Our Democracy is a Neglected Commons

Think of our democracy as a commons. For decades, we've been treating our democracy a lot like we've been treating our roads, bridges, and water lines. Our democratic commons includes the belief that voting is important, in fact that it is a civic duty, and the belief that compromise is honorable and essential to social harmony and functional democracy. It includes our collective understanding of our own nation's history, of how our self-government was designed to work, and of how it is actually working today.

The democratic commons includes a news media that does its job of educating and informing voters, and it includes the belief among voters that they have an obligation to think about and try to understand their voting issues and options.

And it is also practical as an actual mechanism. It includes polling places, voting machines, ballots, election workers and volunteers, and everything else needed to manage an election.

In every aspect described above, a tragedy of the democratic commons is in danger of unfolding before our eyes. We've been coasting, cashing out our past investments while our democratic system has decayed to the point of dysfunctionality.

Survey after survey confirms that we believe in democracy less, trust the government less, and trust our fellow citizens less than we have ever trusted them before. Voting rates are too low, especially in the critically important local and state level races that determine so much. More and more people are speaking and acting as if compromise is dishonorable, and our knowledge of our own history and of the basic principles of democratic governance is shockingly low. The civics courses that used to be common in our public schools have largely given way to "more practical" subjects.

Much of the media fails to do it's job adequately at best, and disseminates propaganda and misinformation at worst. Many voters and ought-to-be voters for their part tune out, and decide how to vote based on simplistic impressions and the prevailing views within their social groups.

And to cap it all off, the actual mechanisms are in terrible condition. Voting districts are gerrymandered, often resulting in an amazingly small share of the total population selecting the person who eventually wins. Sometimes by incompetence, sometimes by intention, too few polling places are available, they are too inconveniently located, they have untrained staff, and too often the voting machines are in disrepair, are obsolete, are hackable, or are lacking an auditable back-up record.

We are now suffering the consequences of these decades of neglect and underinvestment.

Activists and advocates of every stripe, on every side and on every issue, are primary users of our democratic commons. Across the board, robust success for nearly every issue would require a well-functioning democracy, and yet almost all advocates rely on this commons while investing little or nothing to maintain it, or given its present state, to repair and restore it.

Since nearly every important goal or project is more likely to fail without a well-functioning democracy, every activist and advocate should today, right now, divert a share of their time, money, credibility and other resources to maintaining and restoring our democratic commons.

Published: August 2019
Revised: July 2023

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