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Practical Democracy

On Personal and Social Change

Progressives have not always been sterling examples of human beings. Randall Terry (the Right Wing extremist) was raised by 5 militant feminist aunts. Jane Roe worked at a Planned Parenthood facility while she was converting to her current anti-abortion stance.

It's not enough to be a dedicated activist. Unless we can also be decent people, we will lose in the long run.

December 7 2004

Because there will always be some who are interested in "power over", there is a need for Practical Democracy.

The worst mistake, however, is to believe that those dictator wannabes are somebody else. In reality, there is a "little dictator" inside all of us. And, in keeping with the principals of democracy and creative conflict management, we do not so much "fight against" this part of us or try to bully it into submission. Instead, we acknowledge it, respect it, learn from it, and explore how to distract it, channel it, work with it. It is part of our inner Child, part of our energy, and needs to be parented rather than split off.

Any attempt to extirpate that part of us ends with the "little dictator" winning ("the underdog always wins" - Fritz Perls). The "little dictator" is a real part of all of us; denial is not a way to deal with it.

The point is that if we are to practice Practical Democracy, a good place to start is with ourselves. We can learn to be self-aware, skilled in handling our own "little dictator" and knowledgeable about Creative Conflict Management; and beginning with ourselves.

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The place of the spiritual person is in the world.

In the past, in rigid, highly structured class societies, it made sense for spiritual people to totally withdraw to deserts or convents. In a democracy the place of a spiritual person is in the world, to be part of the leaven bringing the world to a spiritual awareness.

Being in the world need not mean watching television, whose primary purpose is to convince people that they are somehow deficient unless they purchase the proferred products. A constant barrage of messages that happiness can be bought is not conducive to a vibrant spiritual life.

Being in the world for most of us means working, committing to a spouse, raising a family, participating in local civic and/or religious organizations. But our economy does not nurture family time or allow for much leisure time to participate in organizations. Workers in the United States spend more time on the job than any other industrial nation (Source: http://www.pbs.org/now/politics/workhours.html(external link)).

To support a democratic, participative society, democrats support proposals for living wages, bans on mandatory overtime, expanded vacation time and reduced work hours. These are family values.

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Politics is about power. Democracy is about power also - personal, social and political power.

One way to talk about power is to distinguish between "power over" and "power to".

"Power over" or control is what we normally think of when we think of power. It is the ability to cause another to do something whether they necessarily want to or not.

Not all control is coercive. The beloved can cause the lover to do things that he would not normally do. Advertising stimulates desires in people that they possibly would not have had on their own. Non-coercive control is "influence".

"Power to" is any ability that we have: the power to breathe, to love, to create, to think, to feel, to act.

Democracy is about developing our own "power to" and supporting the "power to" of others. Democracy respects the person: ourselves and others. (see Truth or Dare by Starhawk for a good discussion of "power over" vs "power to".)

Democracy nurtures and promotes "power to" while minimizing contral. The focus of democracy is not the state, but the person.

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The Left is not separate from the human race. We are part of it and share those same desires for community. The Left tends to come from the professional-managerial class (see Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power by George Konrad and Ivan Szelenyi). We are socialized in college and beyond to rely on ideas, abstractions, data and prize our ability to navigate in this sphere better than the less educated.

Too often in gaining this ability we lose our connection with what joins us with other people. Just as a doctor can begin to lose sight of the patient and treat just the disease, Leftist activists can lose sight of the people behind the "oppressed".

However, just as we suffer from a weakness specific to our strength, we also carry within us a way to treat the problem. It starts with treating ourselves as human beings; going within ourselves and becoming intimately familiar with our own feelings, desires, prejudices, contradictions, etc., and admitting them to ourselves and others. That this runs sharply counter to our academic socialization goes without saying. But there is no other way to connect as a movement with the rest of the human race, which so badly needs competent, nurturing leaders at this time.

Learning how to be a fully human being is not generally included in a professional/managerial curriculum. And we can learn much about being fully human beings from working class people.

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The Religious Right has hijacked many good people whose sole desire in life is to be good people - good parents, good spouses, good friends, good neighbors: fair, moral, upright people. Not overweeningly ambitious but neither slackers, their focus is family and community. And in their world, community means church. Events happening outside of their community are so much background noise, a minor distraction that is generally irrelevant to their everyday lives.

Few of the issues dear to the hearts of the Left clearly intersect with these intensely personal and local concerns. The issues of the Left are abstract, global - poverty (not the homeless guy pushing his shopping cart down the street), foreign policy (not the idled factory in the heart of town), health care (not the fundraiser for the woman who needs the new kidney), the environment (not potholes and school boards), military expenditures (not the local national guard members who joined to pickup a few extra bucks and are now facing, along with their families, their second or third tour overseas).

People hunger for community. When the only community that is offered them comes packaged in Right-wing values, they will by and large accept those values along with the sense of community.

The Left can offer a better community, one that offers nurturing, protection and creativity as well as equalization of power, open discussion, and freedom of thought.

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Democracy begins within each of us.

It is a mistake to think that we are unitary creatures, that there is just one aspect of ourselves that is real. We each have different ways of acting with close friends and with a boss, with children and with our own parents, in a public gathering and with a lover.

One way to think about these different ways of behaving (and feeling and thinking) is that we have different parts within us. Not different personalities, but much like computers that have different programs we can bring out different parts of ourselves depending on the circumstances.

Practical Democracy means respect for all of our various internal parts, even the destructive ones. In fact, practicing treating our different parts with respect is good training for treating others respectfully.

There is an old school of pop psychology that talks about there being three major parts of ourselves. You may have heard of this school (Transactional Analysis) which is still popular in drug treatment and other programs that work with the general public.

One major part of ourselves according to this school is called the Parent. The Parent is the part that makes and follows rules, that reveres tradition and that sets limits and boundaries. It is also the part that takes care of (protects) and nurtures others.

We find ourselves in our Parent when we are watching over small children or supervising a project. The operative notion here is that we are the ones responsible.

Another part of ourselves is called the Adult. This is the part that thinks, reasons, figures out, and problem-solves. We find ourselves in our Adult when we are fixing things, or planning events. This is not to say that the Adult is emotion-free, as many people doing their income taxes can attest. And people do crossword puzzles or sudoku or fun.

And the third part of ourselves is called the Child. The Child part of us is the part that feels, loves, fears, wants and generally holds our emotions and desires. The Child is also the part that is intuitive and connected with the spiritual. Children who have been loved and not abused generally have a good sense of whether adults are good people or not; often a better sense than other adults do. And that sense of awe at a beautiful sunset is little different from the feeling the experience most of us felt on first seeing Santa Clause in the mall.

Democracy begins within each of us. We can practice nurturing, creativity and protection towards each one of those parts within us. We can set firm boundaries but negotiate lovingly with the Child part. We can respect and nurture that Child part as well, since that is the part where our life-energy comes from. The Adult part of us can be infused with the creativity and spontaneity of the Child. And the Parent can use the wisdom, intuition and emotional depth of that Child in empathizing with and nurturing the world.

You get the idea. The goal is to have our different Parts cooperate and negotiate with each other. When we can do this with ourselves, we can begin to practice a healthy, balanced loving democracy in our social relationships and our political relationships.

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Dictionary definition of democracy:

Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In mod. use often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege. (Oxford English Dictionary - Second Edition 1989)


The word democracy comes from the Greek, meaning "rule by the people". The first time that we know that humans discussed Democracy as a form of government was in the war between the two ancient Greek city-states, aristocratic Sparta and democratic Athens. The fall of democratic Athens was one of the themes of the military history known as "The Peloponnesian Wars".

It is also safe to say that the meaning of Democracy has changed over the millenia. It has changed drastically in the last 200 some-odd years.

When the new-born American republic declared itself a democracy, it was in a bid to remove the interference of monarchy over getting and selling by the local well-to-do. Then to get more soldiers into the Continental army they had to allow white males who did not own property to vote. The story of American Democracy since then has been the story of non-Europeans, women, and working people slowly expanding the meaning of democracy to include them and their human rights.

Other democracies have fallen when the natural tendency of political leaders to ignore the general interest in favor of their own private interests is unchecked by opposition from below. After a time, leading families become so skilled at working the levers of power that they begin to operate the government transparently for their own self-interest. At that point it is the duty of the people to raise up new leaders who are accountable and who work for the interest of all.

A new movement requires a new vision.

The reason that Conservatives are so powerful right now is, according to George Lakoff, because they articulate a clear moral vision. This moral vision is based on the metaphor of the nation as a family with a "strict father". Strict Fathers expect family members to be disciplined, obedient, respectful, accepting of authority, loyal, and morally upright or pure.

This moral framework, this strict father metaphor for the nation, is articulated over and over again from the pulpit of conservative churches, over the airwaves by conservative talk-show hosts, and by prime-time TV cop shows. It comes at us from news magazines and newspapers.

Liberals also have a moral point of view, although rarely clearly articulated. The Liberal/Progressive vision comes from a "nurturing parent" metaphor. Nurturing parents can be male or female. They expect their family members to be caring, empathetic, self-nurturing, creative, happy, fair, strong, and protective.

So how did Conservatives get to have such a well-articulated, if cramped, moral vision? They got together and formed communities of like-minded persons where they could hammer out their ideas.

Conservative philanthropists like the Coors family, the Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation funded communities of Conservative scholars.

Conservative Christians such as Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggert and Pat Robertson took to the media. Fundamentalist missionaries started Bible Study groups in unsuspecting unpolitical churches, indoctrinated the study group in their Manichaean version of Christianity, emphasized one-on-one outreach, split into several more study groups and soon had the majority of the congregation declare for Right-Wing Fundamentalism. The Pastors then either came along or were stuck with a drafty church and a rump congregation.

The Progressive Left, on the other hand, largely opted to take over Academia and the professions. It seemed to see little reason for outreach to the Business or Working Classes as long as their tenure and privileges were unaffected. And some of the outreach that was done was done in the name of sectarian ideologies that carried a heavy load of righteous indignation but little moral vision.

There has always been a Progressive Left that did reach out to neighborhoods and workers, of course. The Industrial Areas Foundation of Saul Alinsky and the organizers of ACORN and others have done yeoman's work, but outside of Feminism, there was little attempt to build a personal, as well as a political, analysis.

Practical Democracy, which provides the intellectual underpinnings of Progressive Omaha, is an attempt to build a personal politics. A democracy that encompasses the personal, social and political worlds.

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The Left has no personal analysis. Personal issues are usually left to religious groups which are viewed with bemused condescension by "real" leftists.

Democracy is a matter of personal power. We, personally, are the only ones who can opposed injustice. If we promote democracy individually, it will be much easier to promote it system-wide.

Democracy is under attack now in the U.S. as few times before. The opposite of a democrat is a bully. We are not all situated to face down bullies in the public square, but we are all called upon to manage the bully within. Each of us has an internal bully. And it does not work very well to try to bully away the bully. A bully that is defeated may well try to come back another day. A bully that is converted to nurturing themselves and others will deal with their own internal bully and no longer try to impose their will on others.

The part that we all can play in halting the current attack on democracy is by parenting our own internal bully with clear rules (boundaries, morality) and nurturing. We can do the same with bullies in our workplace, schools and neighborhoods.

Just by spreading democracy (nurturing, protection and creativity) in our daily lives, we are undermining the current broadspectrum assault on democracy in society.

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