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A Growing Democracy Project

October 8, 2020
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A word before getting to this nutshell description of the project. I began working on this after the 2016 elections. The idea began percolating about 15 years ago during a period when I was disabled health wise. One thought kept needling me: we just don't know how to do democracy yet. The project has come together over the past six years by way of writing a Workbook for the project and plans for launching a Democracy Learning Lab in NYC in January, 2024. We will have a website in June 2023. So what follows is like a sneak preview. Would love to hear any and all responses to it.




A Growing Democracy Project in Sum

In four parts:

The Vision

A Basic Structure

Five Convictions

The Core Elements

The Bet


The Vision

The Growing Democracy Project (GDProject) envisions a national transformative civic educational system. Its job would be to develop legions of highly competent democratic practitioners.

From the very beginning it would reach out to everyday citizens of every kind. They would be primary builders of the system.

The immediate goal would be to provide the resources and opportunities for every motivated citizen to continuously develop a deep democratic practice.

Its ultimate goal would be to make democracy the predominant social and political force in our country.

Working from the bottom-up and the middle-out, practitioners would figure out, over time, how to develop the leadership as well as the personal and collective power necessary to achieve this goal.


Broadly speaking, there would have to be systemic opportunities for all to develop their “habits of the heart” and skillful democratic means. More specifically, such an adult learning system would seek to enable them to move, more and more, from mindsets of scarcity, inadequacy, and fear to one in which they experience themselves as sufficient, prosocial beings not in need of domination leadership.

To be clear, the GDProject is not about solving specific problems. It is about developing the motivations, dispositions, and skills for everyday citizens to address common problems together. That is, their capacity to govern themselves at all levels of interaction—one-to-one, group, community, organization, society.

Realizing the GDProject’s vision would mean building a transformative civic educational system. We see this as an essential next step in our historic experiment in democracy.

Since we don’t know how to do that yet, figuring out how is our starting point.


A Structure for the Vision

The GDProject envisions an extensive network of autonomous Transformative Communities of Democratic Practice (TCs, for short). Participants would learn with and through each other to grow the cultures they need to support, promote, and even demand their personal and collective development as democratic practitioners.

The TCs need to have substantial autonomy, but they cannot stand alone. Power and sustainability come through an active, diverse, multi-level network for every kind of group. It’s how we evolved. Such a Growing Democracy Network (GDN) would probably be a web of networks serving three objectives:  

  • providing a transformative civic educational system for supporting the TCs;
  • carrying out in-depth, Participatory Action Research & Development (PAR) for using and continuously developing Transformative Learning (TL) methodologies; and
  • coordinating the overall project.


Creating such an organization calls for people deeply attracted to the values and ambitions of liberal democracy to build it from the bottom up. Outreach would need to go out across the spectrum of political orientations—purple, blue, red, and otherwise—as well as the spectrums of skin color, gender, sexual orientation age, economic class, etc.

The goal is to enable them to produce effective collective action to solve shared problems. As we learn how to do this everyday citizens can become an active democratic force at all levels of our society.

Imagine 2,000 such transformative communities emerging across the country over the next 30 years. This would be something like 20-40,000 people from across the social spectra learning through experience and reflection how to hear and understand each other, to think together, and to act together where they can agree. Networked together and connected with many other civic organizations, they could make a major difference in our governing systems.

Now, this picture poses a critical question: could such a project actually reach the scale envisioned here?

Not yet, of course. The GDProject itself is a starting point. It is not an answer. It will take substantial organizing and R&D effort to build the necessary capacity to develop and connect legions of citizens who can care deeply and think reflectively. This calls for commitment, money, persistence, an innovative structure, and much love to do the necessary work.


Five Convictions

  1. Biocultural

There are a number of convictions (or assumptions) underlying this vision. An important one is that we are a biocultural species. We are inseparably our biology (body) and culture (mind). These are distinct forces, but inseparably woven together in our bodies, our minds, and every facet of social life.

These two forces shape what we are and how we see both ourselves and the world. We are also the shaper of those forces. It’s a dynamic circle that can be either virtuous or vicious. When virtuous, these two forces are the dynamic that drives human development. They are the forces we have used for hundreds of thousands of years to evolve our species. Since we use them to become who and what we are, we can use them for becoming who and what we want to become.

In this context, ideologies (basic political orientations) are important but secondary phenomena. What’s crucial for democracy, is the various advocates learn to stay at the table negotiating with each other.


  1. An overarching conflict

Another conviction holds that our long and complicated biocultural history has left us with two primary ways of relating and doing politics: domination and democracy. They are mostly contradictory forces working against each other. This conflicted dynamic underlies our endless struggling throughout our personal lives as well as our politics. The novelist William Faulkner captured this in a simple phrase: “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

  1. We are transformative beings

One of the most underdeveloped capacities of humans is our ability to call into question our taken-for-granted frames of reference and assumptions about the world, others, and ourselves. Where these transformative capacities are developed, polarization declines and collective power grows. People are hearing each other, and know they are being heard even if they are not being agreed with. More: they can question themselves and their convictions.

Over the past 70 years or so there has been a burgeoning awareness in human development fields that ordinary adults can transform themselves. Not totally, but in significant ways. It’s an inherent human capacity for mental and spiritual growth far greater than has been generally assumed.

This is great news for democracy. We can learn how to make ourselves more responsible, inclusive, discriminating, open, and reflective. Often it involves deep, powerful emotions or beliefs. Transformative Learning (TL) is a dynamic and coherent approach, richly diverse, that prioritizes this kind of learning.

Today it is not widely recognized that personal development has everything to do with making democracy work well. Yet, some democratic thinkers, movements and civic organizations are beginning to grasp this in significant ways (for example, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Harry Boyte, Archon Fung, and Hahrie Han among others.) The vision of the Growing Democracy Project sees TL as a game changer.

  1. We are the problem and we can be the problem-solvers.

In 2007 a small group of outstanding democracy scholars came together to launch an integrated field of democratic studies. They named it Civic Studies. The Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University became its home. In their founding statement they said something which—without, I think, they’re fully realizing it—laid bare the relational dynamic that obstructs our dream of being a democratic country:

The dominant ways of thinking about human action and human agency, about power and politics do not support the efforts of citizens understood…as co-creators of the structures of power (large and small) that govern us and the systems of culture that give meanings to our lives. [Emphasis added.]

This claim is integral to the Growing Democracy Project vision. However, it falls far short of what needs to seize us body and soul. Their statement does not acknowledge the pivotal factor of our predicament: that we everyday citizens, through our inherent agency, are also the sustainers of those “dominant ways of thinking,” “those structures of power,” and “those systems of culture.”

We are to a great extent—an extent far greater than we can now afford—complicit co-creators of our overarching conflict. Our passivity and deference have played to the dominative role of our elitist co-creators since our founding. Our co-participation is an essential part of our plutocracy, the antithesis of our democracy.

Since this idea that everyday citizens play an essential supportive role in their own oppression is so countercultural, it takes a lot of work to see how it could be true. The same was true for Newtonian physicists in slowly recognizing the truth of quantum physics. In this space we can only say that this idea is a core conviction that grounds the vision being presented here.

Consider this: how could the neoliberal globalization of our world have happened without our broad scaled complicity. To the extent that this is true, we have been the fulcrum for the unearned leverage of our elite class. Martin Gurri, speaking from his very large perspective, captures the problem succinctly:

How do we get new people at the top? By beginning the reformation with the people at the bottom: with us. We’ll never get an elite class driven to service and achievement from a self-indulgent public. It’s easy to criticize and join the endless rant. That absolves us from responsibility. It’s harder to hold ourselves accountable – hardest of all to embrace self-restraint in our behavior and in our public and commercial choices. But if we want to reconquer trust and move our democracy into the digital age, that’s where it starts. I said it before. It’s up to us.

There is no blaming in this claim about our complicity. None at all. This is about coming to grips with a very complex dynamic and turning it to our advantage. It’s not in any way a case of “blaming the poor for their poverty.”

Quite the opposite, in fact. There is much opportunity for the long-term future of our democracy residing precisely in understanding how our deference works, and learning how to manage it.

That learning, as Gurri spotlights, depends on us taking full responsibility for our complicity in our oppression. Rogue elites who are taking full advantage of their leverage will not change on their own. There are too many benefits to give up. This is far less so for everyday people. The Be Present organization has grasped this in a fundamental way. Their particular transformative learning process involves two steps for participants:

to identify not only their hurt, but that part of themselves that is whole and well in spite of it; and to identify the issues that are barriers to their being fully themselves in order to see how they have internalized their oppression and how that plays out in their life …Through this process people find their true voices and develop a sense of self-worth.

Yes, we are very much part of the problem, but we can do a lot about it. And that will take a lot of hard work.


       5. Absolutely no condemnation of anyone

Stella Adler Studio organized a public discussion around this statement by Cornel West:

What sits at the center of Chekhov is absolute condemnation of no one. That’s why he doesn’t condemn his characters even when they’re gangsters. Because he knows they have the capacity to be different. And he knows there’s a gangster element inside of him…there’s some gangster in you, check yourself. Chekhov teaches us, and the Blues teaches us the same thing in the US context, that you can acknowledge just how gangster  like people are, but it’s not this kind of cancellation and absolute condemnation as if you sit on some pure throne and are dispensing judgment. That’s not the way the world is. You’re going to end up living a lie yourself.

There’s not much to add to this.

The Core Elements

The GDProject vision identifies several core elements a transformative civic education system for growing democracy would incorporate:

  • Root Democracy
  • Culture-building
  • Transformative Learning (TL)
  • GD Network
  • Participatory Action Research & Development
  • Agency
  • Loving

Root Democracy

From the perspective of the GDProject democracy is primarily a way of living and relating. A cognitive understanding of democracy by itself is insufficient for understanding democracy. It must be lived as a reflexive practice. This is the path to success for the sculptor and the plumber not to mention the jazz pianist. The conviction here is that when we have a significant number of citizens living and developing democracy as a way of life, we can get to a solidly democratic way of governing our country. Not before. In spite of the stories we tell ourselves, we are not yet there. There is a long, long way to go.

So how do we get going?

Essential to this vision is that people from across the spectrums will be consciously and persistently growing a culture that is predominantly democratic. It will embed democratic dispositions and practices in its citizens so that they come to embody democracy more and more in all of their relating. It will require new structures and institutions.

Teachers, medical people, musicians, carpenters, and others who love their work keep learning it as they practice their craft. They don’t simply teach, nurse, or play their viola. They keep becoming teachers, nurses, and musicians more fully.

It’s the same with being a committed citizen. Embodying, practicing, and discovering democracy as a way to live and relate is what we call root democracy. Building effective, long-term structures for this kind of transformative learning and empowerment will require a strong cultural strategy.


We humans become who we are through our cultures. If our original culture is not adequately up to the task, then we can develop one to do what we want it to do. I know this can be done because I have been part of a small group that has been at it for 40 years. And I know we are far from being the only ones.

Turning this vision into active programs would most likely require building a network of small but deeply democratic cultures, the TCs. These will be places where interested people can become the powerful and responsible citizens they want to be.

Groups of diverse individuals would come together—face-to-face—in a conscious way and in a variety of settings. Each one might be a small ongoing community—maybe 10 to 20 people each—for developing more democratic dispositions and practices together. Various settings for them would include community centers, civic organizations, unions, businesses, churches, etc.

Culture-building of this kind is a radically new breed of community organizing. Members of the TCs must be both learners and developers of this approach. Whatever actual form a GDN would take, it would also include an ongoing R&D program of active participants and involved social scientists and civic organizations. The network would most likely also be the coordinating unit for the Project.

Transformative Learning (TL)

In order for the US to move toward becoming a predominantly democratic country, everyday citizens would have to move out of their deference and complicity with domination, and then move toward becoming as deeply democratic as possible. That is,

  • people who can hear, think, love, manage pain, and take risks.
  • people who experience themselves as sufficient beings regardless of whatever oppression they have experienced or performed.
  • people who can learn to recognize when they are
  • preaching rather than listening;
  • holding on to old ideas rather than thinking;
  • habitually protecting self rather than reaching out to connect;
  • avoiding loss or failure rather than embracing risk.

(At this time most politicians probably don’t match-up with these criteria.)

These skills and dispositions are not developed in a classroom. They are learned through practice, reflection on one’s practice, learning from failures, and by persistence to stay the course. This is difficult work just like parenting is. And just like parenting it is learned and developed.

What kind of learning then, do we, everyday citizens, need to live out of a deep and growing commitment to democracy?

Transformative Learning (TL) is an emerging form of education that can meet this crying need. It is now being practiced across the globe in a multitude of ways. They are developmental methodologies designed so people can discover ways for taking who they are now as a starting point, and then move towards taking charge of becoming the kinds of people and citizens they want to become. Democracy needs this kind of methodology.

In the GDProject vision Citizens would use TL to learn to think critically, to want to listen and understand others, especially when there is conflict, and to be willing to move into one’s vulnerabilities by speaking her relevant responses to what she is taking in. In other words: First, speaking truth to one another, face-to-face as well as we can and learning how to do it better. Then, wanting to hear back the responses to what we put out.

These abilities are both empowering and deeply prosocial. They enable small groups to care for one another, to hold each other accountable, and to think together. When a group puts all of this together, they can act with an empowered mutuality on the public problems that concern them, or respectfully disagree without condemnation.

This potential is inherent in the nature of small groups. It is why, when she was asked, Margaret Meade said,  

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Partners in Health began as three college graduates volunteering in Haiti in 1983 and becoming a powerhouse of a small organization transforming critical segments of the world health system.

The Achuar people in Ecuador are an intact, prosperous, healthy, and incredibly wise ancient indigenous culture. They grasped the need to transform their life in order to protect their culture from being colonized, to save the Amazon, and to help achieve global shifts in how humans relate to Mother Earth. In 1995 they initiated the outreach and conversations that became an international force among the environmental movements, the Pachamama Alliance

The challenge the GDProject is taking on is how to grow this kind of dynamic to scale for the sake of making democracy the predominant social/political force in our country. We have the capacity to do this, but we don’t know how to develop it to scale. This is why Participatory Action Research is absolutely essential for the success of this project. The GDNetwork component of the vision would be the structure to house this work.



Here’s a fourth core element: We are agents in our personal and collective lives who are also shaped by forces outside of ourselves. We have to be shaped to fit into the world we are born into. Each of us uniquely embodies what culture embeds. We go on to become active producers in our world through our livelihood and relationships.  

But not only that.

We also become producers and transmitters of that world itself. Who and what we are will always be a prime shaper of ourselves and our world. A few of us will even become change agents. This inherent personal agency is the power source the Growing Democracy Project brings to the foreground of our practice and thinking about democracy.

For the most part, people don’t pay a lot of attention to our amazing agency. We focus mostly on getting on in the world as it is. Therefore, we don’t sense the fullness of its potential, or understand how it works personally and culturally. We don’t grasp that each of us comes into this world with a transformative potential to change our original conditioning in significant ways.

It is an inherent human capacity, regardless of our awareness of it or how little it has been developed as a conscious practice. We can change the balance of power within our heart’s conflict with itself, personally and collectively. Who and what we are can become a primary target of our conscious culture shaping. This is how we can transform ourselves and our politics.

As a society we haven’t yet figured out how to make this a norm. How to consciously develop our transformative potential as a part of everyday living and learning. So, again: the GDNetwork must serve as a continuous Participatory R&D program.

Our society is, however, on the cusp of doing that. The academy is producing remarkable new information and knowledge of how we use our biocultural self to do what we do. A wonderful example of this is a book about applied cultural evolutionary thinking, PROSOCIAL: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups.

A vast range of methodologies for transformative learning has evolved since the 1940s. A Transformative Edge came out in 2020, and provides an extensive overview of them.

Since the 1970s there have seen community organizing projects of significant scale, such as the West/Southwest IAF, that have informally incorporated transformative learning as an essential part of their organizing practice. They call it relational power.

Global networks of transformative learning such as the Presencing Institute out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the European based Possibility Management have emerged over the past 15 years.


Finally, there is loving… but by no means the least.

      To love is to let go of blaming; to blame is to let go of loving.

Loving is a force that seeks to unite what is separated. In its many forms it is the best of ourselves. Each of us is a distinct being just like everything else. But everyone and everything is, at the same time, connected. And everything and everyone are also absolutely precious.

We were born to connect and be connected . However, two factors make this very difficult, to say the least. Both generate an abundance of pain, ignorance, fear, and violence.

First, we are physically fragile. We are always at the edge of serious harm and death. Second, we have all grown up traumatically impacted to some significant degree by disrespect, loss, tragedy, blame, and abuse.

Early traumas and the faulty conclusions we draw on how to cope with them become embodied. Once embodied we strongly tend to reproduce and transmit them. Trauma begets trauma.

Domination is a primary source of the worst of ourselves. It is biocultural throughout, and pervasive. In our personal relationships, we call it abuse. When it overrides our social relating, we call it patriarchy. When it possesses our way of governing, we call it plutocracy or oligarchy. At every level of our relating, it is essentially selfishness overriding a common good.

We are all of this: the best and the worst of ourselves, “the human heart in conflict with itself.” The core work the GDProject envisions is everyday people growing the best of ourselves to manage and transform the worst of ourselves. We need each other to do this. That’s root democracy.

The Bet

Any ambitious vision such as the one being proposed here is a bet. Here the bet is clear: that the American people in the 21st century can make their world far more democratic through a transformative cultural strategy, if they want to. It’s a complex undertaking, but as a species we have already demonstrated we have the capacity for such undertakings.

One example: virtually everyone across the planet now participates in a system of exchange we call “money.” It has been a major tool for all of our economic development. Its foundation is cooperation and trust, not economic wizardry. We can think of money as a vast and complex social field in which everyone embodies the basic dispositions for participating in it. It is a unique product in the four billion years of evolving life on our planet.

It took us some 500,000 years to evolve the biocultural equipment that is prosocial enough to make a money system possible—sharing intentions, cooperation, reciprocity, trust, etc. The technology involved and the economic wizardry took a few thousand years. At the same time, due to our conflicted hearts, money is an ongoing battle field between our “haves” and “have-nots,” between our selfishness and loving, between being driven both by a primal law of scarcity and a primal law of sufficiency.

Our overarching conflict is right here in our wallets because it is right here in our bodies, minds, and hearts.

If our biocultural equipment can create this kind of system, might it not be possible to use it to change the balance of power within our heart’s conflict with itself. The necessary educational methodology—the how factor, if you will—is now beginning to emerge. The vision presented here is simply seeing that we can bring these two resources together to grow our democracy to be the predominant social and political force in our country.

It’s a long bet worth making. In fact, one can argue that since the losses of our underdeveloped democracy are swirling around and over us, losing this bet can’t be all that bad, and winning it would be so sweet.

the commons


Martin Meteyard

Hi Michael, I love the idea of this project, and seriously wondering how it might be applied in the UK (though as it happens I myself am currently disabled health wise). Please keep me in touch as this project develops. Thanks, Martin

Harry Boyte

This is promising, and has resemblance to the citizenship schools of the civil rights movement which drew on the Scandinavian folk school tradition.

Alec Billroth

Love, charitable work, and fundraisers would indeed help with democracy. Income correlates with voter turnout. Voter turnout correlates with government redistribution of income. Note studies from Kim Quailie Hill, James Avery, Paul Martin, Dennis Mueller, Valentino Larcenese, Navid Sabet, Vincent Mahler, and Ioannis Theodossiou.

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