Moving past gridlock: A path forward to reshaping our democracy

O ur politics is a mess. Thirty years of increasingly partisan wrangling has left Congress incapable of taking on any complex policy task. Sadly, there is little prospect of escaping these ideological wars anytime soon. Partisan differences are growing, not shrinking.

Over the past three decades, ideologues have seized control of our democracy and run it into the ditch. Complex challenges ahead, everything from fiscal imbalances to climate change, are left ignored. On the one side, political isolationists rail against government interference and proclaim the sanctity of the “free market”, even though free markets have never existed. On the other side, we see equally strident isolationists unwilling to consider reforms to Depression era social contracts, even though these contracts must be re-written.

Both sides are driving into the future, looking wistfully in the rearview mirror.

Framing our Challenge

In 1948, British philosopher Bertrand Russell framed the challenges we face in his BBC Reith lectures, entitled Authority and the Individual. Russell asked, “How can we combine the degree of individual initiative necessary for progress with the degree of social cohesion necessary for survival?”

Striking the balance between individual freedom and collective action asks us to confront a fundamental tension between freedom and order, individual and group. Clearly, with today’s superheated rhetoric, we have not managed this balance very well.

John Dewey, writing on the occasion of his 80th birthday about 10 years before Russell’s lectures, outlined the challenge facing his generation. His comments project well to our situation today. In remarks entitled “Creative Democracy – – The Task Before Us“, Dewey wrote,

[W]e now have to re-create by deliberate and determined endeavor the kind of democracy which in its origin 150 years ago was largely the product of a fortunate combination of men and circumstances. We have lived for a long time upon the heritage that came to us from the happy conjunction of men and events in an earlier day.…[F]or a long period we acted as if our democracy or something that perpetuated itself automatically; as if our ancestors had succeeded in setting up a machine that solved the problem of perpetual motion in politics. We acted as if democracy were something that took place mainly at Washington and Albany – – or some other state capital – – under the impetus of what happened when men and women went to the polls once a year or so – – which is a somewhat extreme way of saying that we have had the habit of thinking of democracy as a kind of political mechanism that will work as long as citizens were reasonably faithful in performing political duties.

We now see, I think, that Dewey was right in raising the alarm. Occasional voting is not enough. Dewey argued that “democracy is a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities of human nature.” While this faith may be enacted in statute, “it is only on paper unless it is put in force in the attitudes which human beings displayed one another in all the incidents and relations of daily life.”

So, how do we design new experiences that re-energize personal commitments to our democracy? That’s a question I’ve been thinking about for some time now.

Political Science 101

You know matters are bad when one of the chief architects of our ideological wars, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, starts calling for limits on the influence of billionaires in our elections.

But, truth be told, the prospects for campaign finance reform are remote in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Looking for change in Washington is time wasted.

The good news is that we can overcome these difficulties but not with solutions that have been tried before. Changing how money drives our politics represents the trailing edge of reform, not the leading edge.

First, we must tackle the arithmetic of our elections. Former US Rep. Jim Leach, now head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, sets the framework with what he calls “Political Science 101”. (See Leach’s remarks before the Vermont Bar Association in June 2013.)

The country over the past generation has been approximately 1/3 democratic, one third Republican, and one third independent. Basic math tells us that one half of one third is 1/6. So 16 2/3% of the voters nominally controls candidate selection in a typical election. But only one in four votes (often a fraction of this figure) participates in primaries where candidates are chosen. Thus, it is one fourth times 1/6 or 1/24 of the electorate that determines who the candidates of the principal parties will be. This 4% is socially quite conservative on the Republican side and actively liberal on the Democratic. Consequently, legislative bodies intended to represent a cross-section of the American public come principally to reflect its philosophical edges. The most underrepresented of part of the American public today in Congress is the great, probably majoritarian, center.

The money people involved in politics today have dollars, but they do not have the votes. They are using their money to energize an ideological fringe on both sides, conservative and liberal. This fringe, as Leach points out, has defined the contours of our political process.

But this does not have to be. Improving the representation of the “great, probably majoritarian, center” can shift the political dynamics in Washington. So, here’s the leverage point that can alter our current political dynamic. Our opportunity is getting more people involved in local politics by designing new types of democratic engagements.

But how do we do that?

Clearly, we face a Catch-22. How can we get more people involved in the system that is broken?

For those of us in the majoritarian middle, a glib answer, but true, is, “Don’t focus on elections right now”. Instead, focus on engagements that can rebuild the foundational aspects of the democracy in our communities and regions.

To illustrate, let me share a story or two from my experience.

Two Stories of Genuine Political Reform

Some years ago, in a county touching the far reaches of Louisville’s suburban sprawl, a small political clique control the local politics. Controlling the local politics gave the elected leaders ample opportunity to make money. Unscrupulous real estate developers were willing to pay for the right to build shoddy houses and large-scale subdivisions. The county had no infrastructure to handle this growth. Only one police car patrolled the miles of county roads, building inspection barely took place, and the school system faced continuous problems of keeping up with the growth.

The situation benefited a handful of people in the county. The dynamic didn’t change until an energized group of citizens started encountering the graft, as they started discussing the future of their county. Within one election cycle, they replaced corrupt politicians with a new generation of local leadership.

The same pattern emerged in a parish in Louisiana, where corrupt politicians ran politics for their own benefit. Rather than support a comprehensive development code, the parish commission preferred side deals with developers. The dynamic didn’t shift until a relatively small group of self-appointed citizen leaders began exploring new options.

Over a two-year period, they conducted conversations throughout the parish about future development patterns they wanted to see. As an outgrowth of these discussions, they forced the parish commission to adopt a comprehensive development code.

These two counties provide us with some important political lessons. if for interested in changing electoral outcomes, we don’t start with elections. Rather, we should focus on engaging citizens in a more direct form of democracy. Through these experiences, they become more active in their representative democracy, and the dynamic shifts.

Interestingly, ideologues are not attracted to these conversations. The reason is simple: They are more interested in loudly narrowcasting their views than grappling with the complex, creative thinking required to design new collaborations.

The architecture of democracy is built by moving collaborative conversations into action. Ideologues are not interested. They are, by nature, deductive, not experimental thinkers. They believe they have the answers. Their answers flow logically from the simplistic frameworks in their head. All they need to do is convince others of the rightness of their cause.

Alas, it’s a fool’s game that only bores the majority of us. We are pragmatists who understand that, to meet the grand challenges we face, we must experiment and learn by doing. We are Leach’s “majoritarian center”.

The Key to Improve our Democracy: Moving to Conversations to Action

Engaging people and more powerful experiences in direct democracy is not a new idea. For the past 20 years or so, a variety of different experiments in so-called “deliberative democracy” have taken place. The Kettering Foundation, among others, have undertaken multiple initiatives to improve democratic dialogue.

While laudable, these efforts have not had much discernible impact. Here’s why, I suspect. They are both too broad and too shallow.

They are too broad in the sense that they focus on large issues, which are often so large that it is difficult for people to connect their personal concerns. They are too shallow, because they demand too little of us. These experiences are focused more on learning than action.

In sum, they are not sufficiently engaging. While they help people gain a deeper appreciation for the nature of our democracy and even generate some insights into the complex issues that confront us, these exercises do not move people to action.

Writing in 1951, Franklin Haiman, a noted First Amendment scholar at Northwestern, outlined the important difference between democratic (small “d”) groups that learned together and groups that act together. Haiman’s distinction is, I think, critical to finding a path forward. According to Haimen, the learning group accelerates the individual growth of each member. The action group, by contrast, is interdependent in a deeper way. The purpose of the action group is to improve group productivity, to accomplish tasks that no individual member of the group can accomplish alone….like transforming a community or regional economy.

I suspect that if we are to meet the challenges set forth by Russell and Dewey, we will need to focus on Haimen’s action group. How do we design and launch more of these?

That is what happened in both Kentucky and Louisiana. Citizens formed a democratic group for the purpose of taking action. They focused on a challenge that directly touched their lives: the quality of development in their county. In each case, they framed their challenge and generational terms, “What kind of county do we want to leave for our children and our grandchildren?” As they moved forward together, they formed the bonds of trust — what sociologists call social capital — needed to take on increasingly complex challenges.

As they engaged their fellow citizens in this conversation, they grew these trusted networks. When it came time to remove the corrupt political obstacles to their efforts, the shift was both practical and probable.

For the past decade, I have been advancing these lessons at the Purdue Center for Regional Development. Through our work in Strategic Doing, we are igniting similar conversations throughout the country.

It will take time for these new democratic practices to take hold. We are patient and persistent, though. We know we are playing a generational game. Over time, our national political dynamics will begin shift…not from Washington, but from countless conversations taking place in communities throughout the country. If you look at a map of where we’ve been over the last five years, you can see that we are igniting small fires all over the place.

Agile strategy — the process of engaging people in designing and implementing new, more innovative collaborations in their communities and regions — offers the hope of revitalizing our democracy at the local and regional level. From a position of strength, the under-represented center can tackle the dysfunctions in Washington with a real prospect of reform.


My Purdue colleague Scott Hutcheson and I have recently finished a paper that will appear in an special issue of Community Development on democracy.

Ed Morrison is Director of the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. For the past five or six years, he has been developing new, agile approaches to strategy in open, loosely joined networks, a discipline he calls Strategic Doing. Prior to starting his economic development work, Ed worked for Telesis, a corporate strategy consulting firm. In this position, he served on consulting teams for clients such as Ford Motor Company, Volvo, and General Electric. He conducted manufacturing cost studies in the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and France. Ed started his professional career in Washington, D.C., where he has served as a legislative assistant to an Ohio Congressman, staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission, and staff counsel in the US Senate. He holds a BA degree cum laude with honors from Yale University and MBA and JD degrees from the University of Virginia.

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