It’s hard to escape the incessant drama of the current moment these days, from the assaults on our institutions to the lives damaged or destroyed through incompetence or cruelty. It’s hard to think much beyond the immediate future, the next lawsuit, the next election, hard to think beyond resistance. But we need to. Our democracy is in grave danger, has been in grave danger for much longer than Trump has been president, and will not be fixed by a blue wave, an impeachment or anything else that can happen in the next few weeks, months, probably even years.
Please understand me: I am not saying that resistance is not necessary, that calling senators, filing lawsuits, protesting, organizing, registering people, voting and getting others out to vote aren’t vital things to be doing right now. They are.
But we need to do more than resist. We need to build or, rather, rebuild. We need to rebuild and reinvent a democracy that can withstand the assaults made possible by modern technology, modern media, and the erosion of the norms that kept us more or less in the road for a couple of centuries. A road that bypassed far too many of us, of course, which is something else our rebuilt democracy must address this time.
But we are in crisis and it is so tempting to prioritize resistance, to focus on stopping the attack, to just get through this crisis before we try to build.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. These attacks are not independent of the social and political structures that allow the attackers to operate. In fact, the attackers themselves are arguably as much a consequence of our power structure and dynamics as a cause of them. Even if we manage to win against those currently in power, we will discover that others are waiting in the wings to take advantage of those same structures, that we will have a new set of powerful people suddenly reluctant to give up the tools that allow them to maintain that power. It will likely be done by good people with the best of intentions in the name of expediency, but it will be done and things will not be better.
We need to look beyond resistance to what Mahatma Gandhi called constructive program . I think of it simply as building the infrastructure of a just democracy.
While Gandhi wrote far less about constructive program than he did about nonviolent resistance, he spoke of it often and frequently implied that it was the more vital of the two. He knew that when you seek to overthrow an oppressive regime, if you do nothing to change its supporting structures, success just means swapping one set of oppressors for another.
Constructive program is about building new structures that can replace those of the current oppressive regime, structures that support justice in the same way that the current ones support injustice. I believe that this, rebuilding the infrastructure of democracy, is one of our most important tasks right now.
By “infrastructure” I don’t mean voting machines or elections or money in politics. I mean everything that supports our ability to function as a democracy. That includes the government, but it also includes local and national media, advocacy organizations large and small, community groups, social media and other forms of civic activity. It includes the policies and technologies that regulate and support it all. Most vitally, it includes our habits and norms, all the things that govern how we actually practice democracy. The rebuilding must encompass all of this together because it is all of this, as a system, not just one or another individual thing, that is broken today.
What is Democracy?
If we are going to rebuild democracy, we should probably be sure we know just what it is we are trying to build. We do know what democracy is, don’t we? You would think so, after millennia of thinking and writing, experimenting with and arguing about whether and how democracy does, can or should work. We must know by now.
We know where to go for things that are known: let’s take a look at what Wikipedia has to say:
According to American political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens, and a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
I found myself arguing already at the first element.
My first reaction on reading Diamond’s definition was to dismiss it entirely and start over. On reflection, though, it’s not completely wrong. The elements are in the wrong order, and means get confounded with ends, but it seems fixable. Here is how I would reformulate it.
Democracy consists of four key elements:
- Rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to everyone.
- Protection of the human rights of everyone.
- A political system that gives effective voice and representation to everyone in collective decision-making.
- The active participation of the people in politics and civic life.
The changes aren’t large, but I think they are significant.
First, I’ve reordered the elements because I think they build on one another: each element is only feasible if it can assume those that come before. The first two, for example, are not themselves democracy, but they provide a vital foundation for it. Take rule of law. As soon as certain groups get to be exempted from some rules, we have laid the foundation for privileging the rights, voice or representation of one class over another. Similarly with human rights — ensuring that everyone without exception enjoys a certain basic set of rights puts critical limits on what the political system can do. Without those limits, the system eventually loses legitimacy for those whose rights are violated and breaks down.
I have also removed restrictions to “citizens.” There has long been a battle about whether the privileges and duties of democracy apply to everyone or just to a “deserving” subset. For me democracy must incorporate everyone who lives in our community, period. That is not to say that every mechanism is open to every person — it’s reasonable to restrict voting in elections to citizens, for example — but I believe the system itself must include ways to develop the habits of democracy for everyone in the community. More on that below.
The third significant change I’ve made is in the definition of the central element, the political system itself. To my mind, Diamond’s restriction of the role of the political system to “choosing and replacing the government through … elections” ignores almost everything that makes a democracy actually work. It focuses on one of the means and completely ignores the end, the very purpose of democracy. To me “rule of the people” has to be about giving the people voice and representation in the critical decisions that shape their community’s future.
With those changes, the definition seems to me a workable starting set of principles for a just democracy. All that remains is to figure out how to build one.
Democracy is a Doing
For me the clue is in the last element, the assertion that democracy requires the “active participation of the people in politics and civic life.” That statement forces a shift of focus from a static “system” to something more dynamic and organic. Democracy isn’t a set of structures and procedures. Democracy is people doing democracy — anything else is just a shell.
I like the way a friend put it:
“Democracy is a context in which we learn how to be citizens as well as a context in which we get things done.” — Daniel O. Snyder 
I believe we have largely lost this habit. To gain a democracy that is more than a shell, more than a perk for the privileged, we need to get it back, to create it anew, this time for all the people.
We can’t do this on the national level. While I have struggled to formulate why, that has been clear to me since I embarked on this work. Certainly we can share learning and resources, but the work itself is something we can only do locally. We must rebuild the habits of democracy from the ground up, person by person and community by community.
That’s the reason I get excited about Code for America brigades, local volunteer groups that use their tech and data skills to make their communities and local governments better. These and similar groups are building new habits of democracy. In a recent conversation, Denice Ross of New America Foundation called brigades a kind of “permanent civic infrastructure” in a local community. I think that is exactly right and this essay tries to articulate why that infrastructure is so important. Code for America brigades won’t save the day, of course, but they are one tiny, hopeful seed for the kind of communities I believe we can grow over the next few decades.
I began work on this post months ago and until the last few days still had no idea what it really wanted to be. It turns out to be a kind of compass I’ve built for myself, to keep myself on the path, a formulation of the principles that underlie and guide the work I feel called to do.
I hope too it can serve others as a call to action and as a reminder, both in the heat of the fight and in the dark of inevitable times of despair, that what we are doing is much more than resistance. We are laying the foundations of a new and better democracy.
- While Gandhi frequently referred to constructive program, the only work specifically devoted to the topic was a short pamphlet written in 1941. With its focus on practices that were specific to the time and place and Gandhi’s spirituality — things like prohibition, personal celibacy, spinning of thread, the use of locally-made cloth, use of provincial languages, and integration of untouchables — it has not seemed particularly relevant to most practitioners of his better known non-violent program. However, the specific practices arise from underlying principles that very much apply to other places and times. I am deeply grateful to Dan Snyder (see next note) for his wisdom about this, and to the thesis of Prof. Allwyn Tellis.
- Dan Snyder is a pastoral psychotherapist in Black Mountain, NC; he has also been a peace studies teacher and nonviolence trainer, and is the author of Quaker Witness as Sacrament, published by Pendle Hill. Conversations with Dan, as therapist, spiritual director and friend, have been a rich source of inspiration for my work and for my life.