The Democratic Promise, a Strong People, and an Open Nation: The philosophy behind the Democratic Alternative

The Democratic Alternative intervention introduces two major themes that unify the movement. First, it explains that our politics are based on a faith in what we call the democratic promise: the promise of the constructive genius of ordinary women and men. Second, it argues that faith in this promise necessitates fighting for a strong people and an open nation: stronger citizens and communities, and a more open economy and democracy.

Here I aim to answer, in more detail, three questions that arise from these themes:

  1. How do these themes work to differentiate the Democratic Alternative from other political movements today?
  2. What does it mean to have faith in the democratic promise?
  3. How does this faith connect to a struggle for a stronger people and a more open nation?

i. Major political types and the democratic promise

The best way to understand the significance of the democratic promise –  our faith in the constructive genius of ordinary men and women – is to contrast its adherents with the three major political types popular in America today.

The first type is the fundamentalist, who believes that some past, external, eternal and revealed formula or prescription contains the answers to political questions. Fundamentalists – be they religious fundamentalists devoted to scripture, economic fundamentalists devoted to some eternal principle about how markets must work, or political fundamentalists devoted to ideological doctrine – are politically certain; they see little use in political deliberation with or new beliefs from living individuals.

Those who put their faith in the constructive genius of ordinary men and women reject broad fundamentalism, acknowledging that there exists uncertainty in politics that must be addressed through pragmatism: the process of living people making practical, ad hoc decisions in response to present circumstances.

Among the pragmatists is the second major political type: the conservative, who does believe that living humans must make choices about what to do in present situations, but insists that these choices be significantly informed by the present institutions and practices we have inherited from the past. To the conservative, these social norms probably evolved for good reason and thus we should always lean towards conserving them and avoid bulldozing them just because we are excited about some new problem-solving blueprint. When conservatives acknowledge the need to reform a part of our “precious inheritance,” they believe the reform should be, in Yuval Levin’s words, more like “medicine than engineering: a process of healing that seeks to preserve by correcting.”

A progressive understanding of the democratic promise invests more faith in the constructive genius of living citizens to address present problems. This leads to a skepticism of the evolutionary process of institutions. Sure, some institutions’ continued existence might reflect their supremacy in a centuries-long survival of the fittest, but others might exist today because of randomness, historical coincidences, vicious cycles, and entrenched power structures. To the progressive believer in the constructive genius of ordinary men and women, any particular existing social institution or practice is neither natural nor necessary. Hewing to the past and avoiding bulldozing parts of our precious inheritance might be a good rule of thumb, but it is not a fundamental law.

Among the pragmatists who are not conservatives is the third major political type: the technocrat, who does believe, in principle, that any given present institutional structure is neither natural nor necessary and does believe that living humans must make choices about what to do in present situations, but believes that most of these political choices should be made by technical experts. To the technocrat, a small slice of the population is educated, experienced and informed enough to make most political decisions; the role of the rest of us is to choose which slate of experts to support on election day.

If you believe in the democratic promise, you don’t just believe in the constructive genius of some living persons– you believe in the constructive genius of all citizens. Specific expertise in specific areas might be a useful tool for a people making political decisions, but they are not sufficient to build a thriving democratic republic: everyone has ideas to share, everyone has practical and moral intuitions worth considering, everyone is a would-be “expert” if they can be empowered and equipped.

ii. The supremacy of citizens’ constructive genius

That is what it means to have faith in the democratic promise, in the constructive genius of ordinary men and women. Unlike fundamentalists, we start from a place of political uncertainty. Unlike conservatives, we believe institutional evolution can lead us down bad paths and thus believe present ideas from living humans for institutional reform and replacement are worth considering. Unlike technocrats, we believe those ideas are not the providence of a small set of centralized experts, but rather should be harvested from every ordinary citizen.

This constructive genius has been called creative intelligence by secular thinkers like John Dewey. It has been called divine Grace that works through each of us by religious thinkers. In False Necessity, philosopher Roberto Unger describes it as follows:

The infinity of the mind is the model for our relation to all the social and cultural worlds we build and inhabit.  There is always more in us — more in each of us individually as well as more in all of us collectively — than there is in all of them put together, the past and present orders of society and culture.

This inexhaustibility is the most important fact about us.  It is inscribed in the plasticity that characterizes the human brain and makes us into language-speaking and culture-producing organisms.  Its deployment is the most important instrument of practical progress as well as of scientific discovery. (li-lii)

To the Democratic Alternative, our people’s living and constructive genius – our creative intelligence, our experience of divine Grace, the infinity of our mind, our inexhaustibility – is the great tool we have with which to face political uncertainty.

From this belief comes our political mission: to empower and equip this constructive genius of ordinary men and women, while restoring its political supremacy over non-living structures. Wise scripture, inherited institutions, and technical expertise should not be abolished, but they should be the servants, not the masters, of this constructive genius and its stewards, the living citizens and communities of today.

iii. Strong People

But what does faith in this democratic promise have to do with strong people and an open nation?

We believe the first step to build a nation fit for this constructive genius is to work to strengthen the people possessing it. If people are unstable, discouraged and ill-equipped, they will not only suffer, but also be unable to realize their genius in the world.

Thus, the Democratic Alternative’s first area of work is to strengthen citizens to be more stable, energized, and equipped. This entails fortifying economic security so that satisfying one’s immediate needs need not be a barrier to creative participation; decentralizing capital for productive use so that more people have more resources to work with creatively; broadening educational opportunities so that location and age no longer determine one’s access to empowerment; promoting empowering pedagogy so that schooling is not for static training but rather for entrepreneurship and empowered employment and citizenship; and fighting entrenched discrimination and stigmatization so that arbitrary inhibiting institutions do not stand in the way of the public flourishing of certain groups of citizens.

We also believe that fighting for Strong People is more than just strengthening each individual citizen: the connections between citizens are a necessary part of a people’s strength, too.  If you have strong citizens, but weak communities – if town and neighborhood interactions are rare, if groups that could benefit from being empowered networks are stuck as passive audiences, if national solidarity is limited to cash transfers, if the once-communal labors of caring, healing, and teaching have been bureaucratized and hidden from view – private ideas might flourish, but the public and common projects necessary for a strong democratic republic will not.

Thus, the Democratic Alternative’s second area of work is to strengthen our nation’s communities. This entails revitalizing local communities; increasing communal self-reliance, so economic and cultural power is decentralized throughout the nation; creating participatory counterbalances to corporate and state power by enabling the more routine organization of democratic networks; humanizing the caring economy by supplementing service bureaucracies with widespread participation in direct care for each other; and building programs for national solidarity by bridging divides of race, culture and class through more than just law and mass media.

iv. Open Nation

Strengthening people is enough to empower and equip their constructive genius, but it is not enough to restore its supremacy over non-living structures. For that we must open up structures of power to more people in more ways.  This is the idea of a more Open Nation, with “open” meaning both open to more people and open to change.

The two major structures of power in America today are the state and the market.  Our democratic system – through shaping law, regulation, public spending and state action – and our economic system – through shaping work, consumption, and environmental patterns – form a substantial share of the forces that govern our lives. Thus the Democratic Alternative’s third and fourth areas of work are to open up the structures of our democracy and economy to more people in more ways.

Opening up our democracy entails eliminating the corrupting influence of private money in politics so that legislatures and government administrators are dependent on the people alone; increasing popular engagement in politics so that public sentiment is more quickly and easily translated into public action; developing mechanisms for resolving legislative gridlock so that central government inertia does not ensure the constant supremacy of past decisions over present ideas; and empowering local and sector experimentation so that experimental deviations, the seeds of broad change, are sowed.

Opening up our economy entails easing the path to entrepreneurship so that more people have more capital, resources, and regulatory acumen to realize their business ideas; making employment resemble entrepreneurship so that, within the context of stable and secure employment, the distinction between being an employee and being your own boss is blurred; preserving and encouraging economic diversity so that homogenization does not close off opportunities for realizing difference; breaking up monopolies and ending cronyism so that entrenched players do not shut out upstarts; and promoting conservation and sustainable development so that nature’s continued use as a source of inspiration and diversity is not lost.

v. Fortifying the bulwarks of strength and openness

In some ways, restoring the supremacy of the constructive genius of ordinary men and women in politics is much like the restoration of living nature in an area that had been deadened by paved asphalt. Part of the work is tending to the seeds and soil; part of the work is loosening the asphalt.  Eventually the first sprouts pop up in the cracks of the paving.  New living organisms grow up and out, loosening the asphalt further. The new forms thrive off each other and certain sprouts utilize fragments of the broken paving in new and unique ways.  Soon, little is left of the old and frozen scene: the dense and varied network of the living is back.

This restoration of life is the work of strengthening people and opening the nation. But, as we mentioned in the intervention, “these proposals are not blueprints for a new society.” The goal is not to create new rules and institutions that will freeze into a new paved asphalt– a new “dictatorship of no alternatives.” Rather, it is to reopen the American story by building and fortifying the bulwarks of strength and openness that will help present and future generations make and remake our nation. It is to restore life to the center of our politics while helping assure that it will not be displaced again.