What Does Democracy Look Like?

Posted by jlubans on January 16, 2018

Caption: Vermont democracy; citizens voting. Photo by John Lubans

In ancient Greece (the source of our modern day democracy) there was a multi-day theater festival in which citizens (not experts) chose the prizewinners.
In Bradford, Vermont (depicted) democracy has been on display for centuries at the annual town meetings in which citizens vote on budget items.
A BBC report suggests that when Greek citizens voted for best play they did not choose the “… crudely populist (which) appeals to the lowest common denominator – simplistic, chauvinistic and jingoistic.”
No, much to the chagrin of no less than Plato, who derided the common man “as ignorant and fickle”, “citizens consistently rewarded productions that challenged them ideologically and excelled artistically.”
And, all across Vermont, citizens take their democracy seriously and make well-informed decisions.
So at least in these two examples we might say that governance by the many (of, for and by the people) is just as good if not better than governance by a few.
But let’s not carried away; there are flaws in any system, democratic or otherwise.
In Athens the comedies were often ribald even when presenting intellectually challenging ideas. One prizewinner, the anti-war “The Acharnians” (425 BCE) by Aristophanes featured plenty of bosoms and bottoms, along with a parade of a three-foot tall male member and two young women passing as sows under rather vulgar review.
The Acharnians won first prize, despite its “very tricky subject matter” and during a time when Athens was at war with Sparta.
In Vermont, participation by the citizenry is far from 100%. In some cases the town meeting has been abandoned for a city manager and city council model – in other words decision-making is turned over to a representative rather than retained by the individual citizen.
Pivoting on the pessimistic Plato, (aren’t most philosophers micro managers?) let’s turn to the democratic workplace.
The micro manager (the expert) is convinced that no decision can be made without his or her approval.
I had one who reviewed each employee’s decision – sort of like the office administrator who would re-read each typist’s letters prior to their being sent out.
I stopped that as quickly as I could but I doubt if the person every understood why I did so. She firmly believed she was doing quality control.
Of course the expert knew her job, but what she was doing was abrogating the employee’s right to learn, to derive satisfaction from a job well done.
And so it is always when one individual retains all the decision-making authority and denies it to others who are fully capable of making those decisions. I termed the condition: The “Letting Go” dilemma among middle managers.
Some could not let go. They were the experts; they got to make the decisions. They were paid to make decisions.
Not really, but they saw themselves as central and essential to any decision and excluded others.
Doing so, they denied varied perspectives, different viewpoints, imaginative or not – all at the expense of the organization and its service to customers.
Some never figured out that letting go was part of their job and that positive results would ensue.
Let the person doing the job take responsibility for the job; work with that person to improve what is done.
Allow the worker to “exercise influence” like the citizen judges did in ancient Athens.
Ask what they think, and how would they change what they do.
This is not weakness; this is strength in your having the courage to let someone else in on the decision-making.

© Copyright John Lubans 2018

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