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How Much Do Americans Really Know About Democracy? Turns Out We Could Learn a Few Things From Nature

Democracy is not something we have but something we do, together; how we organize ourselves and relate to and behave with each other. And it's not unique to humans.

This post is adapted from LaConte's article in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of the international journal Green Horizon

"Our capacity for democracy grows from our connection with nature. As we lose that connection, isolation, fear, and the need to control grow-and democracy inevitably deteriorates. It's easy to forget that a deep connection with nature provides the inspiration for genuine democratic thinking." -- Peter Senge in Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society

In my book Life Rules I make the case that the prognosis for global or even national-level solutions for the syndrome of economic, environmental and political/social crises we presently face is poor. I take the recent debt-ceiling fiasco as further proof of the pudding. Variously inept, corrupt, craven, bought and paid for, ideologically intransigent, and ignorant of or unwilling to face hard realities, our leaders are evidently incapable of comprehending or coping with the complexity of the issues before them. They fail to see, or at least fail to say that they see, the connections between and among these crises. They exhibit an almost pathological inability or refusal to recognize the seriousness of consequences of the convergence of these crises: economic and ecological breakdown and worldwide chaos.

Tackling these crises, or at least seeming to, only one at a time is equivalent to treating AIDS-related cancers without treating the recurrent pneumonia and wasting disease that are also symptomatic of AIDS. Leaders of both major parties have chosen posturing and pandering as alternatives to governing and Greens haven't yet the numbers, leverage or heft to challenge them. For the major media, posturing and pandering are meat, potatoes, trifle and a raison d'etre. For the American people they're disastrous. Waiting for politicians and politics as we've known them to cure themselves of this life-threatening condition could prove fatal.

Taking to the streets as larger and larger numbers of Americans are, for a variety of causes ranging from climate change to oligarchy removal, is a start. It signals that a critical mass of Americans are not satisfied. But non-violent protests may meet with little else but dismissal at worst and minor concessions at best. Because, whatever else may be said of the present political "process" and the behaviors of the Powers in Washington, it's not democracy supposed to represent. Genuinely democratic praxis is nowhere to be found inside the beltway. Representative Eric Cantor's description of the Wall Street justice-and-democracy-starved occupiers as a "mob" is indicative of the present batch of Powers' perspective on the people.

It's not that democracy has failed us but our way of thinking about it that has. We might say of democracy what Gandhi said when asked what he thought of civilization: "It would be a very good idea."

What Democracy's Not

So far we've gotten the idea wrong. We are accustomed to thinking of democracy as a noun. "A democracy" is a physical place, a nation with borders defined on a map such that if we are born within those borders we are somehow born into democracy too.

Democracy is a kind of protective covering "under" which we live, such that it will take care of us and keep us from harm. We treat it as if it were a possession. "Having it," we are superior to those who don't. We think of it as a right. Aside from being born within a particular nation's borders and under the protection of that nation's government, police and military, we don't have to do anything to get democracy. In fact, we have very little to do with it. It's just ours, by right. Nonetheless, we go to great lengths to "keep it," including going to war for it or over it. And we've gotten into our minds and political discourse the notion that we ought to try to "give it" to others, as if it were a thing we could give like food or money or weapons.

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