Are you willing to bet your life on the wisdom of the crowd? I'm not. It's time to try something new.
We need heroic citizens... and a Plan B.
Popular opinion, “the predominant attitude of a community : the collective will of the people”1 is notoriously fickle: very often on the wrong side of history. Infamous examples include believing the earth was flat, dismissing evolution, accepting slavery, denying women’s suffrage, eugenics, the pre-war pacifism that (in part) resulted in WWII and the deaths of over 70 million people, and still - climate change denial. The societal truths that the majority of us hold sacred today, were for decades or even centuries almost always vilified by the “will of the people”.
Which is not reason to reject democracy, but rather to see the pursuit of democracy as something more than just being informed and thus being an informed voter, especially in an age when each one of us each day are being bombarded by more information stimuli than whole societies were in the past. So much of the focus in the defence of democracy, and hence our ability to deal with everything else that threatens our existence, is today nothing more than tactical whack-a-mole. From elected officials to voters, from community leaders to activists, we react to the purposeful efforts of too many of our countrypeople to thwart democracy with a renewed commitment to get out and exercise our franchise to vote, maybe even sometimes to agitate. But always to nudge our existing leaders and the institutions they lead to a pyrrhic, and too often fleeting, victory.
A few years ago I was asked to contribute a chapter to a timely and powerful book edited by Peter L. Biro, who’s title says it all: Constitutional Democracy Under Stress: A Time For Heroic Citizenship.2 In it, I wrote;
“I submit that, in a modern democracy, leadership is a symbiotic reflection of the electorate, and that if there is an absence of heroic leadership, we must first consider the absence of heroic citizens, and the abrogation by too many of their rights and inherent responsibilities as sovereign citizens—to quite possibly catastrophic effect. It is a fact of nature that good—and, more ominously, bad—actors will fill the power vacuum that results.
In a constitutional democracy, the electorate is the foundation of an ecosystem on which the legislative, executive, and judiciary functions rest. When the system is functioning properly, it is a massive information feedback loop with power flowing from the electorate through the checks and balances of governance (and many societal) structures to then amplify the will and interests of the people—who are, after all, the client beneficiaries.
Of course, “the system” has never functioned this elegantly. For too long, racial, class, cultural, and religious inequities meant that the calculus of power was always shifting, and that governance did in fact represent the process of sausage making more than anything else. However, the long march of societal evolution from the Magna Carta, to the Enlightenment, and to the American and French Revolutions and of thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Friedrich Hayek, Hannah Arendt, and Milton Friedman did result in a system that paraphrasing Winston Churchill was still “better than all the others.”3
In this imperfect system, all actors—to remain sovereign and whole—need to vigorously exercise their rights and dispense their consequent responsibilities within the system, or be diminished by the consequences if they do not. The Weimar Germans who suspended credulity to vote for Adolf Hitler, the British and French who willfully appeased him, and the Republicans in Congress today making a king of a president are examples of people disabusing themselves of their rights and, even more critically, their responsibilities.
The ire of the citizenry of the democracies towards politics generally, and politicians specifically, is a faux cynical, self-serving “rolling of the eyes,” dismissal of the art, science, and practice of politics as corrupt. In making this judgment, they absolve themselves of any blame or accountability. For all the grumbling that the institutions of government are delegitimizing themselves, perhaps it is time to admit that it is the absent voice of an informed, accountable electorate that is at the root of the legitimacy crisis.
Let us consider the sovereign4 and autonomous5 individual. Today, many of the chains that bound us from birth have largely been lifted. Though by no means not irrelevant, class, religion, race, and culture are no longer the restricting determinants of our behaviour that they once were. It can be argued that no one was truly sovereign when they were born with allegiances that, by definition, made them beholden to their family, clan, tribe, or “peeps”—their voice just one of many.
Instead, it is now not only possible to be a true free agent in the world, it’s an existential imperative that we exercise fully the rights provided to us by our constitutions, charters, and bills of rights. As with nation states, to fail to exercise and/or defend one’s sovereignty is to eventually lose it. To be sovereign is to be able to exercise one’s agency to pledge—passively and actively—thoughtful, informed support for a public policy and/or initiative, and to then hold oneself accountable for having done so.
But what does it mean to act as a sovereign citizen? I submit that it means to consciously adopt the competencies of a sensemaker, and to accept the responsibility of doing one’s best to understand the world around oneself. This is not a linear process, but the adoption of a new mindset, a commitment to personal mastery, and attunement to the flow of information around oneself, to then have the capacity to access real-time and all-the-time inputs. This work is required in order to be able to define actionable outputs—be it voting in an election, participating in direct action initiatives, or contributing to a discussion on social media. I submit that to conduct oneself in this way is to be truly a heroic citizen.6
In echoing Biro’s call for ‘heroic citizenship’ I have come to see that our rights and obligations as voters are but a small part of those same rights and responsibilities as citizens. To be a heroic citizen is to be an engaged citizen, and that is something that can and must be as ideologically secular as is possible - driven by shared values rather than partisan orthodoxy.
I have also come to see that ‘engagement’ means much more than “voting in an election, participating in direct action initiatives, or contributing to a discussion on social media.” I believe it means being an active participant in the project to co-create and remake democracy and it’s sister capitalism - and all of the dependent existential issues we face. And given the convergence of those issues, and the inflection point in history they represent, this remaking needs to happen in years, not decades.
Current leadership and the institutions they lead are simply insufficient to the challenge. It is not a matter of assigning them blame, it would be silly and unhelpful in the extreme to ascribe nefarious intent or incompetence to the majority who step up to lead, for they do so with good intent. It is simply to make the observation that ‘it’s’ not working. So, if we are facing a defining threat to democracy, AND a great many existential issues to human survival AND we only have years not decades to address them, AND our existing leaders and the institutions they lead are insufficient to the challenge, we need to look elsewhere to assure our species salvation. And just as the forces working against humanist democracy are purposeful, systemic and global, so to must the response be. We have no time for half measures.
Where then to look? I argue it’s the great many heroic citizens - the majority of us in fact - who are excited by the awesome possibilities of a future Age of Wonder, are motivated by values over orthodoxy, and who believe that in the first instant of birth and for all of our lives, we are all a human being sharing a very small, fragile planet.
What’s missing? The scaffolding to support such an unprecedentedly awesome venture. Something new to the human experience needs to be able to transform most or all of humanity in just a few years. Only an organization that acts like a movement can hope to do that, one that shines a light bright enough to offer hope and inspiration to a citizenry desperate for both, and with the evident wherewithal to deliver on its promise. That ‘it’s’ never been done before, that ‘it’s’ too big to try are no reasons to falter, if ‘it’s’ doing assures the fate of a healthy and just world.
For those who ask, how can we possibly transform the world in 10 years, there is a start - a roadmap. For over four years, I was one of nearly 1,000 people from 35+ countries who studied that very problem. We invested over US$500,000 and 20,000 hours of our time to conceive of, test, prototype and refine the ecosystem solution that could be the scaffolding for the organizations that would connect, empower and mobilize a movement of millions. A movement of heroic citizens engaged in the purposeful, systemic, global transformation of the places they live in, and in the sectors within which they work. Think of it as Humanity’s Plan B.
The first step a heroic citizen can take - YOU can take - is that first step.
Photo: Blink O'fanaye, https://flic.kr/p/2kpQPuv; CC BY-NC 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/
In the House of Commons on November 11, 1947, Churchill stated that “many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or allwise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time . . .” In fact, Churchill was quoting an unknown author. Richard M. Langworth, “Democracy Is The Worst Form Of Government,” (richardlangworth.com, 2009).
I am using the term sovereign as an adjective, as in “in modern democracies the people’s will is in theory sovereign” that is “acting or done independently and without outside interference.” Lexico.com, (2019), https://www.lexico.com/definition/sovereign.
And, in turn, the term autonomous as an adjective, as in “Having the freedom to act independently.” Lexico.com, (2019), https://www.lexico.com/definition/autonomous.
Robert Westrope, “The Leaders We Can Be,” in Constitutional Democracy Under Stress: A Time for Heroic Citizenship, ed. Peter L. Biro, Toronto, Mosaic Press (Aug. 6 2020), p. 397-399