Essay - Frances Moore Lappe

At Democracy's Edge

It's far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism. -- Dee Hock

Under the banner of exporting democracy, Americans are sacrificing our lives abroad-even as many fear we are losing democracy here at home. But it's not too late, not if we seize the power of democracy itself.

The trouble is, we first have to believe in it.

Yet three-fourths of us-a share that doubled from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s-feel our "government is run by a few big interests looking out only for themselves." Booming flag sales notwithstanding, our confidence in democracy is waning because our received notion of it is proving too shallow to inspire confidence, too weak to be effective. We now see that our "thin democracy" can't save us from poverty's spread-up 17 percent in five years-or from a health care disaster placing us 43rd in infant death rates worldwide, or from Katrina.

By thin democracy I mean a society that behaves as if the best possible outcomes flow from a simple combination of elected government and a "free market" ruled by supply-and-demand "laws" divorced from ethical values. Inexorably, wealth and power concentrate to the point that both a competitive market and an accountable political process are undermined, and citizens' voices are increasingly sidelined. (Today Washington lobbyists outnumber elected representatives 56 to 1.) Thin democracy leads to an instant-gratification ethic that seeks only short-term results and to shrinking public investments that compromise public safety and allow social and physical infrastructure to decay.

Perhaps worst of all, thin democracy's narrowly selfish and material premise warps our sense of self, denying deep human needs for caring connection, personal effectiveness, and meaning.

Thin democracy deadens our souls.

In defining thin democracy, I use the phrase "behaves as if" because few Americans would actually endorse such an obviously unworkable setup! Nonetheless we act as if we do because we see no credible alternative. We go along because we feel powerless.

Thus it is our feeling of powerlessness that is the real crisis. Solutions to our problems are in most cases widely known, but we feel powerless to act because we fail to see the causal pattern creating our misery-thin democracy-or the powerful tool we have to uproot it: democracy as a living practice.

"Living democracy" is a society that believes in its citizens and their values, and thus assumes that the best outcomes flow from engaging them in all dimensions of public affairs. Citizens shield the electoral process from the influence of wealth and use the marketplace as a tool subordinate to their core ethical values.

So, you may wonder, where is this living democracy? Invisible to most Americans, it is emerging, not just in politics but everywhere. A small taste:

  • In only eight years working people in New York state have built a party of their own. Already the Working Families Party has been critical in lifting the state minimum wage by $2.00 an hour.
  • Grassroots-led reforms in Maine and Arizona have purged private wealth from elections, so citizens are now running for office and voting in greater numbers.
  • Municipalities from Seattle to St. Paul are trusting citizen councils to help allocate significant public monies.
  • An invest-with-social-purpose movement has swollen 53-fold to $2 trillion in two decades, and in half that time a fair-trade movement has already begun to affect supermarket sales. Both legitimize democratic principles in our economic choices.
  • In hundreds of schools students are learning democracy by doing it, proving that building their power as public problem-solvers boosts academic achievement.
  • Our justice system relies increasingly on community leadership to rehabilitate transgressors and return them to the community, with huge public savings.

Remaking norms and rules and therefore our sense of the possible, these citizen-led breakthroughs reflect an incremental but dramatic shedding of thin democracy. They begin to show us what democracy as a way of life looks like.

And they have the wind at their backs.

One big gust is a spreading certainty that today's problems are just too complex, too interrelated, and too pervasive to be solved from the top down. Sustainable solutions depend on widening the circle of problem solvers and embracing those most directly affected. From the radical proclamation that "all men are created equal" two centuries ago, we've seen the values and insights of the citizen increasingly recognized, now in everything from designing the new World Trade Center site to hammering out United Nations' conventions.

In the process, power itself is being re-defined. In thin democracy, power is some thing invested in official position, wealth, or armed might. Living democracy claims power's root Latin meaning: posse, to be able. Power is our capacity to act, what we create together.

The implications are huge. Since citizens create power, we can't be content simply to complain or make demands. We can hold not just officials but ourselves accountable for constructing solutions.

Two other contemporary changes propel living democracy's unfolding.

One is the communications revolution. Whether it's the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's online Toxics Release Inventory or the explosion of blogs, the Internet dissolves one-to-many information control, encouraging many-to-many networks. Power shifts from exclusive elites to ordinary citizens with a stake in outcomes. All this makes it harder for those clinging to thin democracy to keep secrets-as when a "mere" blogger exposed the Bush-planted reporter "Jeff Gannon."

The second change is the ecological revolution, in which hierarchical notions of nature are giving way to an understanding of nature as fluid networks. Humans are no longer the pinnacle because there is no pinnacle. As ecological understanding seeps into popular consciousness, humans don't lose significance, we gain it. We see that our acts-using pesticides that pollute a distant bay or shopping with the intention of supporting just wages-create effects radiating outward in endless ripples. That's power.

Thin democracy has landed us in the terrifying place Franklin Roosevelt warned about. "...[T]he liberty of a democracy is not safe," he said in 1938, "if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism."

Note carefully: Roosevelt frames the problem as ours, as what we citizens tolerate. We can stop tolerating thin democracy and claim our roles as midwives of living democracy. This means mustering the courage to say aloud that thin democracy's primitive capitalism-belief in an automatic market to which we isolated individuals turn over our fate-is a childish fantasy corrupting our political system and betraying the moral precepts virtually all Americans share.

It means refusing to indulge in another fantasy-that simply removing right-wing control in Washington will retrieve America's democratic promise. And it means making living democracy breakthroughs visible in order to spark a social multiplier effect potentially moving democracy to its next historical stage.

But everything starts with our belief in democracy. Without this, we are lost. And the only way to become a believer is to become a doer. This means joining with others, our eyes wide open, defying the notion of citizens as mere shoppers, spectators, and blamers by becoming powerful actors with a deep sense of interconnection in a Living Democracy.

Maybe it's time to recast the old right-wing slogan to our new ends, proclaiming: Democracy: Live it or lose it.

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of Democracy's Edge: Choosing To Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life. See for more information.