Democracy isn’t a chamber music concert — it’s a drum circle

It’s time we stopped thinking about democracy as a chamber music concert. Democracy is meant to be a drum circle.

Like a drum circle, democracy is supposed to be participatory and open to all. Everyone brings their own unique rhythms. Drumming together, we find a beat. Each of us adds our own flourishes. Both democracy and drum circles work best if you bring a few friends.

Democracy isn’t supposed to be a place you save up your pennies to buy a ticket once or twice a year, sit quietly in the audience while experts do all the work, then applaud politely at the end and go home. We’re not supposed leave it to the wealthy people on board of directors and special donor circles to set the tune.

THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE / Photos by (clockwise from upper left) Charlie Llewellin, Michael Connell, Marvin Lee and Michael Broyles

Like a drum circle, democracy is meant to be polyrhythmic, a place where all participants express themselves. It’s messy and inefficient. If you don’t like the rhythm they’re playing, you can organize your fellow drummers to set a new one. The best leaders in a drum circle respond to the drummers around them. They listen, adapt, experiment, and share their expertise. They don’t simply allow participation but actively encourage it.

If all you’ve ever done to participate in democracy is vote — even if you’ve voted in every election since you were old enough — then you’re doing it chamber music style. Voting is only the starting point for democracy. There are far more ways to participate:

  • Call or write a letter to an elected official telling them how you want them to vote on a bill
  • Attend a town hall meeting and speak your mind
  • Testify at a public hearing on an issue that’s important to you
  • Submit written testimony for a regulation that’s being created by a government agency
  • Participate in (or organize!) a protest or demonstration
  • Write a letter to the editor of a mainstream media outlet
  • Volunteer for a local government commission or committee
  • Run for public office

Like a drum circle, some of the best, most important democratic bodies are those working at the local level. You might not be able to run for president, but you could get elected to your local city council. Because if you don’t, who will?

Bring your favorite instrument to the circle: conga, djembe, snare, bongo, tabla, steel pan, tar, pat waing, bodhran, dhol, darbuka, repique, or udu, all are welcome. Or just bring an upside down plastic tub and your bare hands. Drum circles don’t require you to have years of specialized training or equipment. Neither does democracy.

Don’t get me wrong, I love chamber music too. I love skilled musicians and the art they make, and sometimes I want to simply sit in the audience and enjoy their expertise and professionalism.

I just don’t mistake it for democracy.