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The Big Answer


To link to this article from your blog or webpage, copy and paste the url below into your blog or homepage.

The Democratic Imagination: Envisioning Popular Power in the Twenty-First Century

a book by James Cairns and Alan Sears

(our site's book review)

Democracy Is an Open Question Whose Future Has Not Yet Been Defined

Even though democracy means "government or rule by the people," that phrase can be understood in many different ways. "A form of government organized around the periodic election of representatives" is only one of those possible meanings. Cairns and Sears approach democracy in this book as an open question whose future has not yet been defined rather than as something already established whose future is known to us.

The authors' goal in writing this book is to encourage readers to define for themselves what characterizes meaningful or at least effective and fair democracy, to assess the extent to which existing political institutions might satisfy those criteria, and to consider what actions might be required to achieve or safeguard the of the people, by the people, for the people stuff a.k.a. popular power. The Democratic Imagination in the title of the book is the capacity to envision what democracy looks like and to work toward actualizing it.

The authors hope to expand our democratic imagination beyond textbook conceptions found in such boring tomes as history texts
The authors hope to expand our democratic imagination beyond textbook conceptions found in such boring tomes as history texts

Expanding the Democratic Imagination Beyond Textbook Conceptions

The authors hope to expand the democratic imagination beyond textbook conceptions. "The idea that human beings deserve freedom, meaning that they ought to govern their own lives and communities, has evolved from the resistance of the downtrodden to the experience of domination. It is this actual resistance, in the form of collective action, and not simply the power of an idea, that has led to the development of different forms of democracy at key moments in history." But safeguarding or improving democracy is a pragmatic thing that involves action in the real world. After all, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

The effectiveness of political action can be enhanced by analyzing competing ideas of democracy to clarify how democracy is being used in particular contexts. "The definition of democracy can shape the aspirations that lead people to take certain actions, playing an important part in shaping how "rule by the people" gets done in practice."

World Values Survey about Democracy
World Values Survey about Democracy (so you can see why new democracies are sliding back towards autocracy)

Democracy Is Getting Weaker

At the start of this century, the 21st, many citizens and political leaders from across the political sphere are expressing serious concerns that democracy, regardless of how you define it, is obviously getting weaker. Many of the demonstraters in the Occupy Wall Street movement, for instance, carried placards declaring that democracy is broken.

Wall Street Protest: Occupy Wall Street—Copyright © 2011 by Louis Lanzano
Wall Street Protest: Occupy Wall Street—Copyright © 2011 by Louis Lanzano


'You know, Archibald, my bladder is a tad too full—do these windows open? I'd like to send my regards to those pesky OWS protesters'
'You know, Archibald, my bladder is a tad too full—do these windows open? I'd like to send my regards to those pesky OWS protesters'

Voters Are Very Skeptical That Their Votes Will Do Any Good or Help Change Things

Citizens are cynical of democracy because elections have too much money in them, so voters believe the candidates will forget them and cater to the big contributors—the system is morphing into plutocracy, or, in our opinion: oligarchy*. They're cynical because the candidates are supposed to debate issues but instead deride character and morals of opponents. As a result of their cynicism they are less interested in politics therefore vote less, join political parties less, and are very skeptical that their vote will do any good or help change things. Observing this opt-out, it brings into question the legitimacy of the democratic system as a whole. In the war between the 99% and the 1%, the latter won.

*Democracy has four key elements:

  1. A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections (ours are not fair because money has thoroughly corrupted them, and we merely throw out one Corporatocracy flunky and replace him with another Corporatocracy flunky with a different face BUT WITH THE SAME POLICIES AS THE FLUNKY HE JUST REPLACED)
  2. The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life (fewer citizens have any faith in election clown shows because no candidate truthfully represents the changes the people want—the game is rigged)
  3. Protection of the human rights of all citizens (fat chance—the Patriot Act and whistleblower oppressions and NSA spying on us add up to a huge loss of our rights)
  4. A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens (it took us a while to quit rolling on the floor laughing at this one: rich get slaps on wrist, poor get 6x8 cells)
Democracy has four key elements and yet the USA has none of these, and the USA doesn't fit the definition of a democracy either, as the majority of the people realize, according to national polls. (Democracy is defined as "government by the people; especially: rule of the majority" or "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly.) So—it's official—the USA is NOT a democracy. OUR DEMOCRACY HAS BEEN USURPED BY OLIGARCHS WHO DICTATE USA POLICY—WE NO LONGER HAVE A FUNCTIONING DEMOCRACY—WE HAVE AN OLIGARCHY. (See The US is an oligarchy, study concludes.)

See also Democracy—an American Delusion.

The oligarchs of the 1% get to eat first, while the citizens of the 99% get to eat the scraps left behind. THIS is democracy?!
The oligarchs of the 1% get to eat first, while the citizens of the 99% get to eat the scraps left behind. THIS is democracy?!


Voters are apathetic: they are very skeptical that their vote will do any good or help change things
Voters are apathetic: they are very skeptical that their vote will do any good or help change things

Individuals and groups without access to massive resources to support campaigning and lobbying can reasonably ask what influence they can expect to have within a political system in which wealth matters so much that the Supreme Court all but declared the U.S. an oligarchy by saying in essense that it was fine if special interests bought elections. Other citizens go further than complaining about money in politics, rejecting the very legitimacy of Western democracies by pointing to “the brutal history of occupation and genocide of indigenous peoples that settler societies have been built on," but then of course that is water under the bridge.

Corporatocracy prevails, therefore community and democracy take it on the chin
Corporatocracy prevails, therefore community and democracy take it on the chin

Democratic Imagination

The authors believe that addressing these issues in the practice of contemporary democracy requires developing what they like to call the democratic imagination. There is general agreement among radical activists and mainstream politicians alike that democracy is in trouble. But the main argument in The Democratic Imagination: Envisioning Popular Power in the Twenty-First Century is that in order for democracy to be reinvigorated and raised to new heights—regardless of what party affiliations you hold—citizens need to be able to see it clearly in relation to their own expectations, aspirations, and actions.

Activist and historian of black liberation Robin D.G. Kelley (2002) writes, “the dream of a new world . . . was the catalyst for my own political engagement.” The authors' hope is that reopening discussion about what democracy means and what it might look like in the future will help you develop your own dreams of a better world. The authors ask us to consider, as we go about our lives, "how would we learn, work, and structure our personal relations if we were indeed committed to acting democratically in everything we do?"

The authors' hope is that reopening discussion about what democracy means and what it might look like in the future will help you develop your own dreams of a better world
The authors' hope is that reopening discussion about what democracy means and what it might look like in the future will help you develop your own dreams of a better world

Official Democracy Versus Democracy from Below

The book uses two perspectives on democracy: official democracy as discussed in history and civics classes and documented in the Constitution, and democracy from below (popular power in which collective self-government of all members occurs). Popular power is the real of the people, by the people, for the people stuff, and this is what the official version is supposed to be. They say it is—they wouldn't LIE to us would they? But except partially at the local level when corporations are not interfering, the general experience of democracy—especially national elections—is a far cry from of the people, by the people, for the people. It is better for people to be the rulers rather than elect rulers, is the book's subtext, although most of us would respond with "who has the time or the knowledge?" (So we get Dubya, OBomb'em, or Trump!)

The Constitution
The Constitution

The gist of the argument in much of the book is that citizenship, politics, and bureaucracy have become permeated by the paradigm of “official democracy.” These three concepts are regarded as areas of social life that are either controlled by elected representatives or meant to elect representatives that rule on our behalf. Democracy, according to this book's website, "evokes familiar images, such as voting in elections, speeches by political leaders, courthouses, city halls, and so on. Others may think about protestors in the streets, neighborhood meetings, or online debates among activist bloggers."

According to the authors, from the grassroots perspective, politics and the bureaucracy are a form of top-down domination that seeks to preserve a social order favoring the elites. We'd go them one better and change "seeks to preserve a social order favoring the elites" to "preserves a social order favoring the elites."

"The Democratic Imagination provides a readable and provocative analysis of the different ideas about democracy." —Judy Rebick, Activist and author of Occupy This!

Where's the Beef?

James Cairns and Alan Sears ask a lot of questions of us but are light on answers and implications, almost as though they'd wanted to write a book on democracy and wrote down the questions it needed to answer, but then later changed their minds and instead offered only the questions to the reader as points to ponder. Although the book could be useful in high school classes or even elementary college civics classes, it is not recommended to the scholar wanting to study democracy issues. But we especially applaud their advice that we "become self-directed learners and critical thinkers" in our cogitations about democracy. Democracy could use some clarity, since right now it is simply a delusion and citizens are being led down the garden path. See Democracy—an American Delusion.

Democracy is simply a delusion and citizens are being led down the garden path
Democracy is simply a delusion and citizens are being led down the garden path

Other Democracy-Is-Dying Perspectives