Undemocratic Institutions

When we think about democracy, we usually think of a model for the government, how a country is run. Maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe this is partly why the U.S. experiment is now being tested in a way it has never before.

At the core of the existing democratic states are two undemocratic institutions, especially in the United States: The family and corporations. Traditionally, the family is run by a father who “knows best,” which is a euphemism for authoritarianism. Questioning the authority of the father is akin to sin – it is immoral. Although many families are more egalitarian now – with mothers and fathers running them – they still follow the nuclear family model, which gives adults more leverage. Additionally, we only consider certain types of families as the true family creating a hierarchy of types that are more or less supported by society depending on where they fall on that hierarchy. Corporations are headed by a CEO who is often white and male and who sets the direction for the company with the power to hire and fire people who don’t comply. As George Lakoff stresses, corporations “are metaphorical strict fathers.”

Most of us spend far more time experiencing the family and corporations, so their top-down, authoritarian style becomes familiar. We transfer what we learn in those contexts to politics, expecting a strong leader to change things. Note that this was even the expectation of progressives, liberals, and Democrats when we elected Obama. Maybe if the outpouring of activism that has happened since the November election had supported his administration, they could have enacted much more.

So, what do we do if we want to test democracy in more depth? We need to design a society that is thoroughly democratic. I suggested some ideas, building on John Dewey, in my thesis. In particular, I presented a family model that I called intentional family that brings together adults and children in an environment that is designed to teach democracy through living it. Decisions are made collectively, including by the children whose voices are amplified because there are more of them.

I didn’t tackle business structures in my thesis, however, there are already some well-functioning democratic models available: Co-ops. Both of these ideas probably need fleshing out, especially intentional families. However, before I do that, I want to tackle the argument for democracy since it implies that the nurturant parent (to stick with Lakoff’s terminology) is morally superior to the strict father. I will try to take this on in my next post.

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