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What is Our Experience of our Flawed Democracy?

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Last year, the Economist Intelligence Unit dropped its score for the U.S. from 8.05 to 7.98 (Above 8 is a full democracy; below 8 is a flawed democracy). Not much of a change, and according to the report, no fault of the current President, as the rating has been “teetering on the brink of becoming a flawed democracy for several years.” Like other flawed democracies (France, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and India), we have “weak governance, an underdeveloped political culture, and low levels of political participation, according to the EIU.”

What is our collective experience of a flawed democracy? I suggest that powerlessness is the feeling. In this way, ordinary Americans are more unified emotionally than our deep divisions might seem politically. A new poll by The Associated Press NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that “three-quarters of Americans agree that people like themselves have too little influence in Washington, rare unanimity across political, economic, racial, and geographical lines.” This poll finds unity among approvers and disapprovers of President Donald Trump.

The left felt powerless under the Obama presidency because he presided over our perpetual war with false endings that echoed George W. Bush’s, “Mission Accomplished,” as well as Obama being unable to break the Congressional gridlock, and by making smaller policy changes that are easily being undone by his successor. The right felt persecuted during the Obama years and is also beginning to feel impotent, as Trump has been incapable of following through on large policy changes that he promised as a candidate.

One might wonder if anyone feels empowered in America, as politicians themselves seem so weak. My first thought is that American billionaires must feel powerful, as they continue to get richer and command more power and status because of their wealth. However, billionaires are generally obsessed with competition, not unlike those of us further down the food chain. And, as we all know, competitors hate to lose, no matter how poor or wealthy they are.  To lose is to feel disempowered in the face of defeat.

The great philosopher, Hanna Arendt, said, “Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.” The question that this quote raises is, how do we “act in concert”? Too often public dialogue consists of adversarial processes, including, public and media side-taking, legal processes, and voting, where there are always winners and losers, so this battlefield cannot be ‘acting in concert.’

There must be a better way of thinking about America being a group that acts together as a group. Luckily, this better way exists in the processes of conflict resolution and, specifically, public policy facilitation. The National Center for Public Policy is a leader in the transformation from power-over to power-with by facilitating dialogue processes, where as many stakeholders as possible meet, and try to find common ground for policies that grow from that commonality.

As an example, Mediate.com published an article in 1998 about pro-life and pro-choice advocates working together: “The ongoing dialogue groups that have been established have addressed a range of issues, including the state and welfare of women and children, the feminization of poverty, adoption options, reduction of unwanted pregnancies, community safety and harmony, and more. Initiatives have included jointly authored papers and a jointly developed set of principles for sexuality education presented to a state legislature. In several cities, pro-life and pro-choice supporters have made joint public appearances to reduce tensions and potential violence in their communities and to show the public that pro-choice and pro-life people can work together.”

This kind of “working in concert” is how we can elevate the U.S. status back to “full democracy,” rather than continue to suffer the countrywide powerlessness of being a “flawed democracy.”

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