The People vs. Democracy: A Review

The People vs. Democracy: A Review

Less than one-third of Americans born since 1980 believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy. In 2011, 44 percent of Americans aged 18-24 liked the idea of a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress or elections, an increase of 10 percent since 1995.

Those statistics in The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It by Yascha Mounk may be the most disturbing facts in Mounk’s troubling book, which documents how liberal democracy is under attack throughout the world.

It’s tempting to trust the young to save us. Their opinions on many matters are moving this country in a compassionate direction. But any such confidence would be wrong. Opposition to liberal democracy is growing among the youth as well. Mounk’s book, published by Harvard University Press, argues convincingly that even in the United States liberal democracy is fragile.

Mounk offers the following definitions:

  • A democracy is a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translates popular views into public policy.

  • Liberal institutions effectively protect the rule of law and guarantee individual rights such as freedom of speech, worship, press, and association to all citizens (including ethnic and religious minorities).

  • A liberal democracy is simply a political system that is both liberal and democratic….

  • Democracies can be illiberal...where most people favor subordinating independent institutions to the whims of the executive or curtailing the rights of minorities they dislike.

Conversely, liberal regimes can be undemocratic…[when] elections rarely serve to translate popular views into public policy.

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Comment on "Question: How Activists Operate"

The fifteen responses to “How should political activists improve how they operate?” were rich and diverse. As one correspondent commented:

Wow!  My first learning from reading all of your responses is this:  How very _different_ all our concerns /seem/ to be! :open_mouth:  Are we even "on the same page"?

I agree the responses cover a wide range. Thus far, however, it seems to me they’re largely compatible, though they may reflect a serious divergence in terms of priorities.

The response that had the strongest impact on me was Shariff’s. In the piece I’m writing now, a scenario that presents a narrative for how we might move toward systemic transformation, I was beginning with a focus on narrow short-term goals and concluding with an affirmation of fundamental long-term goals. His call to be clearer about ultimate goals led me to be more upfront at the outset about the ultimate goals being proposed there. Carolyn’s call for long-range goals moves in that direction, but Shariff seems to be talking about something more fundamental.

The Four-Fold Practice suggested by Jeff has merit. Though I disagree with the (anti-political) statements about “judgment” (we can make judgments without being judgmental), I like the essay’s four simple suggestions and the brief elaborations presented in italics. But the paragraphs on each point that follow often lose me. They seem too complicated and raise too many red flags. And the essay seems to be part of a much more complicated training process that includes elements like “the seven helpers.” As such, it feels like “disabling professionalism.” I believe we need simpler methods that empower more easily.

Jeff’s “The Four Roles of Change” fruitfully identifies different roles activists can play, affirms the value of each, and argues they ideally complement each other. But I’m uncomfortable with the notion that rebels “force” power holders to make a change and the suggestion that if a campaign “settles for less,” it has necessarily been “co-opted.” The reluctance to seek reconciliation through negotiation and compromise and instead try to impose one’s will by force strikes me as problematic. As Camus analyzed so incisively, it’s easy for rebels to let their anger lead them to internalizing the values of the oppressor against whom they originally rebelled. It seems this essay crosses that line. Steve’s recommendation to avoid demonizing and seek compromise is more convincing.

I like Yahya’s proposal to “listen as much as they speak” (if not more!), Deetje imploring activists to sing, Ronnie and Michael’s call for more nonviolent action, and Justice’s reminder that “peaceful ends require peaceful means.” Mike’s reference to Smucker’s book seems worth investigation. I think Bob’s complaint about abstract ideology is well taken. I hope Nancy has success with her appeal to scholars to be activists as well. And I like Thomas and Lenin’s point about sharing the lives of those being organized, but the emphasis on “explaining” seems too Leninist.

My main reservation about others’ responses, however, is that they all seem to focus on thinking and behavior, and do not address feelings. They neglect the need for deep personal change, constant self-improvement, and mutual support for that effort, which can change how activists operate.

In “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” in 1962 James Baldwin wrote:

Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

Baldwin also said:

The day will come when you will trust you more than you do now, and you will trust me more than you do now.  And we can trust each other. I do believe, I really do believe in the New Jerusalem, I really do believe that we can all become better than we are.  I know we can. But the price is enormous, and people are not yet willing to pay it.

That’s why my response to the focus question was: “Cultivate more humility and engage in more honest self-evaluation to nurture more self-improvement.”


Donald Trump: The Triumph of Frustration, The Failure Of Vision

Donald Trump: The Triumph of Frustration, The Failure Of Vision

Stop Paying Attention to Trump. Start Paying Attention to the People Who Voted for Him

For the longest time, all during the presidential campaign, I kept telling people to STOP paying attention to the Twitter shenanigans of Donald Trump. He is a sociopath, a charlatan, and will be one of our most failed presidents. Not because of his agenda, but because of his lack of one. His role is to further the continued unraveling of this society. Just stop paying attention. I see no need to feed his ego need for notoriety by paying any more attention to him than the sentences I just wrote.

However, there's a real story here, one that most of the Left and the mainstream media are choosing not to follow. This story is not about Trump. The story is about the people who voted for him, and made him President of the United States….

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Plutocracy is a Myth: The System is Us

Plutocracy is a Myth: The System is Us

The American people hold the power. The wealthy do not rule. They do not direct, exercise control, determine what happens.

When a supermajority of Americans unite and act forcefully, they persuade elected officials to respect the will of the people. But unified action rarely happens. Fragmentation and passivity allow the rich and powerful to get what they want.

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Mobilizing the Compassionate Supermajority: A Declaration for Global Transformation

Mobilizing the Compassionate Supermajority: A Declaration for Global Transformation

By improving ourselves, our culture, and our institutions, we, the compassionate supermajority of the American people, can help the United States honor its highest ideals: political equality, human rights, popular rule, and, as affirmed in the Constitution, “promote the general welfare.”

With this effort, we can help transform the world into a caring community dedicated to the common good of all humanity, ourselves, the environment, and life itself. In each nation, individuals and communities can pressure their leaders to cooperate with other nations on shared humanitarian concerns.

We can nurture mutual respect, moral commitment, and spiritual development. We can learn steadily how to set aside negative tendencies and do what we really want to do: be more compassionate. Rooted in powerful grassroots movements, we can overcome polarized gridlock by building new structures to give the supermajority a greater voice.

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In recent studies, two-thirds or more of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats, said elected officials lose touch with their constituents, don’t care “what people like me think,” put their own interests first, and fail to give Americans a voice. They said the wealthy have too much power and agreed that the amount of money individuals contribute to political campaigns should be limited….

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Why Didn’t the Democrats Stop the Nomination?

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If the Democrats had hammered away at the many lies told by Kavanaugh under oath, they may have stopped the nomination. Flake for one, said lying to Congress would be disqualifying. The Democratic leaders could have made that issue their number one talking point. But they didn’t. So the network news, including PBS, hardly touched on it during the days leading up to the vote.

Why didn’t the Democrats concentrate on the lies? One possibility is that the focus on sexual assault, especially after Trump took the bait and started sympathizing so strongly with men, will bring more women to the polls. So the Democrats prolonged the process to make it more difficult, if not impossible, to appoint another nominee later this year -- a nominee who would likely be even more hard line than Kavanaugh -- and did not attack Kavanaugh forcefully enough to prevent his elevation.

That’s the only explanation for their weakness I can figure and I haven’t seen any other analysis of the question.

If that scenario is accurate and it helps the Democrats next month to win an overwhelming majority in the House -- which can restrain and expose Trump and perhaps prompt him to resign -- were those tactics justified?

What price will we pay? What gains did we lose out on?

The Kavanaugh Nomination: A Symptom

The Kavanaugh Nomination: A Symptom

Sexual assault usually involves the exercise of power grounded in a lack of empathy. As an adolescent, Brett Kavanaugh displayed a serious lack of empathy. As a judge, his opinions have done the same. That lack of empathy disqualifies him from serving on the Supreme Court. But Democrats and Republicans have ignored those issues.

Selfish ambition is our society’s primary problem. The pursuit of power by climbing social ladders is the System’s driving force. One result is the abuse of power.

Two days prior to the Kavanaugh hearing, a New York Times editorial recommended to the Senate Judiciary Committee thirteen critical questions to be posed to Kavanaugh. The Democrats could have made certain that they asked those questions.

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Don’t Feed the Trolls

Don’t Feed the Trolls

A recent public controversy about how Facebook bans content and a June 28 column by Thomas B. Edsall, “Don’t Feed the Troll in the Oval Office,” illustrate the importance of how “racism” is defined.

As reported on September 20, Facebook bans content that affirms “white supremacy,” which it considers a “racist ideology based upon the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races and that therefore white people should be dominant over other races."

But Facebook allows “white nationalism” and “white separation.” Trying to take into account how their policies impact people around the world (such as the Zionist movement in Israel and the Basque movement in Spain), they believe white nationalism “doesn't seem to be always associated with racism (at least not explicitly.)” Many white nationalist groups say they’re not racist because they don’t consider other races inferior, but merely seek to ensure the survival of the white race and white culture.

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Comments on “The Precariat: Today's Transformative Class?”

Comments on “The Precariat: Today's Transformative Class?”

The September focus of the Great Transition Network forum is an essay by Guy Standing, “The Precariat: Today's Transformative Class?”  Standing’s essay and the comments on the forum address an important issue: economic insecurity. Unfortunately, with one exception, those comments echo Standing’s economic determinism. They neglect the need for personal, social, and cultural transformation that could proceed prior to and concurrent with economic transformation.  

Standing’s proposed solution is to impose taxes on profits from the use of common resources --”natural, social, civil, cultural, and intellectual” -- and use that revenue to guarantee everyone a basic income. He argues that approach “would enhance personal and ‘republican’ freedom..., provide [insecure workers] with basic security, and strengthen social solidarity.”

Economic security is essential. But toward what end?

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Racism: Language Matters

Racism: Language Matters

Racism -- the belief that a particular race is inherently superior -- is thoroughly interwoven into our social system. It’s a prime example of how the System nurtures domination and submission. Undoing racism and transforming America will require multi-dimensional personal change as well as social, cultural, and political change.

That work needs to be careful and compassionate. Some change efforts backfire. Clarity about “race,” racism, and systemic racism can help.

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Self-Improvement

Self-Improvement

Most Americans would like to be less judgmental and more compassionate. They’d like to love their “enemies.” They want to engage with others as equals. They know that trying to relieve suffering can be rewarding. When they think deeply about it, Americans realize:

The individual and the community are interwoven. What affects one individual affects every individual.

What serves the individual serves the community, and what serves the community serves the individual.

The Earth is a spaceship and yes, all humanity is in this together.

There’s no irreconcilable conflict between self-interest and community-interest, though there’s often a tension.

Building an effective compassionate, transformative movement will require activists to liberate those innate instincts. As James Baldwin said, “The things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

For various reasons, however, most people are not committed to ongoing self-improvement. Instead, they reflect one or more of the following characteristics…..

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Trump the Symptom

Trump the Symptom

Two recent columns in the Times echoed each other on a key aspect of our condition and Trump’s role in it. “The Devil in Steve Bannon” by Frank Bruni features an interview with Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris about his new movie, “American Dharma.” Bruni describes the film as “essentially one long, transfixing interview with B:annon.” Morris tells Bruni:

The question is: How resilient is our democracy? Was de Tocqueville right that we would just disappear into silos of self-congratulation and self-interest, or can we hope for something better?

The second column is “How Far America Has Fallen” by Roger Cohen. It concludes:

Trump was a symptom, not a cause. The problem is way deeper than him.

For William Steding, a diplomatic historian living in Colorado, American individualism has morphed into narcissism, perfectibility into entitlement, and exceptionalism into hubris. Out of that, and more, came the insidious malignancy of Trump. It will not be extirpated overnight.

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Why Launch a “Transform the System Network”

Why Launch a “Transform the System Network”

NOTE: Following are some arguments in favor of “A Suggestion.”

Personal, social, cultural, and political transformation are all needed to transform our global society, which is a coherent, self-perpetuating social system, the System.

Agreeing on the broad understanding of the System articulated in “A Suggestion” could help unify a community of various forces who see how their primary issue is connected to other issues.

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Charlottesville, Parkland, and Schlesinger

Charlottesville, Parkland, and Schlesinger

The August 13 “The Daily” podcast from The New York Times, “A Year of Reckoning in Charlottesville,” was disturbing. Though anti-racist protestors now hold most positions of power, including the Mayor’s office, it seems in Charlottesville “the left is eating itself.”

Wanting to find some alternative analysis of Charlottesville one year later, I googled the issue and found very little. But I did find a substantial July 21 Times article,  “Year After White Nationalist Rally, Charlottesville Is in Tug of War Over Its Soul.” That article includes:….

All that indicates the need for new strategies. Fortunately, an August 15 article, “‘Let Us Have a Childhood’: On the Road With the Parkland Activists,” illustrates an alternative…..

The wisdom of that strategy is reinforced by “The High Table Liberal,” a review by Sean Wilentz of a new biography of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., …

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Notes of an Urban Hermit (627 words)

Notes of an Urban Hermit (627 words)

A Brain Pickings essay about Pema Chodron prompted me to shift my self-image. Some elements in Maria Popova’s post, “When Things Fall Apart,” that hit me hard include:

  • Use fear to dismantle old ways of thinking.

  • Don’t hold on to arrogant ideas.

  • Face unsettlement with openness to possibility.

  • Get the knack of catching yourself.

  • We can be with what’s happening and not dissociate.

  • Awakeness is found in pleasure and pain.

  • Let concepts and ideals fall apart.

  • Loneliness, fear, and feeling misunderstood and rejected is the heartbeat of all things.

  • When we feel ready to give up, healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself.

  • Only through self-compassion to our own darkness can we offer light to others.

Those affirmations led me to deepen my commitment to drop my 50-year-old identity as a community organizer.,,,

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Transformation

Transformation

Personal,
Social,
Cultural,
Political,
Global
Transformation.
The overwhelming majority of people
In most nations
United,
Grounded in compassion,
Loving themselves as they love others,
Avoiding both self-sacrifice and selfishness,
Treating others as they want to be treated,
Setting aside destructive instincts,
Liberating their higher angels,
Realizing their nation’s highest ideals,
Helping to transform their nation
Into a compassionate community
Dedicated to the common good of
All humanity,
Their own people,
The environment,
And life itself --

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“Your Privilege is Showing”

“Your Privilege is Showing”

Mutual support for self-development can be risky (as well as valuable). Phoebe Maltz Bovy addresses some of the dangers in The Perils of “Privilege,” Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage. In her extensive, important, informative, and disturbing review, Bovy evaluates the “call-out culture” -- a recent explosion that’s commonly reflected in the charge, “Your privilege is showing.” Her observations suggest more effective ways to nurture personal growth and political action.

Privilege -- whether “earned,” gained by birth or luck, or granted arbitrarily -- is an advantage held by a particular person or group. Bovy affirms “admirable self-awareness of advantage” and agrees with Roxanne Gay’s statement: “If you cannot recognize your privilege, you have a lot of work to do; get started.” But she strongly criticizes most efforts to increase privilege awareness.


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Reflections on “How Do We Get There?”

Reflections on “How Do We Get There?”

The most popular topic recently on the Great Transitions Network forum was “How Do We Get There? The Problem of Action.” In their 45 comments, the contributors made many points that grabbed me, sharpened my thinking, or introduced me to new ideas about how to advance global transformation. Some of the comments with which I agree are posted here.

However, the forum disregarded the emotional world. Words such as “feelings” and “emotions” were rarely used. Merely influencing thinking is insufficient. Feelings shape ideas. Progressive activists need to learn how to connect on deep emotional levels.

More specifically, from my perspective, the discussion was weak with regard to open-ended mutual support for personal transformation.. As Asoka Bandarage has said, "Transformation of the self and the society are inseparable.”

There were some exceptions to that neglect of emotions….

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GT Nuclear Disarmament Discussion

GT Nuclear Disarmament Discussion

…I found the following statements in the lead essay to be particularly compelling:

  • Nuclear weapons, unique in their power and capacity for destruction, pose an existential threat to humanity.

  • ...celebrating technological achievement, serves to keep the nuclear arms race alive.

  • The only way to change direction is to build a strong popular movement,...

  • The nuclear abolition movement must join with other movements seeking systemic global change…,

  • Change ultimately begins with individuals.

Seeking a movement focused on nurturing the Beloved Community and believing "transformation of the self and the society are inseparable," as Asoka Bandarage put it (see “A Holistic Masterpiece”), I submitted the following comment to the Great Transitions forum.

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Great Transition Initiative: A Beacon of Positivity

Great Transition Initiative: A Beacon of Positivity

Discovering folks like Asoka Bandarage who affirm holistic, systemic transformation is heartening (see “A Holistic Masterpiece”). It’s even more rewarding to find the Great Transition Initiative (GTI), a large network whose members engage in thoughtful online dialog. These efforts counter the divisiveness that’s spreading like a plague throughout society.

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