Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Chickens and Democracy

Watching backyard chickens is an amusing past-time because they do funny things. They will suddenly run across the yard and then, on arrival, calmly look around as though nothing exciting had happened. Their feet are a flurry of motion while they scratch, then they back up and, completely frozen, look down to see what they uncovered. 

One of the less funny things about chickens is that they are an instinctively hierarchical species. They establish status through physical violence -- pecking, confrontation, and other behaviors (even three-day old chicks fight). Their pecking behavior has analogs in human status behaviors -- chickens inspired the phrase "pecking order" used to describe human hierarchies.

People vary considerably in their desire to establish hierarchy. Some cultures explicitly celebrate power and the powerful both consciously and unconsciously. Everyone expects to serve the powerful. It is the way life is -- "the weak serve the powerful." Everyone must know and accept their place. Hierarchy requires that people meeting each other for the first time need to assess their status relative to the other person so that they know how to behave. A lower status person should not question a higher status person and will always explicitly show deference to their opinion. In Japan, this discovery takes the form of the meishi koukan (名刺交換), or exchanging of business cards. The information on business cards helps the newly acquainted quickly assess their relative status and act appropriately.

In other cultures, hierarchy is less pronounced because people do not accept large power distances. Differences in power are not emphasized inter-personally. People in powerful roles are people, just like everyone else. They just have a different role. In Denmark, a country that is low on the power distance index, a direct report is expected to treat their manager in an informal manner. A Danish employee expects to be able to disagree with or bring ideas to their manager, behaviors that would be unthinkable in a high power distance culture. I have heard that in Denmark it is even considered an insult to add "Sir" or "Madam" when speaking to someone -- it is an indirect way of telling someone you think they are arrogant.

Looking back on the early Founders of the United States, their view was a mix of these two perspectives on power distance. On the one hand, many Founders felt that unless a person had property or financial independence from others, they could not be trusted to think for themselves in democratic decision making - employees might be too aligned with their employer (evidence of a high power distance perspective of employees). Further many early leaders either had slaves or were not opposed to slavery - an institution totally off charts in terms of power distance.

On the other hand, these early leaders were establishing something very unusual. Amidst the context of warrior kings and staggeringly hierarchical societies, early leaders of the American Revolution were clear that "We the People" were forming this new government to serve the needs of its citizens. The government derived power only by the consent of the governed. As an important symbol of the egalitarian culture they wanted to promote, George Washington, as the first U.S. President, chose the modest "Mr. President" or "Honorable" as the style of this office over the more elegant styles chosen by high power distance leaders in other countries. It is important to note that the style of "Honorable" is also afforded to the President's subordinates in the Executive and many other individuals in various levels of government, something that would be completely unacceptable in a high power distance culture. You might say the early culture of the United States had a little hierarchy, but not too much. 

What do chickens have to do with all this? 

Chickens are ruled by their instincts. They only know one way to be. That one way involves establishing a pecking order through physical expressions of power. Humans are different in that we can organize ourselves in ways that are insanely varied. Human societies through history have been organized in very egalitarian or very hierarchical ways shaped mostly by what came before. Today we have the opportunity to shape society consciously, even in ways that might depart from patterns of the past.

In a healthy democracy, people generate many different ideas about how society should be organized. The relative merits of these ideas are debated and argued over until eventually an idea emerges that has broad support. True, even groups who mostly agree might take years to come to agreement. But the transfer of information and ideas between groups is essential for the eventual agreement to occur. 

When people have different views about power, however, even small differences of opinion can become intractable disagreements -- the two sides are starting from very different assumptions about how society should work and not discussing the biggest thing that separates them. Very little progress can be made in these disagreements because the two sides are not arguing about their actual differences. 

A recent example is a debate about whether a police officer's use of force is appropriate. Your answer to this question hinges on your view of power -- how "last result" should the use of power be? In a high power distance culture, having power means using it. You will not have power if you do not use it and it is right to exercise all the power you have. In a low power distance culture, people are peers. You do not use all the power you have. You show restraint in use of power because having to use power means you are desperate. As you might see, the debate is not really about whether the police officer followed their training. The real debate is about how the power given to police should should be exercised.

Fortunately, unlike chickens, we can observe and discuss our views about power and society. We have the ability to adopt different thinking patterns. It is not easy. Even with the opportunity to live in a democracy, some early settlers chose to remain under the British monarchy. Even those who wanted democracy entertained the idea of making George Washington the King of this new democratic republic. Yes, changing our thinking about power is difficult. However, as our history has demonstrated, we can have specific conversations about what behaviors and beliefs will lead to a more effective democracy and we can make conscious choices to get there.

What do you think? What kind of power distance would best support democracy? How should we behave so that the sum of our individual actions add up to a more perfect union? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

While you will not find a complete answer to the above questions in this blog, I leave you with one last comment: when you realize someone's position might be rooted in a different idea about power, remember that you are an adaptable human, not a one-trick chicken

Raise awareness about power distance so you can discuss it openly. Once you do, you might find more agreement than you thought possible.


Chickens and Hierarchy

Power Distance
American History

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Democratizing Democracy

As they drafted the Constitution, the Founders of the United States of America anticipated that as citizens learned from each other and from their experience as a nation, they would want to make changes. They structured the Constitution to allow future generations to change policies, laws, and even the primary governing document of this new nation. They founded a nation that would adapts to challenges and seek to create a "more perfect Union." However, for this new democracy to work as intended, "We the People" had to actually participate in the shaping of this Union.

Participation, however, has had highs and lows in our history, partly by design. During the first Presidential election, for example, voter turnout was likely less than 2% of the total population (1). While it is true that many felt George Washington's success as military leader made him the obvious choice for the office, there were other factors that kept participation low.

First, there were procedural factors. Even when a citizen wanted to vote in the presidential election, there may not have been an election to vote in. Since each State could decide how to apportion its electors, many States simply apportioned electors via discussions in the state legislature. As amazing as it sounds today, in most states, there were no direct elections held to vote for the President because the State legislature apportioned electors. This created a psychological factor driving down voter participation -- why bother to vote if someone else is simply going to decide the matter, independently of your vote? There were also logistical difficulties for many just to get to a place where they could vote. Even notifying Washington that he had been elected took two months (1). 

Secondly, there was the question of enfranchisement - who is allowed to vote? Even where there were elections, citizens might not have been allowed to vote for President. For example, in order to vote, a citizen might be required to hold property, to pass a religious test, or satisfy other gender/racial/ethnic restrictions (1, 2). Over time, however, things would change.
From Wikimedia: U.S. presidential election popular vote totals as a percentage of the total U.S. population.(3)
In line with the democratic spirit of this experiment, the arc of our nation's history has turned towards broader enfranchisement and more direct involvement of voters in major decisions of government. Over time, most States would require electors to reflect the popular vote in some predictable way. Restrictions that required voters to be male, white, and Protestant were removed. Restrictions that required people to meet certain standards of property ownership or education were also removed. As the enfranchisement was broadened, there was also an increase in the direct access of voters to the levers of government. Citizens in many states can today organize around initiatives that, after approval during an election,become law. This breaks the legislative monopoly on shaping the law.

But why is it important to continue on this path of broader involvement and more direct self-determination? After all, millions of people already have the right to vote, but do not exercise it. Elected officials provide many channels for constituents to share their thoughts: email, web-forms and social media channels. Tens of millions of citizens could use these existing channels to give feedback, but choose not to. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on sophisticated polling on topics, candidates, and policies. Is all this not enough to keep our democracy vital and responsive?

The key reason to continue to pursue broader civic engagement is its link to personal agency. Personal agency is the idea that you can imagine different futures, make choices, and take action for a better future for yourself (and hopefully your community). The rise of powerful institutions that decrease the responsiveness of government to the needs of everyday citizens has reduced our sense of agency as a society. Many say "My vote doesn't really matter" or "All politicians are corrupt and only listen to big money," evidencing a lack of personal agency, a decreased belief that they can, and should be acting to make things better rather than resign themselves to the way things are. This nation was founded on principles of self-determination, granting citizens the right to significantly shape and re-shape policy to meet their needs for coordinated collective action. When more people believe they can make a difference, they do make a difference, and this effort benefits society. 

So where do we start? Clearly, there are already lots of ways voters can speak to elected officials (and candidates for elected office). And yet, despite the easy availability of Web access and electronic communication, we see only incremental improvements in civic engagement. Tools like email, web-forms and social media channels have existed for more than a decade. But these tools do not do enough to reduce friction to create a continual, comprehensive, and collaborative process for civic engagement. They do not benefit from all that the private sector has learned about capturing and retaining the attention of the public. If our methods of civic engagement do not improve, civic engagement will fall further behind other media channels in the competition for the public's attention.

Connected-Citizen intends to reduce friction for voter participation and for elected officials to understand and make sense of comments from the thousands of voters in their district. Come join us in setting a course for broader and more frequent engagement with our elected officials and democratizing democracy.

1. "1788-89 United States presidential election," Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 31 Aug 2019. Web. 11 Oct 2019.

2. "23b. The expansion of the vote: a white man's democracy," U.S. History Pre-Columbian to the New Millenium, 2018-2019, 15 Oct 2019.

3. "Voting rights in the united states," Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 15 Oct 2019. Web. Oct 16 2019.

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