Where Our New World Democracy Fails

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Walt Whitman, via Wikimedia Commons

After a taking long break from Brainpickings, Maria Popova’s brilliant blog (after I realized it was almost completely directing my reading, and had rebellious feelings about that), I happened to return to it today, and of course found a wonderful nugget of thought that broke open a bit of my own work in a new way. The latest Brainpickings entry digs into Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, an essay on democracy in America, written just before the outbreak of the Civil War. Some of Whitman’s words are disconcertingly apropos to the conditions in which we find ourselves today. Maria Popova quotes Whitman:

We had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in.

[…]

Our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly-deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects…

In words that feel like they may as well have been addressed to the year 2017, Whitman calls Americans back to the intent of our democracy in the first place: the improvement of human lives – not merely in material gain, but in the cultivation of a thriving, equitable, and self-determining society. The striking line, “nor is humanity itself believed in,” feels particularly pointed today, in light of the divisive tactics our current administration is using to solidify its power. This puffed-up, defensive nationalism we’re seeing now belies a basic distrust of other people, whether it’s in the form of a wall to keep out imagined swarms of criminal Mexicans, or a ban on all people from certain rather arbitrary countries (that all happen to be majority Muslim), or inflated claims of murder and chaos in American streets to justify a crackdown on crimes against police, while ignoring crimes the police themselves commit. And how could this not be so? This past election season brought into painful focus how our digitally interconnected world is perhaps more disconnected than ever, with individuals siloed by social media into information (or misinformation) flows, which are difficult to escape. It was already easy to pick and choose which spin you preferred in your cable news network. Add to our media woes the long-established suburban afflictions of bedroom communities and long, isolating commutes to work, along with entrenched housing segregation, and you have a society where, for many people, it is very easy not to even know your neighbor, much less associate in any way with people who are not like you.

Walt Whitman is still right, more than 150 years after he penned the words, that our New World democracy has failed in its social aspects. (And in part as a result, may be well on its way to failure in its function, but that’s a whole other discussion.) Despite our individual freedoms, American society in many ways falls short of supporting true flourishing for all its citizens. There could be no better time than the present to consider how our democracy has failed, and imagine how it could be done better. This is my project in studying the work of political economist Elinor Ostrom.

Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is focused on managing specific common pool resources, such as commonly held grazing or forest lands, or irrigation systems. But in her work is a window onto an alternate vision of what democracy could look like. I was struck by the visual in the following passage, which Ostrom quoted from Margaret A. Keane’s report on traditional commons management in Japanese villages during the Tokugawa period.

On the appointed day, each representative [one per household] reported to the appropriate kumi zone [the zone assigned to a grouping of households] in the winter fodder commons, and waited for the temple bell as a signal to begin cutting. However, this grass was cut with large sickles, and since it would be dangerous to have people distributed unevenly around their kumi zone swinging sickles in all directions, the individuals in each kumi lined up together at one end of their zone and advanced to the other end, whacking in step with each other like a giant agricultural drill team… The haul from each kumi was grouped together and then divided evenly into one cluster per household. Each household was then assigned its cluster by lottery.

This passage describes the process for cutting winter fodder on commonly-owned land, and it no doubt seems quaint today. Yet, there is a vision of social cohesion and fellowship in it that is attractive. Imagine, year after year, the village households gathering to deliberate on the harvest date, then the representatives harvesting in step with one another, and then distribution day, when everyone came to claim their share – and then imagine a similar process repeated for the many other products of the forest and grasslands in the commons. There was no way you didn’t know your neighbor in this village. A community that is oriented around its land base and engaged in self-governance is, by necessity, an interconnected community. Of course, there is more to the social development that we aspire to than simple connection. In the village described, were women treated equitably with men? Were individuals with differing sexual orientations accepted? Would a person of different race have been seen as an equal? Ostrom’s work doesn’t explore these questions. Moreover, it would be silly to expect a commons-based community of the future to look specifically like this one. It would take quite the apocalypse to bring us back to harvesting animal fodder with sickles. However, I see no reason why society could not bring the embattled values of equity and acceptance, along with our current technology into this frame of thinking about governance. If not the animal fodder harvest, then what about a library, schools, the land used for housing or farming, or the online structures we use to communicate? These could be governed directly by their users as commons. Perhaps in the process, mass participation in this kind of governance could facilitate growth of the resilient social structures for human flourishing that democracy at its best should foster.

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