Democracy’s Participation Requirements


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   7-20,11-21

ABSTRACT:  Democracy cannot sustain itself without certain attitudes toward other citizens and without citizen participation, but as diversity grows and as systems get larger and more complex, these requirements become more difficult.  Key attitudes and actions are explained.

KEY WORDS:  democracy


Key beliefs that allow a democracy to function well are that–

  • all citizens are basic equals,
  • all citizens deserve equal treatment under the structure and laws of the polity,
  • the needs and feelings of all citizens should have equal weight in determining the actions of government,
  • the thoughts and feelings of all citizens are worth taking into account,
  • the needs and feelings of all citizens “make sense” in the context of their lives and personalities,
  • all citizens have an equal right to express their needs and feelings to the government and to other citizens,
  • all citizens should be willing to listen to the needs and feelings of other citizens without demeaning or attacking them,
  • all citizens should be treated with respect and courtesy in their participation in government,
  • trying to get our way by demeaning or “canceling” others is destructive to democracy,
  • it is better to work to find policy compromises that maximize the felt benefit to all citizens than to try to “win” (get our own way),

1. All citizens are basic equals in society and in government.  No one deserves more goods or more influence simply because of social position, although some may have more because of what they do for others and for the country.  Efforts to dominate, rise by demeaning others, or have more influence in government than others are destructive to democracy because not only are they unfair but those who end up feel inferior are less likely to contribute or vote.  (These destructive activities include lying to others.)

This does not imply that the circumstances of all citizens should be equalized or that they should have the same income.  The history of Russia and China show clearly enough that taking away the notion that people can individually advance (differently) by working hard for their own purposes leads to economic stagnation.  The equality required for democracy is equality of fundamental worth—that all of us have an equal basic worth that cannot be taken away and that in this sense, no one is “better than” anyone else, no matter how they might pretend to be better.  It is a challenge for us to grant political equality to those whom we perceive as being different or “below” us, but every person has his or her ideas about the best life for him or her, and the purpose of government is to help each person move as far as possible toward having that best life.

It is true that there have been democracies in the past, including our own, in which most of the population could not vote (in our own case, originally only white, male, landowners could vote), but in modern times, all adults have been included in the notion of “citizens,” and all citizens are considered politically equal (at least theoretically!).

Given the tendency of human beings to view society as a hierarchy (due to our familiarity with the hierarchy we experienced in our families in infancy and early childhood) and given the need of many to compensate for poor self-esteem by trying to be “better than” others, it is difficult to maintain the sense of equality needed for a true democracy.  In some ways the U.S. population supports the notion of basic equality (like “no one is above the law”), but in other ways it does not because so many seek to rise materially or achieve in order to be better than and worth more than others.

2. All citizens deserve equal treatment under the structure and laws of the polity.  Not to do so is unfair and discourages loyalty and participation as well as generating continuing anger and desires for revenge.  If you try to get more from government than others, then they will try to get more than you, and this has led to the current paralysis of our government.

The U.S. is pretty good about endorsing the principle that no citizen is above the law, but in practice, money enables those who are richer to sometimes avoid punishment.  A worse problem is that those who are richer or have more fame are treated better by elected officials and the bureaucracies of government than those who are “nobody,” and this should be made a reason for disciplinary action toward government employees who engage in it.  Removing money from political campaigns would help also (by, for example, completely banning political advertising by political parties as it is now practiced, while allowing all other citizens or groups of citizens to express their political views freely).  Eliminating manipulation of voters by music, pictures, and other media tricks would also help.  Elected positions should not be achieved through lies, promises, or gifts to voters.

3. The needs and feelings of all citizens should have equal weight in determining the actions of government.  Again, to do otherwise establishes harmful status hierarchies and discourages citizen participation.  We should eliminate the fact that those who contribute more to campaigns have more access to elected officials.

The U.S. and most other countries are poor at this, since most human beings want power rather than equality.  In this sense, democracy is an “unnatural” way to govern!  If you are an urbanite, can you see your way to paying attention to the needs and feelings of those from rural areas and giving their needs and feelings equal weight with yours in determining government policy?  If you are from a rural area, can you see your way to paying attention to the needs and feelings of those from urban areas and giving their needs and feeling equal weight with yours?  If not, you should wonder if you really want a democracy.

4. The thoughts and feelings of all citizens are worth taking into account, because the country exists equally for all citizens.  If this is untrue in a given society, then that society does not have equality.  All citizens must feel that their welfare is important to government.

The U.S. pays lip service to this (government programs are supposed to be equally accessible to everyone who qualifies; all adults can vote; citizens are equal before the law), but if money continues to control voter information and special access to officials and agencies, then those with more money will always have more influence in government.  If you are from an urban area, can you see some value to the traditional conservative view that budgets should be balanced every year and not by borrowing?  If you are from a rural area, can you see some value to government funding some things that private enterprise chooses not to do, like enabling all households in the country to access the internet?  Each side can benefit from the policy goals of other groups, and this would move us toward greater cooperation and less fighting.

5. The needs and feelings of all citizens “make sense” in the context of their lives and personalities.  Our beliefs and behavior are determined in large part by our experiences in the world, and we all want the same basic things (survival, minimum physical and emotional pain, feeling good about ourselves (partly from being treated as equals and with respect and courtesy), sex, having and raising children, and finding basic acceptance from others).  Our beliefs and behavior can be understood in terms of these basic needs, our experiences, and our genetic makeup.  The importance of this is that being able to understand the positions and needs of others leads us to be more willing to take their needs into account when determining government policy.

6. All citizens have an equal right to express their needs and feelings to the government and to other citizens.  This gives people the sense that they are known by the government and that their needs are taken into account, which motivates them to participate in policy debates and to vote. 

All citizens can communicate with their elected representatives in Congress and with other government officials through the mail and through the internet, but the ability of those with more wealth or position to express themselves publically compared to other citizens (such as paying for air time or comporting themselves so as to gain more exposure through “news”) is destructive to democracy, as is their greater access to government officials due to political contributions, and this greater impact should be minimized.  Our valuing of wealth and belief in a wealth hierarchy of importance is destructive to democracy.

The U.S. is very bad in this regard, giving many citizen the view that the U.S. is actually a well-managed oligarchy (government by the rich) rather than a democracy, and this plays a role in our low voting percentages.

7. All citizens should be willing to listen to the needs and feelings of other citizens without demeaning or attacking them, which are methods of trying to dominate or get more than others.

Our “free-for-all” approach to public expression in the U.S. accepts lies and money influence in ways that are destructive to democracy, but for the sake of free expression we probably have to tolerate a certain degree of lying and a certain degree of ignorance.  On the other hand, a large proportion of the population would prefer to see political discourse be more civil, and to accomplish this all of us must publically request such civility when incivility occurs, and all must control their emotions in such discourse.  It is understandable that political decisions that will have significant effect on people’s lives would provoke our emotions.  It is likely that in such situations people will employ the same conflict behaviors that they have witnessed in their own homes growing up.  Some will speak more loudly in order to dominate and have their views become dominant or will criticize and demean “opponents” in order to get them to give up.  These efforts to dominate are antithetical to democracy and should be exposed as blatant efforts to dominate (make their views count more than the views of their “opponents”).   

8. All citizens should be treated with respect and courtesy in their participation in government.  This is required by the basic equality we claim to endorse, and to do otherwise discourages input and participation from citizens.  We receive no formal training in the U.S. concerning productive ways to engage others in joint projects (to cooperate), but such training, using the concepts listed above, could be given so that all young people would gain an idea about what works best and what will keep our democracy healthy.

9. Trying to get our way by demeaning or “canceling” others is destructive to democracy, because we engage in it in order to get our personal “way” at the expense of others.  Attacking others for their views is the opposite of political equality and of treating others well.  Others usually know better than you what is in their best interest, and they must be consulted about it if government is to be able to try to bring benefit to all.  Basic equality requires that we take all other citizens into account.

Our major political parties contribute significantly to the divisions in our society by framing their debates and actions as fighting against views that have no merit.  This is undemocratic in itself, as noted repeatedly above.  In the past, both sides have striven to “win” and then have accepted the outcome whether or not they won, but recently we have begun to threaten not to accept those outcomes but to try to delegitimize them in order to get our own way.  This poisonous rejection of other sections of society will only lead to greater and greater conflict.  It is time for political parties to acknowledge the value of having different political views be a part of determining government actions, which is inconsistent with vilifying them!

10. It is better to work to find policy compromises that maximize the felt benefit to all citizens than to try to “win” (get our own way).  Trying to win leads to demeaning or harming others, and winning leads to fighting, which is never more productive for everyone than shaping policy to maximize benefit to as many citizens as possible.  A more productive and more comfortable way is to treat others with respect and courtesy and to discuss issues, listening to all citizens’ views and using that information to craft the most effective compromises that please as many citizens as possible.  A key skill for maintaining a democracy is the ability to understand the needs and feelings of others without demeaning them.


Patrick Deneen’s recent book, Why Liberalism Failed (ISBN 978-0-300-24002-3) argues convincingly that the great liberal project, underway since even before the Enlightenment, is failing because its drive toward freedom has been corrupted because key behavior control mechanisms inherent in local customs (such as people all knowing each other’s business in a village; church as an arbiter of morals) have lost their power due to liberalism’s own drive toward greater and greater freedom, since liberalism conceptualized freedom as latitude for the individual to do whatever she wants (implying eliminating arbitrary controls, such as local customs).  He sees the conservative view of freedom as freedom within boundaries, and he idealizes those local customs (which control) as sentimental and lovable features of a good human life.  Of course, these local customs sometimes have a vicious and unfair flavor, given local jealousies, needs for revenge, and imperfect arbiters (judges, priests), but they do have merit as a system of behavior control.

Deneen posits that since behavior must be controlled, liberalism has had to substitute legal and “justice” systems for these more local controls, but these systems have an inhuman quality that does not inspire control but rather resistance and loathing.  (These large systems also have the same defects as local controls, for the same reasons.)  Liberalism views justice systems as being determined by the people, through representative government, so that the people should have loyalty to the systems and should conform.  Justice systems could be more humane, depending on the personnel administering all levels of the system, but the more anonymity there is (judges and attorneys not having personal knowledge of offenders), the more chance there is for inhumaneness and lack of caring.  Most scholars view the institution of legal systems in the ancient world and the Roman Empire as improvements over the arbitrariness of kings and their officials, but Deneen sentimentalizes about the emotional attachments of people to their local surroundings and fellow citizens despite the imperfections.

The point of this essay is to identify human beings and human nature as the culprits here, rather than liberal or conservative views or the human systems that each prefers.  Human beings need attachments to fellow human beings, for their mental health and for allowing large human systems to exist at all (since much of the necessary cooperation in a large system is of necessity impersonal), but human beings also dislike the unpleasantness that comes at times with all relationships and dislike the constraints put on them by the requirements of relationships and cooperation.  Husbands get bored with their wives chatter.  Wives fantasize about having a better lover.  The boss is seen as a tyrant for requiring eight hours of work rather than six hours plus two on the internet. Police are seen as a threat that brings our hearts into our throats.  We know deep down that our fellow citizens can turn on us “in a heartbeat” if their passions are inflamed.  People need and struggle with relationships, but naturally people long for freedom from these burdens, and they will be sympathetic to systems of living that promise greater amounts of this type of freedom (as in liberalism).

Another example of the retreat from face-to-face relating is the surge of indirect relating that the internet has wrought.  It is so much easier to say nasty things to and about others when you don’t have to say it to them face-to-face.

When human beings are offered a chance to avoid the unpleasantness of participating directly in democracy, they will take it, unless they have a strong reason to participate.  Our central government has trended toward being run by “experts,” partly because, again, things have become so complex that ordinary citizens give up trying to understand them.  This gives us all an excuse not to participate.  Unless government makes an effort to include citizens in its processes, it will become ever more isolated from actual citizens and ever more inclined to arrange things for its own internal ease and benefit rather than for the benefit of citizens.  Deneen blames government (and liberal destruction of local constraints) for its isolation, but citizens have given government the chance to be totally in charge by going with our human tendency to take the path of least resistance, in this case, to avoid the “work” and unpleasantness of dealing with each other and trying to understand complex issues.

The humaneness of all aspects of government, including the justice system, has been drained by the gradual decline of citizen participation, all the way from the town meetings of New England, in which every issue was decided by vote of citizens, to our current circumstance in which 95 percent of citizens (my estimate) participate not at all or only in some elections as voters.  (The Twitter complainers and abusers are playing a role in the sense that some officials monitor them for input, but their motive, by and large, is complaining rather than participating.)  I would guess that fewer than one percent of citizens go to city council meetings, even occasionally.

Citizen participation has declined partly because the country and its administrative subunits are so big.  Anything beyond the local is felt to be part of the vast unknown where bureaucrats and corporations decide so much about our lives.  We don’t like the situation, but most citizens don’t even try to understand it and figure out how to have a voice in things.   Even those who write to their representatives know that those representatives don’t read their missives and only see a count by assistants of how many people have the various views on an issue.  There is nothing personal about it.

Another killer of citizen participation, as noted already, is that the issues are so complex, because our interdependencies have become larger and larger as we try to wring every possible benefit and dollar from our various systems.  And, we no longer have any mandatory national service requirement for young adults, which served as something of a unifier for the nation.

Another basic truth about human beings is that they are basically self-interested, and the short-sightedness of many people causes this self-interest to show up in what we view as selfishness (seeking one’s own ends regardless of negative impact on others).  Thus, citizens will not turn from not participating in their democracy to participating unless they see some clear personal benefit to doing so.  Unfortunately the benefits of democracy are not immediate or concrete and so may be hard to perceive.  We benefit from the freedoms we use democracy to gain and from the sense of basic equality that democracy implies (as opposed to having a pre-assigned social station), but these can seem somewhat vague and distant to many people.  Therefore, to maintain citizen participation in democracy we (government, parents, teachers) will need to continually educate and remind people of the benefits of democracy and the requirements that citizens have to maintain that democracy.

Large systems with little participation from the rank and file are quite vulnerable to demagogueic, aspiring leaders who promise simple-sounding solutions to our complex problems.  Frustrated people want to believe in a hero and one who makes it sound as if our problems could be readily solved (viz., Hitler, Mussolini).  Some see President Trump as filling that role.  The U.S. is actually at some peril today, not from Mr. Trump but from the frustrations of citizens and their feeling that there is nothing they can do about problems themselves and therefore “must” trust in a strong leader, together with the ignorance of the young about the reasons for having freedom of speech and tolerance of differences in our society for the sake of preserving democracy.  As noted above, we must continually educate citizens about their benefits and responsibilities.

Because of the size of the nation, we are stuck with representative government rather than any sort of direct government by the people.  Ordinary citizens can participate in local government if they are willing, but we will have to hope that those who select themselves for seeking office in state and national government are competent and honest enough to make the system work (with constant input from ordinary citizens).  Voters are responsible for allowing various individuals to progress up the political ladder, but to do this wisely they will have to know who they are voting for (or against), and our electoral system does not encourage voters to know who candidates are, since we leave it totally up to the candidates to tell people what they want people to know about themselves (and hide what they don’t want people to know).  We let candidates “fight it out” instead of constructing a system that would inform voters about candidates.

Things We Can Do

For sustaining pluralistic democracies, citizens must—

  • tolerate a wide spectrum of personal differences among citizens (race, culture, values, preferences) while seeing them all as legitimate citizens of the country,
  • tolerate free speech for the sake of gathering all citizen viewpoints in the quest for the best possible compromises on issues,
  • be willing to accept compromises at various levels of government on almost all issues, since we have many different kinds of people in our country and since our situations and interdependencies have gotten so large,
  • understand the reasons why democracy is the best choice for allowing citizen freedom, despite its clumsiness,
  • continually update oneself on current questions and issues for the community, state, and nation, by utilizing various sources of information (newspapers, books, TV, internet, etc.),
  • establish traditions whereby government, parents, and teachers frequently remind citizens of the benefits of democracy and the requirements of citizens to maintain the health of the democracy,
  • be directly acquainted with the mechanisms of government (how it works), by, for example, attending at least one meeting each year of your city council and watching several hours of C-SPAN each year for the national picture,
  • participate in government by letting office holders at state and national levels know your preferences on issues at least monthly via e-mail or visits to liaison offices locally,
  • push for having a standard set of information about candidates that all voters would receive (identifying information, selected background information, positions on all issues, etc.) (in addition to the free speech opportunities that candidates have to speak for themselves),
  • become emotionally comfortable with competing views of reality and politics and become able to respect and talk with those with beliefs and customs that differ from one’s own.

(This last point brings up an appropriate question of whether democracy actually is the best choice overall—that freedoms might not be as important in some circumstances as control or safety.  What do you think (not what have you been told)?)

The values above—tolerating differences and free speech, viewing compromise as necessary—could be stated and supported in education generally, and comparative political science (addressing the actual outcomes of various forms of political organization such as democracy, socialism, communism) could be studied by all in later years of high school.  For individuals, tolerating differences and free speech requires an acknowledgment that one’s own beliefs are not necessarily the most true or useful beliefs, which would point up the value of taking others’ views and beliefs seriously.

Since human beings are naturally uncomfortable with differences in beliefs and customs (because they make us unsure about how to act and how to predict what others will do), all citizens would benefit from some training in how to feel good about oneself and secure in one’s beliefs while at the same time allowing that others’ beliefs and customs might have something to offer as well.  To do this implies the possibility of incorporating some of others’ beliefs and customs into one’s own life and thereby improving one’s own cognitive, emotional, and relationship functioning.

Being familiar with issues requires hearing the views of others across the political spectrum, not just reading and listening to those with whom one already agrees.  This requires some self-discipline to ensure reading or hearing those with whom one disagrees.  Liberals must watch some of Fox News, and conservatives must watch some of CNN.  This addresses the tendency noted above for us as human beings to avoid unpleasantness and conflict.  In this case, watching and listening to those with other views may well produce cognitive dissonance in us, threatening our security in our own views, so in order to be well informed, we have to make ourselves vulnerable to some potential discomfort, anger, and disbelief in order to fulfill this important requirement for keeping democracy healthy. 

Standard candidate information for voters could be constructed by current and former officeholders and could be published for voters by each level of government before every election.  California already has a state office responsible for giving voters carefully developed, objective pro and con information about every ballot initiative.  This is done fairly and is an example showing that this could be done for candidates for office fairly and non-politically.  Candidates would submit their own written positions on all issues.  Voting by party should be discouraged, since it gives voters an easy out from actually knowing something about what is going on.

A key element in judging candidates should be his or her ability to stay centered amid the maelstrom of influences on him/her.  Currently, since they make the most “noise,” people on the far right and the far left wield more influence on officeholders than they deserve to, since they are small minorities of the total votership.  People in between these extremes must get their voices heard more often in order to balance things up—hence the recommendation that we all contact our various representatives at least monthly.

The ultimate and even more important goal, however, of exposure to others’ views would be to become familiar with your own beliefs as well as  those of others, to understand them all as attempts to make sense of life and find how best to build the large social/cultural systems that we need in order to make a complex and productive society work well, and not to feel threatened by the beliefs and customs of others, so that it becomes relatively easy to hear other views and digest them for whatever might be of value.

To attend a city council meeting or watch C-SPAN might seem like a burden, but things of this nature are absolutely necessary to gain the feeling that you are participating in the system and that it is a human system that you could theoretically participate in meaningfully, not something alien that you could never understand.

To help citizens to maintain the health of the democracy, parents can explain those benefits and responsibilities to children, government and civic-minded authors can produce pamphlets and books (including for children) that explain those benefits and responsibilities clearly and fairly, and high schools can go back to having required civics courses for all.

No one is likely to follow the above recommendations if they are simply onerous and uncomfortable, so another goal must be to become comfortable with being aware of competing beliefs and politics and become able to respect those with beliefs and customs that are different from one’s own.  This means not being bothered by the mere fact of difference but to value others who are different from you who arrive at and express their beliefs with integrity and compassion.  We must want to hear all of the voices in the country, in order that all can be best served by government, so to do this with a good heart, we cannot approach it with the attitude that others have nothing valuable to contribute.

These actions by citizens would not, of course, guarantee that individual citizens will get all of the governmental outcomes that they want, since our country is so diverse and our issues so complex, but if citizens do not increase their (our) participation, governmental actions will continue to become more and more divorced from what voters actually want.

(For more detail on the above, see my essay “The Solution To All Human Interactional Problems” on the website under “societal issues” or “government.”)