It’s Time for Democracy 101

By Dr. John Coonrod, Executive Vice President, The Hunger Project

The Hunger Project | Bangladesh 2019

As we have all noticed, many people lack a strong commitment to democracy. Pew Research conducts regular global surveys on democracy, and their 2020 report shows that about one third of all people don’t think democratic rights are very important in their country. Tragically but not surprisingly, we’ve seen a rise of autocratic leaders exploiting support for this fairly large minority to suppress democratic freedoms. What can each of us do about this?

In 2015, during the run up to the U.S. election, I Googled, “what can be done to thwart demagogues?” The consensus seemed to be that civic education was the only answer. (Not surprisingly, the literature on that subject has grown dramatically since then.) Indeed, Pew Research shows that education makes a big difference. The more education one has, the more one is committed to democratic values.

That commitment manifests itself as a democratic mindset that informs every action and policy decision. Without it, democratic values slowly erode from society and then seemingly disappear from the political discourse entirely.

As the Executive Vice President of The Hunger Project, I’ve seen firsthand what cultivating that democratic mindset can do for a society. It lifts communities out of hunger and poverty. It creates accountable systems of government. Most importantly, in areas where the mindset is still nascent, it creates a vision for the future. Something attainable, especially if all citizens believe that democracy is an ongoing project where they each play a leadership role.

So how can we foster a democratic mindset?

A meeting of a federation of elected women in Madhya Pradesh, India in 2013 | The Hunger Project

We can start by deepening our own understanding of democratic values. Modern democracy is based on the fundamental notion of human dignity, equality and human rights. Human rights are not a gift of rulers, they are intrinsic to being human. Whether we were raised to believe that “we are each a child of God,” or simply recognize the wisdom of the Golden Rule, we each need to take a very strong stand for the premise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) — that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

When was the last time you read the UDHR? The world promised to “strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.” Is every first grader learning this lesson? Our nations promised that they would.

Inherent to human dignity is voice in the decisions that affect one’s life. Article 21 of the UDHR states “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.” Has our nation achieved this? Do we even have a strategy to get there?

There are four key areas that I believe are crucial for fostering the democratic mindset in society.

  1. Education. There is probably no arena in which average citizens push harder for their democratic rights than in the quality of education for their children. We do not need to wait for people to learn about human rights at college; we can push strongly for human and civil rights education at every level. In 2018, civics education in the United States was at an all-time low. It is our collective responsibility to find compelling ways to chronicle and learn from the triumphs and failures of our global society.
  2. Subsidiarity. This refers to organizing society so that as much democratic decision making as is practicable happens at the local level, closest to the people; this is an essential link between democracy and human dignity. People should have maximum voice at the level where they can most directly hold leaders accountable.
  3. Not a simple majority rule. A real democracy must protect the equal human rights of the minority. Tyrants often come to power by winning elections. While it’s true that “elections have consequences,” a real democracy must be structured so that those consequences cannot result in the violation of human rights.
  4. Journalism. A deeply troubling tool of autocrats is the destruction of the concept of verifiable truth. It is the responsibility of ethical journalists to meet high standards for verifying facts. For example, in the U.S., the freedom of expression has been twisted into freedom to assert lies, and to condemn journalists whose professional duty is to the truth as “fake news.” Most would agree that a free press is an essential part of democracy, yet for this to remain true, an understanding of journalistic ethics must be an essential part of civic education. There is a difference between the Wall Street Journal and outlets that peddle conspiracy theories, and everyone needs to understand that difference.

For those of us whose lives are committed to overcoming poverty, hunger and the destruction of the environment — fostering a democratic mindset is absolutely essential. The cases of lapsed democracies are not accidents — they are consequences of structuring society in ways that systematically deny people fundamental human rights. As the author Francis Moore Lappé reminds us, “The shortage is not of food. It is one of democracy.” To have a world free from hunger, we must continue to foster the democratic mindset, even in countries with long, proud traditions of democracy. It will take the commitment of each one of us to structure society in a way that affords every one of our neighbors the right and opportunity to achieve healthy and fulfilling lives in harmony with the environment.

Dr. John Coonrod is the Executive Vice President of The Hunger Project, where he is responsible for research and advocacy. He works closely with the President and CEO on all aspects of strategy, including programs, fundraising and communications and is based in Washington, DC.

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