemate.  You and I may never get to live on an Earth suffused with prosperity, safety, vitality, and harmony.  

In the event of nuclear war, you’ll know where to find me.

But if humans as a species choose not to take advantage of these gifts I bring, these concepts to understand one another, these Visionary Vocabularies, then I must warn you that the gifts carry a terrible curse if left unused.  

If you remain on your current path, you will live your lives as before in a dysfunctional society wrought of frustration and scorn, but now burdened with the knowledge that a better world with a healthy democracy is not merely theoretically possible, but practically feasible.  Whether you can live with yourself by continuing to wring your hands or shake your fist, instead of helping to build that world, is up to you.  

Your excuse that mutual respect is futile, and not worth pursuing, is now gone.  I leave you with only the choice, the responsibility, and the consequences.  Those I cannot and will not take from you.

No need to thank me.  It’s my pleasure.

If this article resonates with you, please share it with anyone who will listen–and especially anyone who won’t.

Further resources

© 2022 Alex Weissenfels

Images from Pixabay – source links in image descriptions, viewable with Inspect

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