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 four years by way of writing a workbook for the project. I am in the final stages of finishing that workbook, and beginning to set up a website. So what follows is like a sneak preview. Would love to hear any and all responses to it.
The Growing Democracy Project in a Nutshell
The Growing Democracy Project is a cultural and political program for developing a legion of everyday citizens who can generate enough collective power to make democracy the dominant political force in our country. The strategy is to produce persistent and effective citizen action to solve shared problems at all levels of our society. The means is continuous development of participants’ “habits of the heart” and skillful means.
To be clear, the Growing Democracy Project is not about solving problems—political, social, or economic. It is about developing the motivations, dispositions, and skills for everyday citizens to address those problems collectively. That is, to govern themselves at all levels of interaction—one-to-one, group, community, organization, society.
The Core Elements
From the perspective of the Growing Democracy Project democracy is primarily a way of living and relating. A cognitive understanding of democracy by itself is shallow and weak. It must be lived. When we have a significant number of citizens living and learning democracy as a way of life, we can get to a democratic way of governing our country. In spite of the stories we tell ourselves, we are not yet that kind of society.
How do we get there? We grow a culture that is predominantly democratic. One that embeds democratic dispositions and practices in its citizens so that they are lived. Teachers, medical people, and others who love their work keep learning it as they practice their craft. They don’t simply teach, nurse, or play the trumpet. They become teachers, nurses, musicians. It’s the same with being a committed citizen. We have to embody and practice democracy as a way of life in order to understand and live it. That’s root democracy.
Using a cultural strategy the Growing Democracy Project can build the structures for this learning and practice.
We 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 group that has been at it for 40 years. And I know we are far from being the only ones.
The Growing Democracy Project will organize itself primarily for building a network of small but deeply democratic cultures where interested people can become the powerful and responsible citizens they want to be. The foundation would be diverse groups coming together in a variety of settings. They would grow communities around developing more democratic dispositions and practices. Various settings would include community centers, civic organizations, unions, businesses, churches, etc.
So, to become a deeply democratic country we need cultures that develop deeply democratic people. People who can hear, think, love, manage pain, and take risks. 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.
How do we become such people? People in the Growing Democracy Project will use a variety transformative learning processes within their culture-growing communities to make this possible. This will be the core work of the project.
Transformative learning embraces a variety of developmental methodologies. These are designed so people can discover ways for taking who they are now as a beginning point for taking charge of becoming who and what they want to become.
Citizens in the Growing Democracy Project would use transformative learning to learn to think critically and act together. This involves wanting to hear and understand each other as well as moving into their vulnerabilities by speaking their hard truths to each other. These abilities are empowering. 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 together with an empowered mutuality.
The Growing Democracy Project will become an extensive network of autonomous Transformative Communities of Democratic Practice (TCs, for short). Participants will learn with and through each other to grow the cultures they need to support, promote, and even demand their personal and collective development.
This web of networks will grow into a transformative educational system. It will be for people from all walks of life and from our various democratic movements. The breadth of our remarkable diversity. The goal is effective collective action to solve shared problems. As it grows it can become an active political force at all levels of our society.
Imagine 20,000 of these transformative communities emerging over the next 20-30 years. Maybe something like 400,000 people from across the political spectrum engaged in it.
Can we do something like this on this scale? Not yet. It will take a big R&D effort— commitment, money, and innovative structure.
Assumptions and Convictions
There are a number of convictions (or assumptions) underlying the GD project. An important one is that we are a biocultural species. We are inseparably both genetic and cultural. They are distinct forces, but they never operate separately. These forces shape what we are and how we see ourselves. Since we—each one of us—are these two forces we can use them to become who and what we want to be.
An overarching conflict
Another conviction holds that our long and complicated biocultural history has left us with two primary political modes: domination and democracy. They are mostly contradictory forces working against each other. This dynamic is underlies our endless tragedies and most of our unnecessary suffering—personal and collective. It drives our personal lives as well as our politics. The novelist William Faulkner captured it in this simple phrase: “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
Here’s a third: 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. We embody what it embeds. We go on to become active producers in our world through our livelihood; but not only that. We also become producers and transmitters of that world itself. A few of us become change agents in our world. So, who and what we are will always be a prime shaper of ourselves and our world. This inherent personal agency is the power source of the Growing Democracy Project.
For the most part we 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 see its potential or understand how it works personally or culturally. We don’t grasp that each of us comes into this world with a transformative potential to change our original conditioning.
Regardless of how little this occurs and how little this has been developed as a conscious practice, it is a species-wide capacity. We can change the balance of power within our heart’s conflict with itself, personally and collectively. Who and what we are can become the primary target of our cultural shaping. This is how we can transform ourselves and our politics. As a society we haven’t yet figured out how to do it. That is, how to consciously develop our transformative potential as a part of everyday living and learning.
We are, however, on the cusp of doing that. The academy is producing remarkable new information and knowledge of who and what we are. A vast range of methodologies for transformative learning has evolved since the 1940s. A Transformative Edge came out in 2020, and provides an excellent overview of them. Since the 1970s there have been community organizing projects of scale, such as the West/Southwest IAF, that have incorporated transformative learning as an essential part of their organizing practice. 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 love. Love 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. 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 deeply impacted by disrespect, loss, tragedy, and abuse. Early experiences and the faulty conclusions on how to cope with them become embodied. Once embodied we strongly tend to reproduce and transmit them. For example, trauma begets trauma. Domination is a primary source of the worst of ourselves. As a way of relating we call it patriarchy; as a way of governing, oligarchy.
We are all of this: the best and the worst, “the human heart in conflict with itself.” The core work of the Growing Democracy Project will be to grow the best of ourselves to manage and transform the worst of ourselves. We need each other to do it.
The Growing Democracy Project, like all projects, is a bet. This bet is that the American people in the 21st century can make their world far more democratic through a transformative cultural strategy. 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 life evolving on our planet. It took us two million years to evolve the necessary software—cooperation, trust, etc.—to make a money system possible. The hardware—the economic wizardry—took a few thousand years.
That same software is available to change the balance of power within our heart’s conflict with itself. The necessary hardware is now beginning to emerge. The Growing Democracy project proposes to bring the two wares together.