so, you want to strengthen democracy?

This year’s Frontiers of Democracy conference explored a set of analytical tools that may be useful if you want to improve or defend democracy:

  1. You should decide where you stand on the current crisis in American democracy (which is mirrored in many other nations). You may conclude that there isn’t a special, short-term crisis, that the issues are long-lasting, or even that the Trump Administration has positive potential. That is still a stance on the current situation. This flowchart can help you navigate to a position of your own.
  2. You should decide on the core values that define a good democracy. Edna Ishayik presented a draft framework from Civic Nation in which the core values are deliberation, collaboration (or public work) and civic relationships. That framework is similar to the one in my book We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For. You may prefer alternative values, however.
  3. You should practice systems thinking. Social problems don’t have root causes. Almost every problem has many contributing causes. For each cause, there are other factors that cause it, in turn. These chains of causation often produce vicious or virtuous circles. To decide where to intervene, you must begin to understand the relevant factors and how they relate in a complex web. The Democracy Fund presented a draft systems map for US democracy, still in development. Here is an overview of the approach.
  4. You should think about multiple levels of power. This discussion goes back at least to Stephen Lukes in the 1970s. At Frontiers, Archon Fung offered a version of this framework, which has four levels. The first level is getting a better deal for an individual (e.g., obtaining a visa for a refugee). The second is changing laws or policies (e.g., restricting or liberalizing immigration law). The third is changing who decides and how decisions are made (e.g., by making visas subject to judicial oversight). The fourth is changing what people believe and value (e.g., shifting views about immigrants–for better or worse). Archon argued that organizations tend to focus on the first and second level of power, but the other two levels are more important. What are you doing about levels 3 and 4?
  5. You are going to need processes of one kind or another. Ceasar McDowell offered a framework of design principles in a version of this talk.
  6. You should try to maximize Scale, Pluralism, Unity, and Depth, even though those objectives are in tension, because bottom-up social movements only win when they have SPUD.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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