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Are Humans Actually Capable of Democracy?

Are Humans Actually Capable of Democracy?

Frances Moore Lappé

Elsewhere I’ve made the case that democracy isn’t a choice. It’s our only pathway forward, but my claim can provoke some pretty charged challenges. I can hear the fears of the discouraged asking, “Is democracy even possible? Do we humans actually come equipped for it?”

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While Ms. Lappe’s hypothesis is unquestionably accurate for humans elsewhere, the Ayn Rand conditioning for maximum greed and selfishness by which the vast majority of U.S. children are turned into moral imbeciles begins at preschool and continues relentlessly through the PhD level. This is of course no accident; it is why there will never be another U.S. revolution, why the U.S. will self-destruct long before its relentlessly conditioned national moral imbecility gives way to humanitarian empathy – if indeed such a transformation is even possible. Such are the consequences of 47 years unquestioning compliance with the Powell Memo and Biblical Capitalism abetted by Rand’s fictionalizations of Mein Kampf. The hideous truth is that we the people are now and forever – that is, until the United States is no more – subjugated “under god,” the divine sadist of the Evangelical Nazi theocracy imposed on us by the Trump/Pence Regime and ruled with zero tolerance ferocity by SCOTOCUS: the Supreme Court of the Officially Christian United States. Think I exaggerate? Read how the Robber Court just killed the children’s lawsuit that would have compelled the ecocidal U.S. government and its Capitalist owners to lessen their maniacally misogynistic raping of our Mother Earth.


Yes. Great analysis. Democracy is an ancient organic tool used by humans to focus distributed intelligence. We say two heads are better than one as we work together searching out daily life around food, fun and shelter. Democracy becomes more formalized when we are two million heads and mind boggling when we ask 20 or 200 million heads to focus.

This idea is also part of evolution accelerating at an accelerating rate. Our methods of focus are different in the information age than they were when we sat around the fire in front of our cave planning what to do tomorrow, Our methods now are different than ever before and the problems we face together require cooperation beyond any experience we have had on the road to here and now.

Knowledge accelerates at an accelerating rate and we face extinction accelerating into the present at an accelerating rate. Democracy is the only way out of our shared existential emergency.

You have to keep it from being bought by the elite.


The answer to the author’s question is very simple: most humans are lazy and don’t want to expend the effort to create and maintain democracy.

It is much easier to follow the tribe, answer complex questions with simple answers, associate with all things big…big corporations, big gubmit, big gulp, and value convenience over all else.

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I am glad to see Lappe address this here. It would be a pity to work towards autonomy and cooperation were humans incapable of that. And, in my experience, most who do not work towards it in some way do not in large part because they imagine that it is not possible.

Were humans incapable of democracy, it would never have happened, not in any of the varieties that it has, not to the various extents that it has. One may object that it has not been done perfectly, nor even without gross flaws. But neither has fascism. Neither has royal rule. Neither has theocracy. These divergences have to do not with a flaw in democracy per se, nor with cooperation and autonomy, but in the distinctions between ideas and practice.

At the same time, let’s acknowledge that democracy cannot always be arranged, not in every circumstance, still less by any one given person in particular in every circumstance.

If we can establish the above, we might go on to work out in what circumstances it might develop.

Let me propose a few perhaps early observations.

Democracy takes place or takes hold during federation between relative equals and in the relative absence of violence. Athens was a center of trade and communication through the Peloponnesus and much of the Mediterranean. Democracy was not extended to the Athenians many slaves, who had also not been treated equally before. The United States likewise did not extend democracy to most of its people, and for similar reasons. The Iroquois Confederacy, apparently a stable entity for something close to 700 years, did extend egalitarian practices far more completely and broadly. Each of these came into existence after some sort of violence, including the American Revolution. But independence was created by the revolution itself, democracy only in its aftermath.

If the United States is to achieve a more meaningful democracy rather than the nominally democratic and moderately constitutional plutarchy that now exists, there must be considerably more equal access to wealth and resources.

It is probably not possible to impress upon the wealthy the need to give up their wealth: they are afraid of people and each other, and take some comfort in their amply bolstered dreams. The alternative is to create relatively democratic voluntary and contractual arrangements among people who have or accept relatively equal conditions. These can be unions, guilds, consumer and housing cooperatives of various sorts–and, with a bit of imagination and probably a good deal of mutual contact, mutual care cooperatives.

These need not always be directly or loudly oppositional to national government and global economy, though that will tend to be their cumulative effect, if ultimately successful. Many of the legal tools crafted for abuse by the rich can be deployed–things like nonprofits and corporations of various sorts.

I am not sure that the American government as such can be made democratic in any near future, but it does seem to me that substituting local economies for the global and more egalitarian relationships with respect to property and resources will be requisite for that if it is some day to happen.

None of this is a reason to not struggle for small democratic elements within the system–the dropping of so-called “super” delegates at the Democratic Party convention, for example. To the extent that such things can be achieved, the fall into violent revolution and violent response and draconian attempts to shut down alternate subcultures is apt to be all the less drastic.

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Those traits and others necessary for democracy are the natural legacy of humanity, but they’re either developed or diminished by how people are treated in infancy and childhood, and even into adulthood can still be destroyed–by PTSD, for example. It’s much more difficult to help them develop in adulthood when they’re lacking than it is to destroy them when they’re present.

“Civilization” tends to diminish them by creating a constellation of traits we call conservatism—basically an over-emphasis on the individual. It’s a paradoxical reaction to the individual not getting narcissistic needs met from birth on. (It’s good and natural for children to have those needs and having them met allows the children to grow up able to not be narcissistic adults.) The more narcissistic parents and societies are, the less they can see past their own continuing infantile needs; so they can’t act in the selfless, nurturing ways that meet their children’s narcissistic needs. The result of those needs not being met is more people growing up to be adult narcissists who can’t tolerate affection, softness, equality, cooperation or any other qualities needed for democracy. Their need to dominate—and to stay unconscious of that need or the reasons for it—takes priority over everything else.

We see that in the need for so many in the US to have a leader that mirrors that ever-increasing part of them, to have the country act out their own unconscious narcissism, through him. As the right gained power, not knowing itself, it fitfully searched through and rejected candidates to mirror itself, but with periodic, short, revulsive returns to very slightly less narcissistic-seeming mirrors. The trend however, has been to draw ever-closer to a perfect mirror. Having finally found such a deeply narcissistically wounded leader, it’s a tossup whether il Drumpfe and the right refuse to give each other up.

Unfortunately, though it comes at a time when acting out of that wound will get their most secret desire met, it turns out their most secret desire is to destroy civilization and most or all life on Earth.

Part of the paradox of childhood vs. adult narcissism is that people who can keep democracy going need democracy to help them develop. Matryoshka individuals raised in nurturing families nested in nurturing communities in nurturing nations, with business, government, religion, culture and other aspects mirroring that model of relationship are the only ones equipped to raise more individuals able to tolerate and contribute to democracies.

Even though some manage to crawl out—with the the help of someone more able to give—people raised in more autocratic nesting systems overwhelmingly produce more autocracy-feeding and fed people. Whether we’ve gone too far into that downward spiral to get out is what will determine whether we get out of the downward climate spiral, and that depends on whether we recognize the need for better infancies, and institutionalized, even apotheosized systems of repair for people who don’t get them.


I agree with you. The number of humans in the planet is itself a terrible risk, and the multiplication of traumatized and disempowered people who are stuck trying to get essential life security needs is not the right soup for democracies to grow or prosper. It seems to me that a good deal of humanity has gone to the dark side, and the swill thus created destroys the collaborative attitude that is required if we are to work together for some kind of fairness and quality of life that isn’t based on materialism and profit for the few at the expense of everyone else. Constant war and food insecurity, refugees without a home base, toxic environments that cause disease and death, disregard and active hatred directed at minorities–these are not conditions that bring out the best in people. When we limit human potential to survival luck and skills, we are essentially killing off the planet. How is it going to be turned around in these conditions? Voting is a farce if the Republicans or other country’s teams of despots suppress the voices of the residents.

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A functional democracy requires a functional social contract, as well as a collective willingness and desire to work for the common good. More over, it is unsustainable without an informed and engaged citizenry.
By design, none of these conditions are found in America, in fact they are in direct opposition to America’s “culture”.
While humans are certainly capable of democracy, America is not.
Only by becoming something other than America could it ever actually achieve any semblance of civilization, democratic or otherwise.

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A moving reply, thanks.

I think it’s important to remember that people who grow up in war (and of course, no war ever ends) and other trying circumstances are often limited. But even then, especially if there’s someone providing a model for healthy relationships and helping the person make the connections needed for human health and sanity, it’s possible for people to rise above those circumstances and act heroically. Even if that heroism only happens in small ways–befriending those without friends, helping each other in the worst times–it still survives and can take root in better times.

A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit, is about people banding together in disasters and reaffirming their connection, whatever horrors and enemies they have to survive.

Thank you.

Your prose is, as always, so well-written and is unmistakable as (I’m hoping) the same lorenbliss from RSN! If so, I’m thrilled to see you here at a place where we aren’t restricted to a discussion that is ‘paused’ by a 1 - 2 day moderation wait period. Huzzah! :star_struck:

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Assuming your “it” is the “sharper pen” cited by Dan Harris, I have managed to stay un-bought throughout a life that is halfway into its 78th year – though believe me I have paid dearly for it, including the destruction by arson of all my life’s work (and therefore the eradication of any lingering significance or usefulness I might have had)…

And given the nation’s now-obviously unstoppable transformation to Evangelical Nazism, I suspect I will pay far more dearly – unless of course I’m blessed by a quick death that turns me off before the Evangelical Nazis begin their wholesale persecutions of all the rest of us.

They have planned their assault for decades, and now – with the Trump/Pence Regime’s conquest of the courts – there is absolutely nothing to stop them from doing their sadistic worst.

In all probability – not the least because technology has given our oppressors the real-world omnipotence once attributed to the gods – death will prove to be our only exit from horrors that even now remain unimaginable to the (already hopelessly subjugated) majority.

(And no, I do not believe in an afterlife. Dead is dead; I have seen it enough times to have no doubts. Whether one is a tomato plant, the insect larvae feeding on its ripening fruit; that Eastern Brook Trout whose flesh will prove as tasty as its markings are exquisite; the black-and-tan German Shepherd who literally saved my life from a hired killer; or a human struggling as we all do against the despair that accompanies sure knowledge of looming extinction. Indeed I assume all lifeforms are united in this kinship of death as the permanent end of individual consciousness and therefore as the obliteration of everything within it. When each of us dies, the cosmos dies with us; without consciousness, nothing whatsoever – despite its continued physical existence – retains any meaningful reality.)

Anyway, if I read your comment correctly, ninteen50, thank you.


pcprincess – I am indeed that Loren Bliss. Thank you for the welcome. And yes, it is because of RSN censorship I now browse here much more often. Though I surely wonder exactly how it was – and by which branch of the secret police – RSN was made an auxiliary of the Mainstream Media apparatus.

I have always heard a lot about “freedom” and “rights” from Americans when the topic of democracy comes up. However, I can’t ever remember—even when I lived in the US—an American talk about “responsibility” with respect to democracy. Even as far back as the 16th century Mary Woolstonecraft, one of the theorists of liberalism and an advocate of democracy—as well as a feminist—understood that “rights” don’t come without “responsibility.”

One of our fundamental responsibilities in a liberal democratic society is the responsibility to vote. In some countries where voter turnout was lousy, leadership recognized that it was responsible for voters turning out to exercise their responsibility by voting. So now—in Australia, at least—it is a fine-able offense to skip participating in elections. Last I heard it was a $50 fine, but it has probably gone up since then.

I think, however, that it’s a bit late for America to choose that responsibility, as the Red states seem to be taking care of election absenteeism by simply disenfrancising non-voters (and others). Tom Hartman and Greg Palast said that so far 14 million Americans have been removed from the voter rolls. Therefore, I can’t see where the implementation of a fine for not voting would really work in a country that chooses disenfranchisement as the solution to political disenchantment (and opposition to declared Democrats)…