Democracy is a big human experiment in organized power-sharing. Democracies are representative forms of government in which electoral processes and systems share power with all the people.
Authoritarianism is a big human experiment in organized power-stealing and hoarding. Authoritarian regimes steal power from all the people in the form of violations of human rights: stealing the right to liberty, to autonomy, to free expression, and to life. Authoritarian regimes hoard the stolen power of the people in its government and in private bodies.
Relational democracy and authoritarianism, however, are different: they are embodied cultural practices that create conditions within with democratic governments and authoritarian regimes either succeed or fail.
When humans are relationally democratic — they share their power to generate and maintain forward momentum — they also tend to support democratic governments. When humans are relationally authoritarian — they steal the power from others to generate and maintain their forward momentum — they also tend to support authoritarian regimes.
We can see relational democracy and authoritarianism in human interactions, in everyday, mundane tasks. Relational democracy is relational authoritarianism’s polar opposite.
For instance …
- When your professional processes are not transparent, you steal power I use to understand fully.
- When you give me inaccurate information, intentionally, you steal power I use to make sound decisions.
- When you take my time or expect me to use it for your purposes, you steal my power to spend it on what my family needs.
- When you purposely exclude, you steal power I use to participate.
- When you refuse acknowledgement, you steal power I use to connect.
- When your cynicism leads, you steal my power to be openly optimistic.
- When your doubt blindly stands in front of my credibility, you steal my power to access those earned benefits
- When you withhold emotion, you steal power I use to engage.
- When your fear is weaponized in my direction, you steal power I use to confidently move through the world.
- When you pretend to know what you don’t, you steal power I use to assess effectively.
- When you willfully ignore new information and rely on your own outdated assumptions, you steal my power to protect myself from old, poisonous ideas.
- When you block access to resources, you steal my power to feed my life.
- When you refuse to say my name, you steal my power to exist.
When you steal my power, you steal my forward momentum, and my power to progress. When you steal my power and hoard it, you systematically lock down my agency. When enough power is stolen and enough humans’ agency is locked down, everyday authoritarianism supports an authoritarian state, a political culture. Gramsci had it right: we do it to ourselves.
Living democratically every day means sharing power. Being relationally democratic means moving through the world, authentically engaged, without knowing the outcome. To live democratically is to help create the conditions for the possibility of trust, of vulnerability, of creativity in everyone you meet. To share power on a relational level is to create the conditions for the possibility of unlocking everyone’s agency.
Living democratically means that all of us can make sound decisions. We can understand fully. We are able to spend our time on our purposes. We can participate, connect, live optimistically, move through the world with purpose. We are able to engage full, effectively assess situations, and live without fear of poisonous ideas.
Living democratically means being able to confidently generate and maintain our forward momentum. It means being able to feed our lives. It means a just human existence. It means we all share “the right to pursue happiness.”
Democracy cannot be imposed. It cannot be elected. It cannot be bought. It cannot be attained through prayer. It must be lived in bodies, in relations, in all of us. Every single day.