Category Archives: U.S. Politics

America Needs Democracy Learning Communities

This co-authored op-ed was published in The Fulcrum (August 24, 2021), and picked up by other online venues including Gulf Today (August 25), The Marietta Daily Journal (August 25), Salem News (August 25), and The Post Bulletin (August 27).

Cancel culture, immigration reform, Black Lives Matter, congressional gridlock, the Jan. 6 riot: What do these seemingly disparate national phenomena have in common? Democratic dysfunction. Yet when many Americans think of democracy, they think less of themselves than of politicians, less of community and lifestyle than of government and elections. Our narrow concept needs widening, our democracy needs learning and community. There is no better place to start than at the grassroots level by forming democracy learning communities all across America, in urban and rural areas, suburbs and exurbs.

We come to this conclusion from long careers, domestic and foreign. Paul is a political sociologist who has studied and engaged in grassroots citizen activism in the United States for over 30 years. Mike is a former State Department diplomat who worked for 35 years to support democracy abroad in countries ranging from Russia to Iraq to South Sudan. From these different vantage points, we have learned that democracy is fragile and demands wide, constructive citizen engagement. This engagement can produce valuable public goods such as mutual trust, better health and lasting peace. In South Sudan’s long civil war, Mike witnessed first-hand how stalled peace talks between the government and rebels advanced only after youth, women, and community and religious leaders were given a seat at the negotiating table. In Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Florida, Virginia and Washington, D.C., Paul experienced how active citizens tend to be more informed and confident about their civic power. Research shows such citizen qualities can nurture more responsive government.

Citizens are not born, they are made. The best making is sustained, not episodic. Yet for most Americans, the practice of democracy is at best episodic and narrow: voting every few years, then watching in consternation from afar as paid activists, lobbyists, and elected officials run the show. All Americans are affected by democratic dysfunction, so we need sustained, inclusive ways for citizens to connect, learn and collaborate about democracy.

We can start by learning about human behavior and its interaction with larger forces shaping American life. First, abundant research shows humans tend to favor and gravitate toward people like themselves. Second, this tendency fuels a variety of cognitive biases that make it harder for humans to understand and get along with people unlike them. These include going along with our group to get along, seeking and trusting information that confirms our group’s views, and seeing members of outside groups as more alike and those of our in-group as more diverse. Third, when these human biases face new conditions — daily absorption in electronic media, media algorithms that feed us what we like and believe, and communities more segregated by class and political affiliation — our biases are magnified in ways that aggravate democratic dysfunction.

How can Americans meet these social and structural challenges and strengthen our democracy? One way is to create democracy learning communities. DLCs enable us to tap into two powerful human traits that have helped us survive and thrive as a species: our capacity to learn, and our inclination toward sociability.

The concept of a learning community is most discussed and practiced in higher education, where structured, residential learning communities have been shown to improve student grades and graduation rates. Yet in our complex, interdependent and rapidly changing world, learning communities can and should be cultivated throughout society. This would help people intelligently, collaboratively tackle problems, and fulfill their needs for belonging and purpose.

Democracy learning communities can bring people together across political, class, race and religious divides to learn about their commonalities and differences as well as the complexities, challenges and possibilities of democracy. Further, when organized municipally or regionally, DLCs can bring people together in-person as well as online, on an on-going rather than episodic basis, to nurture greater trust and collaboration. Clearly, bringing people together across lines of difference is not easy, and can spur conflict rather than collaboration. But effective learning communities uphold rules of engagement and foster long-term relationships through regular, curated activities — like networking socials, issue deliberations, and collaboration workshops — that engender learning and cooperation.

Democracy demands informed, skilled and caring citizens. Good citizens are neither born nor made through the status quo of episodic democracy. Democracy can and should be a lifestyle as much as a governance system. Municipal and regional DLCs can cultivate more good citizens and help Americans overcome political dysfunction. There is no better place to start than in your own town, city or region.

Paul Lachelier is the founder of Learning Life, a nonprofit lab devoted to innovating education and citizen engagement. Mike Morrow is a former U.S. diplomat and current senior democracy strategist with Learning Life.

Three Deeper Take-Aways from the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

It’s been a week since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, and many people across the world are still processing the news.  News discussion has naturally focused on how the political parties, politicians, and voters think/thought or acted.  Here, however, are three take-aways that reach deeper into the social dynamics that made Trump’s election possible.

Disconnection Has Consequences

As we will learn with a Trump administration, for better or worse, politics matters.  Politics matters because how people feel about their government determines whether they vote, and who they elect.  

The trouble is, in the United States as elsewhere in the world, there is often a big disconnect between the life of government and the lives of ordinary people.  This, ironically, is despite modern government’s substantial impact (or lack of impact) on everyone’s everyday lives, affecting everything from our jobs, wages, taxes and retirement, to who we work, play, fight or live next to, to the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.

Donald TrumpNo one is intimately informed and engaged in all aspects of their government.  Nonetheless, there are degrees of disconnection, and most people in the world are largely disconnected from their governments.  Among the many consequences, according to political research, are that the disconnected:

  1. Know relatively little about their government, and all the good, or bad it does.  This is especially true in wealthy nations where large governments do so much.  
  2. Are less likely to vote, but when they’re inspired to vote, they are more likely to be swayed by sensationalist TV ads, rousing rhetoric, vague promises, and facile solutions.  This is because the disconnected have a less clear and coherent sense of their own political interests, and the extent to which different politicians and parties align with their interests.   
  3. Are more likely to dislike, even hate their government, no matter how much good or bad their government does.  Distance breeds distrust.           

The disconnection accordingly helps explain the historic distrust many Americans have for all kinds of institutions, including Congress, corporations and news media.  Thus, it’s not simply the dysfunctions of institutions, but the disconnection of citizens that explains all the distrust and hatred.      

Homophily is Reshaping Our World    

Among the most significant social forces silently shaping our world is homophily.  Homophily is the tendency of “birds of a feather to flock together.”  This natural animal inclination can be helpful in a world where you need little more than your flock or clan to survive and thrive, but it is problematic in our diverse yet interconnected modern world.  

Homophily means that when we can, we move into like-minded communities.  It also means that we seek information that confirms our prejudices.  At least two developments are reinforcing these problematic human tendencies.  

First, the rise of the internet, smartphones, and profit-seeking algorithms that deliver all the content (and ads) we like and disappear all the content we don’t like is making it easier for all of us to surround ourselves with voices that affirm rather than challenge our own views.  

Second, rising mobility and wealth across the world is making it easier for more people to move into what some sociologists call “lifestyle enclaves” where people share similar tastes in food, decor, hobbies, conversation, even pets.

These twin developments are nice because commonality brings comfort.  The trouble is that lifestyle accords considerably with politics (for instance, Republicans are more likely to own dogs and Democrats to own cats), and homogenous political communities are like echo chambers that intensify the views of their residents, making it harder for them to understand people with different lifestyles and beliefs.  

When we see that we are nestled in what we might call “echo enclaves,” it becomes easier to see why so many were shocked by Trump’s election.     

Inequality Matters

If Bernie Sanders had won the Democratic primary, he, not Trump, would likely be President now.  Why would a socialist Jew with a funny accent win against “The Donald”?  For similar reasons why a black man with a funny name became President twice: he’s an outsider who inspires hope, and speaks to mounting inequality.  Hillary Clinton made inequality a part of her campaign message, but so did Trump.  Yet Trump was perceived as an outsider, Hillary was perceived as the ultimate insider.    

As the astute political observer, Walter Lippmann, noted nearly a century ago, there is a difference between the “the world outside and the pictures in our heads,” that is, between reality and our perceptions.  Perceptions are built on selections from, or fragments of an often very complex reality.  In some ways Donald Trump is in reality more of an insider than Hillary Clinton: until Obama was elected, only white men became U.S. President, and wealthy businesspeople have long had disproportionate power.  But this fragment of reality is not the one that the critical mass of American voters fixed upon in this election. They fixed on the reality that Clinton is a political insider, so this time, a business insider trumped a political insider.       

Yet Trump won with the overwhelming support of less wealthy, less educated white Americans, many of them, like most people, disconnected from government, living in echo enclaves, and angry at the picture of increasingly privileged elites thriving while so many stagnate.  There is plenty of evidence that income and wealth inequality are increasing in a number of nations, including the United States.  This long election campaign demonstrated that that inequality helps fuel resentments that can ignite into violence.         

There is no simple solution to these problems this presidential election brings to the fore.  However, connecting people meaningfully to their government, nurturing dialogue and relationships across echo enclaves, and tackling inequality can help bridge the divides this election has brought to light.  

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder & Director, Learning Life

P.S. Learn more about what Learning Life is doing to nurture dialogue across divides through our Citizen Diplomacy Initiative.

Toward Participatory Democracy

It’s presidential election season in America. If there is a time when more Americans pay attention to politics, it is now. Now is thus perhaps the best time to challenge how Americans think about democracy. More often than not, the word “democracy” conjures electing representatives to govern. As important as that is, there is more to democracy, and that “more” is well worth pondering.

The influential 20th century American philosopher, John Dewey was one of democracy’s most ardent proponents. But his view of democracy was broad and participatory, not limited to electing politicians to govern (Dewey 1927, Morris & Shapiro 1993). As historian James Kloppenberg explains, summarizing the work of one of Dewey’s intellectual chroniclers, “First, Dewey believed that democracy is an ethical ideal rather than merely a political arrangement. Second, he considered participation, not representation, the essence of democracy. Third, he insisted on the harmony between democracy and the scientific method: ever-expanding and self-critical communities of inquiry, operating on pragmatic principles and constantly revising their beliefs in light of new evidence, provided Dewey with a model for democratic decision making…Finally, Dewey called for extending democracy, conceived as an ethical project, from politics to industry and society” (Kloppenburg 1992).

Participatory democracyToward Participatory DemocracyTo Dewey then, democracy is an ongoing way of being that involves participation in learning and decision-making in most if not all domains of life, including family, work, associations and government. Dewey is, of course, not alone in advocating a more “participatory” version of democracy (e.g., see Pateman 1970, Mansbridge 1983, Barber 2004, Fishkin 2011), but this version is not what prevails in the United States and other modern democracies.

What prevails political observers commonly call representative democracy, or a republic. In contemporary republics, democracy is like a gladiator’s contest, as the political scientist Lester Milbrath (1965) aptly described: at any given time, about 5-7% of citizens are the gladiators who run for office and lead political campaigns and organizations.  The spectators, who comprise 55-65% of the public, pay attention, express support and vote.  The rest, whom Milbrath called “the apathetics,” comprising 30-40% of citizens, don’t bother to come to the show — they don’t pay attention, let alone act politically, and thus know little about politics.  This republican democracy is associated with greater inequalities in participation and power as well as greater apathy and partisanship.

Some political scientists claim that republican democracy is inevitable, that one cannot realistically expect citizens to be engaged in the same way all the time, and that more engagement may only lead to more conflict and crisis from competing citizen demands. These claims though generally assume that democracy should be limited to government, and that active citizens are partisans rather than deliberators.

Dewey, like other participatory democrats, contends that all organizations – governmental, business and nonprofit – engage in decision-making, and that decision-making can be made more democratic, involving more people rather than habitually delegating to executives or representatives. Further, whether citizens become rigid, self-interested partisans or flexible, public-interested deliberators depends in no small part on the rules of engagement organizations establish, including the ideal citizens organizations uphold.

Clearly, as numerous notable political observers (e.g., more recently, Haidt 2012, Fukuyama 2014) remark, drawing on evolutionary science, humans are inclined to be self-interested, but we are also routinely cooperative when it suits us, and for better or worse, even self-abnegating when moved by another individual or group to whom we feel committed. As social scientists know well, how we act depends a lot on our social circumstances, and the organizations in which we live and work every day play a large role in defining those circumstances.

The implications are that (a) more participatory democracy is possible, and (b) democratic organizations can make it happen. Indeed, there are plenty of contemporary examples, including organizations like Voice of the People, Healthy Democracy and the Center for Deliberative Democracy. Groups like these get diverse citizens involved in local to international dialogues that nurture more equitable, tolerant, informed and public-spirited decision-making among citizens and policymakers alike. Yet to make democracy a routine practice, as Dewey envisioned, rather than a periodic choice, calls for imagining, discussing and enacting models that democratize not only government, but also society.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life


Barber, Benjamin. 2004. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dewey, John. 1927. The Public and its Problems. New York: Holt.

Fishkin, James. 2011. When the People Speak. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fukuyama, Francis.  2014.  Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy.  New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Haidt, Jonathan.  2012.  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.  New York: Pantheon Books.

Kloppenberg, James T. 1992. Book review of John Dewey and American Democracy, by Robert B. Westbrook in American Historical Review, p.919-920.

Mansbridge, Jane. 1983. Beyond Adversary Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Milbrath, Lester. 1965. Political Participation: How and Why Do People Get Involved in Politics? Chicago: Rand McNally & Co.

Morris, Debra, and Ian Shapiro, eds. 1993. John Dewey: The Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Pateman, Carole. 1970. Participation and Democratic Theory. London: Cambridge University Press.

Toward a Living Democracy

Toward a Living Democracy

© Paul Lachelier & Eric Weltman 2002

The following article was published in the Boston Globe on July 6, 2002, and was posted at Common Dreams online here.   

FORTY YEARS AGO, a clarion call for democracy was issued from the banks of Lake Michigan. The Port Huron Statement, produced by Students for a Democratic Society, gave voice to the alienation of young people from an increasingly bureaucratic, militaristic, corporate nation.

The statement’s solution was ”participatory democracy,” a simple, yet compelling concept – that people should have meaningful say in the decisions that affect their lives. The Port Huron Statement inspired a generation of activists to take to the streets, risk their lives for the civil rights movement, and to oppose the Vietnam War.

USConstitution2These were people who took democracy seriously, making it a part of their everyday lives and challenging politicians whose self-serving actions stained it with cynicism.

Forty years later, democracy is in crisis in Massachusetts. The number of competitive races for the state Legislature is an embarrassment; voter participation is abysmal; and Latinos and other minorities are underrepresented at all levels of government. The crisis is also reflected in a deep and widespread sentiment that our votes don’t count, that politicians are more concerned with maintaining their power than representing their constituents, and that government is itself a problem, not a mechanism for repairing social ills or providing important services.

We understand the source of this feeling. But we also have a vision of democracy that is hopeful, inspiring, and powerful. For us, democracy is more than a system of government in which (some) people vote every four years. It is not just something one does alone in a voting booth. Nor is democracy confined to the corridors of Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill.

Democracy is a process by which people can collectively make decisions for the better of society and its members. Extended to our workplaces and communities, democracy is a process through which many of our social ills – from lack of affordable housing, to the need for well-paying jobs – can be resolved. It is a process by which we, the people, can improve our lives, our communities, and our future.

But to fulfill this vision, we must bring democracy to the people. We must make it accessible, practical, and engaging. Only when people are informed, involved, and empowered will democracy be something that we do as opposed to a staid, unmoving object. The following three proposals would invigorate democracy in Massachusetts.

Instant runoff voting. This allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If one candidate does not receive a majority of the votes, an ”instant runoff” occurs by eliminating the candidate who came in last, and allocating the votes of his/her supporters to their second choices. This reform would eliminate the concern over ”spoilers,” helping diversify the political field by invigorating so-called ”third parties.” It would also promote more positive campaigning since to win a candidate may need second-choice votes.

Economic democracy. If democracy means having a say in the decisions that affect our lives, there is no more urgent place for it than in our economy. Economic democracy means recognizing that unions are an important means of extending democracy into the workplace and strengthening the voice of workers in political decisions. Other institutions that can promote economic democracy include worker-owned cooperatives, consumer-owned cooperatives, and tenant associations.

Deliberative opinion polls. Typical polls provide a quick snapshot of public opinion – their purpose is to inform us, and politicians, of what we think. The purpose of deliberative opinion polls, as proposed by political scientist James Fishkin, is to increase public understanding of important social issues and where our political leaders stand on them. These polls involve publicly televised discussions between a representative sample of citizens, public policy experts, and political candidates. Only after discussing their own perspectives with those of the experts and politicians, do the assembled citizens cast their votes for their preferred candidate.

We propose extending this concept into policy-making. The Commonwealth could invest as little as $5 million annually to organize quarterly ”town hall meetings” in which residents participate in televised discussions of pressing social issues. Such discussions, properly organized and promoted, could help ”turn on” our ”tuned out” citizenry on to politics and show how government can be a part of the solution, not the problem.

Paul Lachelier is a Green Party candidate for state representative in Somerville and Cambridge. Eric Weltman is the Organizing Director for Citizens for Participation in Political Action.


Because Guns Make It Too Easy to Kill

© Paul Lachelier 2013.  All rights reserved.

This letter contributing to the debate following the December 14, 2012 massacre in Newtown, CT was published online or in print in three city newspapers in Alexandria, VA:

1) Published online on 1/29/13 in the Alexandria News: 

2) Published online on 1/30/13 in the Delray Patch:

3) Published in print on 1/31/13 in the Alexandria Gazette Packet (paper version, p.10 and 14)

“Guns don’t kill, people do,” says the National Rifle Association.  It sounds so right because it’s so obvious.  But while it’s obvious that people kill, guns make it too easy to kill.

Shoppers Attend Gun Show in Chantilly VirginiaImagine that on December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza had approached the Sandy Hook Elementary School with knife or a baseball bat, rather than a gun.  The likelihood is that he would not have been able to break through the school doors – which were routinely locked in the morning, as they were when Lanza arrived on that day – let alone murdered twenty-six people, including twenty children.

In the ensuing public debate, there have been calls for gun control and greater attention to mental illness.  The trouble with the latter approach is that shooters, like Adam Lanza, often don’t have a record of mental illness, let alone a criminal record.  Indeed, after many individual and mass shootings, people who knew the killers often report to journalists their surprise that the killer could do such a thing.  So how can we prevent killings when many shooters don’t show any signs of mental illness, or a criminal record?

What Adam Lanza did have is access to guns – guns that his mother collected and trained her sons to shoot.  And so is true of many rational, law-abiding, gun-owning parents in America, convinced that with proper training and security measures, they or their children won’t commit the unthinkable, in silent premeditation, a moment of rage, by mistake, or else.

Whatever modest gun control measures state and federal legislators manage to pass, despite stiff NRA opposition, will not stop gun violence in the United States.  Still, there is much that can be done to reduce gun violence, including universal background checks on firearms purchasers, reporting of lost or stolen firearms, full or limited bans on the carrying of firearms into public buildings, and measures to prevent guns getting into the hands of those with diagnosed mental illness.

I’m happy to learn that House Delegate Patrick Hope and my own State Senator Adam Ebbin have recently introduced legislation to advance measures like these.  I urge my fellow Virginians to call their respective Delegate and Senator to support them.  To find your Delegate and Senator, visit