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Democracy's Next Chapter

The Ultimate question facing American democracy today is not whether people will vote or, debate, or even organize. The threshold issue we face is that an increasingly large percentage of Americans perceive a large swath of our citizenry as "the other" --- a foreign body whose well-being is not their concern, whose mere presence is a threat, and, for some, constitutes an enemy camp. No matter how well the mechanics of what we call democracy, function (ie free and fair voting, robust participation and, an informed electorate) if Americans, do not see themselves as citizen co-creators of "what's next," then the idea of democracy is subverted. “We the people”, then becomes a hollow headline, a gilded frame with nothing inside.

I strongly believe that the way forward must push beyond the helpful instructions contained in the opening pages of the voter's pamphlet. In a recent paper, my colleague, Harry Boyte refers to democracy as “deliberative public work.” I would concur but would add, that it is particularly "hard work" because I do not think it comes easily (or even naturally) to our species. As an artist, I find myself referring to democracy as a practice- --- a creative practice actually, that involves as much "hands” as it does "heads and hearts."

This might seem odd, but I think the short shrift we have given the "hands" part of this equation has provoked the dangerously dichotomous red/blue tug of war that is undermining our sense of common purpose. By this, I mean that if humans no longer know one another through the shared struggle that was once necessary for our survival, left to their own devices the extremes of intellect (head) and passion (heart) can wreak havoc among strangers.

There is a saying shared by many cultures that speaks to this: "The more I know your story, the less likely I am to hurt you." History is not chapter headings or headlines, neither is it the concise, maybe even, well-written paragraphs that follow. Our histories are our lived experiences and the stories that rise up. It is the visceral, "all-hands" making and doing together that gives birth to the stories that bind us. "After he helped me fix my roof, we stopped arguing about the fence." After the cooking and eating, and the high school sagas, we were no longer strangers.” I guess you could say I am a story guy.

There are many who say that the fate of the world depends on what we humans do next. Given our destructive capacity I am inclined to agree, surely with regard to the future of the human race, if not the globe. There is also a consensus that we are digging ourselves into a hole, ecologically, and socially. I am certainly not alone in thinking that digging out will require a revolution of thought and deed— in essence, a new set of stories powerful enough to change beliefs and behaviors. My friend, David Korten, sees this as a shift from the prevailing “empire story,” to an “earth community story”. A shift from a fear-driven, reactionary lunge for the survival of the fittest, to a world characterized by “respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice, and, democracy, nonviolence, and peace.”

To do this, I believe we will need to harness the power of the imagination in new ways, with new urgency, and much greater focus. We will also need to recognize that despite its obvious decrepitude the empire narrative has an increasingly desperate grip on human consciousness. In the cycles of life and death, survival struggles like these are by far the most dangerous.

Through my work over the past 40 years, as an artist, educator, and researcher, I have been exploring how the power of the imagination and story helps us make collective sense and meaning of our world. It’s important to recognize, though, that amplifying the fear of difference, provoking conflict, and consolidating power have been persistent impediments to the human struggle for cooperation and community. Today, digitally fueled versions of this destructive dance are rippling out across the planet with greater frequency, effectiveness, and speed. For those seeking to reduce the proliferation of human intolerance and conflict, I believe that imagination and story are our most dangerously neglected natural resources. If we are to change the meta-narratives that are eating away at our democracy and provoke humans to hurt each other and the planet, we need to better understand how they come to be and how they work for both good and ill. This will take more than papers, policies and appropriations. – it will take more than an end to the pandemic.

To have any chance of succeeding, post-Trump reconstruction, revival, and reconciliation efforts will need to address the unacknowledged cultural question that underlies the stark reality of a horribly divided America. How can the complex and often contradictory torrent American stories combine to make a coherent national narrative?

Change the Story / Change the World.

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