How To Be A Country That Will Not Tolerate a Dictator

A former student wrote to me this morning seeking guidance because, she fears, she is watching democracy crumble before her eyes. Referencing two of the books we read in a course five years earlier, the first by Jeffrey Goldfarb and the second by Jacques Derrida, she writes,

Given the current situation I am looking back on all of our course readings. I no longer feel like The Politics of Small Things or Rogues are theoretical.  Unfortunately I am coming to believe these works are now textbooks with potential guidance for the dangerous state of our democracy.

What else might she read, she asks, and what tactical solutions are there for this situation we are in?

He email made me realize that the little book I’ve been working on recently is more timely than ever, that I need to wrap it up right away, and that I should change the title from Deliberation, Politics, and the Work of Mourning to the more direct, though less sexy, How To Be A Country That Will Not Tolerate a Dictator — a phrase I learned from those who led the “No” campaign that got rid of the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. I never imagined that I would one day need to invoke this phrase here in the United States, but the election of the authoritarian Donald Trump and the far-right administration he is assembling does change everything. So, let’s ask ourselves, how can the US become a country that will not tolerate a dictator?

At the heart of my book are the key democratic practices I’ve learned from my work in community organizing and public life, from reading a lot of political theory, and from the collaborative research I’ve done with the Kettering Foundation. I borrow shamelessly from all to list the following practices that citizens—everyday people in a complex political society—can and need to take part in for democracy to work.

Not everyone needs to do everything, but in a large decentered society, all the following tasks need to be taken up in one space or another.

First there is the politics of seeing oneself as a citizen, someone whose office includes the overarching work of deciding what kind of communities we want; deciding what direction the political community should take, and what it stands for. I use the word “citizen” as a synonym for those with a sense of political agency—and this can include the undocumented and others with only residency status. This is  the most important office in a democracy: being people who decide what is right and just and ascertain whether their will is being carried out well.  All who are affected by matters of common concern are, to my mind, potential citizens. To be a citizen is to be someone with the sense that what she thinks matters. It also involves having a sense that one can call a meeting if there is an issue needing attention, that she can call on others to join with her in the work. This is the other crucial part of the First Amendment: the right of association. In dark times it is vital that citizens associate with others. Here the mantra is, Organize! Get involved in existing associations, whether they are civic or religious ones, and if there is a gap, create new spaces and organizations for people to come together. To be a citizen, again, is to be someone who can call a meeting.

Second is the task of identifying and thematizing problems. Importantly, it is often citizens and new social movements, not official agencies, that first notice something deeply amiss in the world and then send out alerts. New social movements often serve as what Habermas calls the “sensors” that identify problems not previously noticed. For example, it was citizens and a new renegade environmental movement that, in mid 20th century, began sounding the alarm about environmental degradation. In addition to identifying a problem, such citizen movements give problems a name and thematize or frame how they should be considered, just as young undocumented people in the United States are thematizing themselves as Dreamers. The Dreamers also show how political agency is not just the purview of those with citizenship papers, but belongs to anyone who is willing to take a stand with others.

Third are the ongoing, decentered conversations that take place throughout the public sphere. These are conversations geared toward thinking through, deliberating, and deciding what ought to be done on matters of common concern. These conversations take place informally throughout society, from a taxicab to a high school social studies classroom. Over time these conversations allow people to encounter different points of view and perspectives, work through the trade-offs, pros and cons of various courses of action, develop public knowledge, and decide what ought to be done, that is, develop public will on the matter that can, in turn, steer public policy. Making deliberative choices often involves deeply felt, and not merely cognitive, processes of working through and mourning loss.

Fourth is the task of identifying and committing civic resources, using the energy of communities and citizens to bring about change. Not all public choices call for government actions. This task also picks up on Arendt’s notion of public generative power, that when people come together they can create new potential. Also they can see how to make use of something that has previously gone fallow. For example, with the sustainability movement we are seeing a proliferation of farmers markets, CSAs, and farm to restaurant and to table movements.

Fifth is the task of organizing and engaging in civic actions, which can include holding governments and officials under siege until their actions begin to align with public will. Both social movements and deliberative bodies play a role here. Increasingly citizens are acting in concert on matters of common concern themselves. When officials act contrary to public will, strong democratic publics will hold them accountable. Various legitimation crises have erupted when publics point out discrepancies between public will and public policy. Publics find mechanisms (whether through protest or nullification) to get public will translated into law.

Sixth, is the task of civic learning, which means learning from the past and remaining open to judging how it all went and what could be done differently going forward. This is the antithesis of any “best practices” model. Any citizen can join with others to revisit a matter that others think was already democratically settled. In a democracy, no one should be ruled by decisions made by previous generation.

By seeing these kinds of tasks as central to democratic politics, we can reframe what citizens are doing when they converse and gather together around public issues. They aren’t merely trying to influence politics elsewhere; right where they are, they are creating the public will needed to imagine new futures. We can also see that democratic power is not a vertical relationship between rulers and ruled but a horizontal relationship of citizens associating with others to identify, name, frame, decide, and act on matters of common concern.

These practices don’t necessarily occur in any linear fashion. They are iterative. A first pass through a problem may turn up new unforeseen consequences and problems. This is what is so important about the sixth stage of learning, which I think resonates a bit more clearly in an Arendtian frame, especially her ideas of thinking and judging. Learning is a process of critically reflecting on a state of affairs, internally and collectively practicing the two-in-one back and forth of considering and reconsidering our thoughts about matters, being open to seeing something differently, not reifying some practice or institutions as “just the way it is.” Learning, then, loops back into re-naming and re-framing problems. The policies that a deliberative process may have resulted in may bring about unforeseen consequences that a social movement then names and begins to frame.

These six practices focus on what publics can do, including both social movements and deliberative publics; but they also point to the legitimacy question I mentioned above. If the public in its informal deliberations (what Jane Mansbridge calls “everyday talk”) begins to develop public judgment and will X, but elected officials are operating on notion Y, then the government’s legitimacy comes under question. For ultimately the power and authority of any state in the modern era derives from public will. When the state becomes oblivious to its real source of authority, then it loses its legitimacy and shows itself to be devoid of any authority whatsoever.