ReThinking Democracy from deep within people and from the ground-up is one of the three pillars of the Growing Democracy Project. It’s essential for growing democracy. (Chapter 3 of the workbook develops this as does a god bit of chapter 4. Even though they need revising, they are already quite thorough in their treatment.) 

Root Democracy

The roots of democracy are in our bodies. Democracy is essentially yours as your breathing is, and mine as my walking is, and ours as our playing together. The GDProject argument is that our current stories and ways of thinking are mistaken in that they present it primarily as a way of governing. 

From our perspective democracy is a fundamental way for living and relating that we can draw on to develop forms of government that promote love, equality, freedom, justice, intelligence, and loyalty. In our society this must include all our varying interests and ways of being. This means struggling to balance their tensions and conflicts while sustaining the integrity of a government “of, for, and by the people.” 

We can grasp this in a special way that comes from a biocultural perspective grounded in modern evolutionary thinking. Cooperation and trust have been the essential means for growing our species for 400-500,000 years. We are now born to hear and understand each other. The mother hears her child. The child hears things we no longer hear. The lover hears the beloved as the beloved hears the lover. 

In a democratic process political opponents strive to hear and understand each other, not to defeat one another. That’s one ‘helluva’ of a project, and our political and economic sciences are too narrowly focused to see democracy in this way.

Looking through this lens it becomes clear that sharing and cooperation are not only inherently human, but they can be extraordinarily empowering. The documentary Bending the Arc tells the story of how the Partners in Health organization has transformed parts of our world health care system. It began with three college students hooking up with each other while volunteering in Haiti and attending Harvard. 

The Pachamama Alliance is an international organization focusing on environmental problems. Indigenous Amazon tribes initiated it by reaching out to concerned people and groups in the modern world. 

Their purpose was twofold: 1) save the Amazon, their homeland, and 2) share their deeply spiritual ways of relating to the environment with environmental movements across the globe. John Perkins tells this story and much more in his book Touching the Jaguar.


Our Old Stories

Our stories of democracy are worn out. Some of us tend to tell our young children (and ourselves) our new chapter is complete. We are in the promised land, and it’s truly exceptional. That’s a comforting lie.

A second one simply sees democracy as the way we organize our governing, and from time to time it needs fixing. A semester high school class in government in high school can pretty much cover the topic as needed. 

No, it cannot. It’s a lifelong process of living and relating whether one is politically active or not.

Another much more subtle and corrosive, but rather substantiated, story has it that our incomplete draft is pretty much the best we can do. Don’t hope for much more. Domination through the class system will prevail; democracy can only be a countervailing force in our politics. 

We think this story is shortsighted, yet it holds insights essential for finding a way forward for what can be and has been an unfolding story for several hundred years.

And then a fourth one claims that rule by the majority is incompatible with freedom and, therefore, oppressive. Freedom and democracy don’t go together well. This version of the American story reveals a fundamental incompatibility within our country’s politics that is deeply grounded in our culture. It has been a serious drag on our democracy from the beginning. 

Pretending this was not a serious problem, especially for the past 40-50 years, has set us up for the intense polarization we are going through right now. 


A New Story

The Growing Democracy Project is working on a different story as its foundation for Rethinking Democracy. First of all, this story sees democracy as a way of living and relating before it is a way of governing. This way of being, in fact, is the biocultural roots for any form of democratic governing. 

However, those roots also include our drives to dominate. They produce an opposing way of living and relating, and thus, governing. This is and has been the overarching conflict of the human condition. William Faulkner spoke of it as “the human heart in conflict with itself.” 

According to our story, deeply democratic laws, parliaments, administrative systems, and so on are grounded in various spiritual ways of living. Through these worldviews people tend to see each other and the physical world as precious beings rather than just instruments for getting things done, satisfying urges, and generating wealth.

Further, this story reaches far back in time, at least several hundred thousand years ago, maybe even a million. At some point back then an egalitarian dynamic began emerging for the first time among certain of our ancestors, some of whom were on their way to becoming the human species. 

This was a revolutionary development in primate history. It produced an alternative way for organizing relations and resources within a small society rather than through the domination of the group by alpha males and females. This development opened the way for dramatically evolving cooperation and love to new levels.

How would this foundational story about a democratic politics being based on the evolutionary expansion of cooperation and loving, help us grow democracy? 

An underlying, pragmatic conviction comes from our Project’s biocultural perspective: that with one shift in our living and relating we can start—start—on the path to making our democracy the dominant political force in our society. It would be a profound shift with major beneficial consequences. 

That shift can be simply stated: we stop thinking of democracy solely as a way of governing, and start thinking of it primarily as a way people can live and relate every day. It’s a radical shift. 

We believe if we pursue it persistently in collective and well-organized ways (see the Structure section of this page), we can begin developing a few, then a legion or so, and then many legions of deeply democratic people loaded with the power of their agency and mutuality. These people would be a beginning for creating a deeply democratic politics. It would be a ground up process rooted in the hearts and minds of strong everyday people.

It will be very difficult to pull this off, but if we take the first step, and then the next one, and then the next…we will keep learning how to grow our democracy personally and with each other. 

Major components