What Is Democracy, Anyway? Let’s Talk

By Frances Moore Lappé / October 18, 2018

The author of Seattle's "democracy voucher" initiative holding up a $25 voucher. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Originally published on Common Dreams, October 18, 2018.

This is the 5th of Frances' Thought Sparks Video Series as she opens her heart about what fortifies her in this scary time & shares her often-surprising takes on themes of hope, democracy, and courage.


With our democracy in free fall, many are terrified, but I’m convinced that there is one thing with the power to turn the tide.

And what is that?

At the risk of sounding corny, or even ridiculous, I believe the one force with the power we need now is “falling in love with democracy.” I know love can’t be forced, but I also know that to love we must first get acquainted. So, let’s ask, What, exactly, does democracy mean to us? Is it worthy of our devotion?

That’s the conversation I long for and offer these thoughts as an invitation.

For some, the answer’s easy: Democracy equals a market plus elections.

But I don’t think so. A lot of societies have both, yet too many of their citizens are barely surviving. Take the world’s largest democracy, India. Almost one in four children is stunted by poor nutrition and impure water, often with life-long consequences.

Elections plus a market do not democracy make.

For others democracy is more complex—grounded in a system of representative governance, the separation of powers, including an independent judiciary, and, of course, the right to speak and assemble freely. But in many countries with these constitutional protections officially in place, much of the citizenry isn’t thriving. South Africa is one example.

So, we must dig. What is democracy, anyway?

For me, it is a culture that lives democracy as a never-ending journey. “Democracy is becoming, rather than being. It can easily be lost, but never is fully won,” observed William Hastie, our first African-American federal appellate judge, adding: “Its essence is eternal struggle.”

For sure, the journey of democracy is unending, but its direction is clear:

First, democracy is a journey away concentrated power. From Hitler and Mao to Big Oil and Facebook—tightly held power has proven to lead humans to justify narrow self-seeking and so much worse—from atrocities all the way to genocide. Psychological experiments now confirm at least one reason: power over others dampens empathy.

Democracy is thus a journey toward the opposite, widely dispersed power.

That walk includes getting big money out of politics, defeating the assault on voting rights and reforms that ensure every vote counts. Already, at state, county, and local levels, a citizen-led movement is changing the rules to create more inclusive and accountable power. A favorite example of mine is what Seattle citizens accomplished in 2015 by passing “democracy vouchers” enabling voters to receive four $25 vouchers they can then offer to their preferred candidates for key city offices. For the first time, regular citizens can run for these positions and most residents can contribute. Now citizens in Austin and Albuquerque are pursuing similar, democracy-enhancing innovations.

Second, democracy is a journey away from secrecy. Vast experience confirms that in a cloak of secrecy we’re more apt to behave badly. Take an example with monumental consequences: Before the big crash of 2008, Wall St. bankers were feverishly pushing risky derivatives on the unsuspecting. Assuming no one was watching, they lived by “a little industry code”: IBGYBG, “I’ll be gone. You’ll be gone,” meaning they knew they could get out unscathed and enriched before their schemes imploded. And they were right.