Saturday, July 28, 2007

Nygaard Notes #379

Nygaard Notes
Independent Periodic News and Analysis
Number 379, July 22, 2007, 2007

On the Web at


This Week: The Democracy Series, Parts 2 and 3

1. “Quote” of the Week
2. The Democracy Series, Part 2: The Skills and Arts of Democracy
3. The Democracy Series, Part 3: The Values of a Democratic System



Welcome to the new readers this week! Since you’ve signed up right in the middle of a series of who-knows-how-many articles on Democracy, I want to remind you that you can go to the Nygaard Notes website whenever you like and read the previous part of this series. Or anything else that has ever appeared in Nygaard Notes, for that matter. The website is searchable, too. And, as with every aspect of Nygaard Notes, there is no advertising!

You should also know that Nygaard Notes does not always appear in series form. Just now and again, whenever there’s a particular issue that I can’t figure out how to express in a single issue.

Speaking of this series... I have been debating with myself about whether or not I should capitalize the word Democracy as I go along. The point of capitalizing, for me, is to indicate that the word represents a primary idea, or maybe a set of ideas, that is perhaps different than the idea that most people have when they see the word. That is, by capitalizing it, I mark it as a Big Idea, and one that has a special meaning for me and—once you finish reading this series—maybe for you, too.

So, for those of you who are attached to the standard “rules” of capitalization, per the Chicago Manual of Style, I guess you’ll notice that I have decided to break the rules and capitalize the word Democracy for as long as the series goes on. So be it.

I imagine that’s enough for this Editor’s Note. Until next week, then,



“Quote” of the Week

Here are a couple of excerpts from the 1998 book “On Democracy” by Yale University political scientist Robert A. Dahl:

“Political resources include everything to which a person or a group has access that they can use to influence, directly or indirectly, the conduct of other persons. Varying with time and place, an enormous number of aspects of human society can be converted into political resources: physical force, weapons, money, wealth, goods and services, productive resources, income, status, honor, respect, affection, charisma, prestige, information, knowledge, education, communication, communications media, organizations, position, legal standing, control over doctrine and beliefs, votes, and many others....

“Most of the resources just listed are everywhere distributed in highly unequal fashion. Although market-capitalism is not the only cause, it is important in causing an unequal distribution of many key resources: wealth, income, status, prestige, information, organization, education, knowledge. Because of inequalities in political resources, some citizens gain significantly more influence than others over the government's policies, decisions, and actions. These violations, alas, are not trivial. Consequently, citizens are not political equals-far from it-and thus the moral foundation of democracy, political equality among citizens, is seriously violated.

“...once society and politics are transformed by market capitalism and democratic institutions are in place ... the inequalities in resources that market-capitalism churns out produce serious political inequalities among citizens.

“... The relation between a country's democratic political system and its nondemocratic economic system has presented a formidable and persistent challenge to democratic goals and practices throughout the twentieth century. That challenge will surely continue in the twenty-first century.”


The Democracy Series, Part 2: The Skills and Arts of Democracy

“We humans may be born innately social creatures but to be effective in creating societies that reflect our values and work for all of us it helps to approach democracy-making as a learned art.”

– Frances Moore Lappé.

Last week I talked about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his comment about “those cynical men who say that a Democracy cannot be honest and efficient.” If “efficiency”—a certain kind of efficiency—is the goal, then some problems with democratic decision-making surely leap to mind: it takes too long to make decisions, it takes too much energy to do all the thinking and talking necessary in order to make good decisions, and it’s just too slow and we don’t have time for it.

Such criticisms make sense ONLY if we accept the idea that there is but a single important thing: The end result. If we believe, in contrast, that the PROCESS is as important as—or more important than—the result, then it’s a different story. In fact, if we’re thinking democratically, the process IS the result, at least in part.

Democracy is Not Something We Have. It’s Something We Do.

If you want to have music, you can download a song, or buy a CD, or turn on the radio. You don’t need to really know anything about music to have it in your life. However, if you want to do music, you do have to know something, and you need to be able to act on what you know. And so it is with Democracy.

Last week I said that Democracy is “rule by the people,” in which “all have equal rights,” and where everyone has a say in the decisions that affect them. But what does it mean to “have a say?” How does this actually happen? It happens when people are willing and able to participate in “ruling” themselves, and it gets better and better the more willing and able they are. Part of the way this happens is that people become better at doing Democracy when they learn and practice certain skills. Some people, like Frances Moore Lappé, would call them “arts” instead of “skills.” Either way, there are certain things that people need to be good at in order to effectively rule themselves. Here are a few of them:

Some of the Skills of Democracy

COMMUNICATION SKILLS: Active Listening, Hearing What Others Are Trying to Say.
Effective Speaking

COLLABORATION SKILLS: Empathy; Cooperation; Inclusiveness.

GROUP DECISION-MAKING SKILLS: How to Participate in a Group; How to Include Others; How to Co-operate; How To Get Input from Everyone; How To Build Decisions

SKILLS IN DEALING WITH CONFLICT: Being comfortable with conflict; Negotiating out of conflict; Respectful disagreement; Mediation skills.

Some of the Arts of Democracy

PATIENCE: Can we love the process as much as the outcome? Can we see that participating in a democratic process IS an outcome, and one to be happy about?

PERSPECTIVE: What is really important? What is MOST important? Can we back up and think about what we are thinking about?

IMAGINATION: “What if...?” and “Why not...?”

“CELEBRATION AND APPRECIATION: Expressing joy and appreciation for what we learn as well as what we achieve.” [This is directly from Lappé; see below.]

WEAVING: Bringing together what we want with ... what is possible with ... what could be possible with ... present reality.

These are just some of the ideas that I have had over the years. There are plenty more where those came from, but it’s also true that many other people have thought about this idea of skills and arts associated with Democracy. So let’s hear from some of them.

Other Ideas

The National Center for the Preservation of Democracy lists these four “skills of Democracy”: Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Research, and Participation.

In a 2001 article “Who Do We Think We Are, Anyway?” in “By What Authority” a publication of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy, Molly Morgan & Virginia Rasmussen state that “the art and skills of democracy must be learned.” They say that

“Doing democracy includes holding meetings that work for people; designing an engaging, relevant agenda; possessing skills to include everyone in the discussion and to place limits on any one person's participation; reaching decisions without the residue from winning vs. losing; using conflict constructively; taking time to understand someone's resistance or disagreement; organizing for action, and planning for the future. This learning should be part of every educational and organizing opportunity we experience.”

A group called the Sierra Watershed Education Partnerships, in California, says that “Civic engagement and service to community are the pillars of a democratic society.” Toward that end, they say, “students must ... practice the skills of democracy,” which they say are: Organization, Communication, Collective Decision-making, and Critical Thinking.

I have long thought that Frances Moore Lappé is one of the best, in the U.S. context, at bringing together the personal and the political. And, sure enough, she has written a book called “Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life.” A forty-page guide—“Doing Democracy: Ten Practical Arts”—has been produced as a companion to that book. Here are the Ten:

Active Listening – encouraging the speaker and searching for meaning; Creative Conflict – confronting others in ways that produce growth; Mediation – facilitating interaction to help people in conflict hear each other; Negotiation – problem solving that meets some key interests of all involved; Political Imagination – reimaging our futures according to our values; Public Dialogue – public talk on matters that concern us all; Public Judgement – public decision making that allows citizens to make choices they are willing to help implement; Celebration and Appreciation – expressing joy and appreciation for what we learn as well as what we achieve; Evaluation and Reflection – assessing and incorporating the lessons we learn through action; Mentoring – supportively guiding others in learning these arts of public life.

The guide (from which the quotation at the top of this article are also drawn) can be found online at


The Democracy Series, Part 3: The Values of a Democratic System

A couple of months ago (in Nygaard Notes #373: to I talked about the so-called nature-vs.-nurture debate. I said that people “are” the way they are due to both heredity AND environment. That is, people are born with some things and then they live in a society/community/family that shapes that something in certain ways. I said that “we can't do anything about what people are born with, so that means that any efforts to make life better would be more productively focused on the world we live in, focusing on creating systems that support the best in us and that also withhold support from our worst parts.” And that brings us to Democracy.

If people really do like Democracy, as almost everyone I know says they do, then what is it that they like? I think they value the things that go along with Democracy, and that make it work.

Some of the values that are widely shared include: Solidarity; Community; Compassion; Respect;
Trust; and Altruism.

The Values and Practice Cycle

There is an interesting cycle involving these values. If you share them, you will probably be able to see the worth of mastering the skills and arts of Democracy. And, if you regularly practice the skills and arts of Democracy, you are likely to find that your practices enhance these values. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing: Having the values will make you want to practice the skills, and practicing the skills will reinforce the values, in an endless cycle.

Likewise, the daily practice of selfish behaviors reflects a different set of values. What I want to suggest here is that the economic and political systems we have in the U.S. are based on a different set of values, one that, despite the mythology, is profoundly anti-democratic.

Consider, first of all, this concept, stated by the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science: “A system is the unavoidable outcome of organized intentions.” What this means is that the people who set up a system set it up because they want it to do something. If it doesn’t do what they want—that is, if it doesn’t reflect their “organized intentions”—then they will set up a different system if they can.

If this idea makes sense, then it should not be surprising to discover that any given system will tend to support and reinforce the values (intentions) of the people who set it up.

Now let’s think about the people who set up the economic and political systems of the United States, the so-called Founding Fathers. We know that they were all men, and that they were all “white” and that they were thus representative of only a minority of the human beings in the new nation. But they were also, as Jerry Fresia points out in his book, “Toward An American Revolution: Exposing the Constitution and Other Illusions,” without exception “rich and powerful men who sought to maintain their wealth and status.”

Knowing, as they surely did, that the “common people” would challenge their privilege if they could, Fresia says that “the Framers repeatedly expressed what they felt was the need to check and balance the political expression of people who were not like themselves, who were not involved in the market economy, who did not own much property, and who were not very rich.” [Emphasis in the original.]

The market economy that has been the norm in this country for over two centuries now is based on what is called the “rational-actor model” which, says economist Robert H. Frank, “assumes that people are selfish in the narrow sense” and that “the world out there is bitterly competitive, and that those who do not pursue their own interests ruthlessly are likely to be swept aside by others who do.”

Frank tells us that “studies have found that repeated exposure to the self-interest model makes selfish behavior more likely. In one experiment, for example, the cooperation rates of economics majors fell short of those of nonmajors, and the difference grew the longer the students had been in their respective majors.”

It is “troubling,” says Frank, that “the narrow self-interest model, which encourages us to expect the worst in others, often brings out the worst in us as well.”

Those of us who say that we value and support Democracy thus face a choice: Do we willingly participate in—and thus support and reinforce—a system that subverts Democracy by “bringing out the worst in us”? Or do we seek out and attempt to engage in practices that will bring out the best in us, ones that will promote a self-reinforcing cycle of Democracy?

I think the choice is clear, and next week I’ll talk about what policies and practices deserve the support of people who love Democracy and the values of Solidarity, Community, Compassion, Respect, Trust, and Altruism that are at its foundation.


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