The Truth About Democracy

Rebecca Harris
June 28, 2016

White HouseWant to hear something astounding? Ok here it goes:

Since 1787, there has been no innovation in how the public participates in the democratic process.

Sure, there have been pockets of innovation across the country and across the globe, but not much has changed at a national level in the U.S. for centuries.

Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, says to truly innovate you need to achieve vertical progress, which comes from creating something completely new.

In the realm of democracy, the last time someone has achieved vertical progress was in 1787. America’s founding fathers knew the whole British-monarchy-ruling-them-from-afar thing wasn’t working anymore. They wanted to establish their own democratic government that actually represented them.

“The Eyes of all our Countrymen are now upon us… if happily we are the instruments of saving them from the Tyranny mediated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world, that a free man contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.” — George Washington

Most people, including many members of the Constitutional Congress themselves, thought that there was no chance that the colonies could pull together, train an army and take on England. Let’s be real, at that time England was an imperial power house and the U.S. was a dinky, fractured group of colonies. It took John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin to convince others of that truth that they knew. That they too could be sovereign power that impacted the world. That was how a small group of people bound together by a sense of mission changed the world.

Since the Founding Fathers, we have not had any vertical innovation in democracy. We have run elections, voted and governed pretty much the same way for two centuries. But society has changed so much, so why hasn’t democracy changed with it?

We talk about electoral reform and increasing voter turnout. While these are important steps to take in our current system, voting should not be the only way to participate in the democratic process. And to me that sounds like horizontal innovation, which as Thiel describes is producing more of what already exists. If we feel like we truly can’t make an impact through the democratic tools we currently have, we should create new ways for ourselves to make an impact.

If we do that then we can prepare the next generation of the American electorate to not only participate in the democratic process but to change the democratic process.

America has a culture of political partisanship that is dragging down our country’s ability to make positive change not only domestically but globally. If we are frustrated with political gridlock and the lack of creativity and innovation we see in government, why don’t we change it? You all know what the definition of insanity is: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Let’s try something new.

There are a few problems we need to tackle first.

Currently, news outlet bias is misinforming people. If you only consume your news from sources that promote one political ideology, you are not in a position to form your own independent opinion.In addition, legacy news outlets aren’t doing a good job of producing content that actually explains the news instead of just reporting it. If you don’t know what the debt ceiling is, then saying Democrats and Republicans have come to a standoff on the debt ceiling means nothing to you.

Inform, Discuss, Act.

The founding fathers knew that in order to have a democracy that actually functions, you needed to have an informed electorate. The University of Texas’ motto is “What starts here changes the world.” That is not hyperbole, what starts in college really can change the world, but to change the world you need to understand the world first.

Once we inform, we need to encourage discussion, and not just discussion but thoughtful and respectful discussion. Sally Kohn is a lesbian, liberal…. wait for it… former Fox News commentator. She gave a Ted talk about emotional correctness. It is the missing component in our ability to debate important issues with others who have a differing opinion. To truly have transformative and impactful discussion, Kohn says, we need to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and try to understand how they developed their beliefs. This would make a huge difference in our ability to come together regardless of political ideology to solve problems.

The last component to enacting true democratic change is acting. We need better vehicles to take action. Voting once every couple of years has been the only way for the past 239 years we have been able to participate in the democratic process. That is, to put it mildly, ridiculous.

We have seen incredible technological innovation that allows anyone to connect with anyone across the globe. Why haven’t we used that technology and interconnectivity to increase transparency, accountability and communication with government?

Fortunately, there have been some new ideas put into practice that can help us achieve these goals. Organizations like Everyday Democracy, the National Institute for Civil Discourse, and the Harwood Institute have worked over the last several decades to bring structured in-person dialogues to communities across the country.

New platforms such as Purple Politics, Civic Commons, E-Democracy, and Text, Talk, Act help inform and inspire people to discuss and act on the issues they care about. Still, more work needs to be done to integrate these kinds of innovations into everyday life.

We’ve demonstrated that the democratic process doesn’t work if we have an uninformed, disengaged electorate. Well, what if it also doesn’t work if we don’t evolve the democratic process with society?

Back to Peter Thiel. He says that when properly understood, technology is any new and better way of doing things. We want to create technology that brings democracy into the digital age, and inspire our generation to use it to make a positive impact in the world. Whatever issue you are passionate about, whatever change you want to make, you can do it, but we have to lay the groundwork to make it possible first.

This article has been adapted and reposted with permission for Everyday Democracy’s website. View the original article.


Headshot of Rebecca HarrisRebecca Harris is the Cofounder and CEO of Purple, a tech company dedicated to inspiring curiosity and creating a better informed global society. She covers the 2016 election on Purple, is a political junky, former journalist, and documentary nerd.

Sign Up for Email Updates!Wasn't that inspiring? Sign up for more stories like this one


Dialogue to Change

Our ultimate goal is to create positive community change that includes everyone, and our tools, advice, and resources foster that kind of change. Whether you’re grappling with a divisive community issue, or simply want to include residents’ voices in city government, Everyday Democracy's Dialogue to Change process, using a racial equity lens, can help.