Human Systems Dynamics of Democracy

Democracy, even in the best of times, is a wicked Issue. It has multiple causes, but no root cause. It affects every level of experience, from individual to national concerns. It can be “fixed,” but no fix is permanent. Like other wicked issues, we can influence democracy, but we cannot “solve” it.

Wit lies in recognizing the resemblance among things which differ and the difference between things which are alike.
                                                                                            ​— Madame de Stael

In HSD, we think of wicked issues as patterns. We see them; we understand them in many different ways; and we take action to influence them. Since the events in Washington, DC on January 6, Americans have exhausted themselves talking about democracy. We see an emerging pattern. We search for ways to understand it. We wonder what in the world we (as voters, politicians, journalists, police officers, and judges) can do to shift the pattern toward greater peace and justice.

In human systems dynamics (HSD), based on what we know about self-organizing systems, we have three ways to influence patterns in complex systems. Only one of them seems promising to me today, as we confront the wicked issue of twenty-first century democracy in the USA.

Option 1: Shift Containers. A Container is any unit of action, including individual people, political parties, neighborhoods, states, elites, and so on. Containers are shaped by power, and they shape identity. In the case of current politics in the US, major containers have been shaped by identity politics. For example: White Nationalists focus on one set of Containers, and BLM activists focus on another set. Good people from across the spectrum have tried to address the problems of democracy with identity politics, shared values, and collective history. Things just keep getting worse.

Option 2: Shift Exchanges. Exchanges allow for flow throughout the system. Money, information, dialogue, humanitarian relief, and violent engagement are all examples of Exchanges in our disrupted democratic pattern. Joe Biden is betting that his 1.9 trillion dollar rescue package will be a big enough exchange to shift the pattern. We’ll see. Surely nothing less than that will make a difference in the near term.

Option 3: Focus on Differences. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it may be our only hope. At the very heart of democracy is the assumption that different ideas and perspectives, values and concerns, will be negotiated in public discourse and resolved in the ballot box. When a single voice dominates, when the variety of voices is drowned out by a mob, the system ceases to function. The founders called this dynamic the power of factions (Federalist Papers, Number 10). They feared it above all because they saw the danger. A single difference would focus attention and power to distort the will of the whole. They had seen how factions destroyed democratic institutions in the past, and they feared the same would happen to the US in the future. They believed that a two-party system, a balance of powers among three branches of government, and diverse needs and interests in this large country could defend us against disruptive factions. Unfortunately, their Constitutional safeguards have not held, and their fears have been realized.

A small set of rigid differences create the pattern we experience today. The alternative is to expand our view, unleash our empathy and imaginations, and engage with differences of the people, by the people, and for the people.   

In a Complex Adaptive System, Difference holds potential energy, and effective Exchanges release the energy as change. A Difference by itself holds tension, but the energy is neutral—urban/rural; Protestant/Catholic; white collar/blue collar; conservative/progressive; race; ethnicity; wealth. But when Difference is misunderstood, discounted, or detested, destructive Exchanges emerge to defuse the tension. The potential energy of the Difference turns into hatred and violence. When we shine a light on the range of Differences that make a difference, change can be positive. We can get curious about it, see it for what it is, call it by its name, then different Exchanges emerge. Empathy, inquiry, and mutual aid release the tensions of Differences we inquire about. Those exchanges can generate the creative and innovative energy we need to fuel justice and peace.

In practice, this could take many forms—in fact it must! No single difference holds the key and no singular exchange works everywhere. Here are some examples:

  • Federal Communication Commission returns to an “equal time” requirement. Any partisan statement on the public airways must be presented alongside an opposing view.
  • Neighbors—north and south, urban and rural—consider their shared concerns and move toward collective action that reaches beyond partisan politics.
  • Law and practice across the country moves to guarantee one person one vote.
  • Campaign finance reform—including escape from Citizens United—is passed and enforced to improve transparency and reduce the impact of financial interests on elections and public policy.
  • Public policy discourse at all levels focuses on the needs, rights, and responsibilities of citizens, rather than on a few high-volume, hot-button concerns.
  • Citizens at all levels, with good will and personal commitment, run for and hold public office.
  • Domestic terrorism becomes unacceptable, whether or not it appears in uniform or carries a gun.
  • Politicians tell their constituencies the truth, even when it doesn’t serve their own personal interests.
  • Small groups develop a practice of inquiry, where questions and collective reflection open innovative options for action.
  • Social media changes norms and algorithms to moderate voices and mediate constructive dialogue.

Together, this may seem like an overwhelming campaign to unveil difference and release the energy of democracy. But no one has to do them all. Each action requires a different group of people to use their own power, voice, and position. Different institutions establish and sustain the infrastructure in which difference can emerge safely and productively. No one group is expected to hold heroism for the whole. All people and institutions must work within their roles to explore Differences that make a difference to public life, to make those differences transparent, and to work together to define the democratic whole that is greater than the sum of the parts of our proud nation.

The good news about complex dynamics is that any one of these changes can catalyze a larger transformation. Like a match lighting a bonfire, any one of these changes might spark others. Options that are impossible to imagine today can emerge from the creative power of the whole. No one knows where to start, no one can manage the process, but any starting place holds the potential for transformation.

If we are to shift the patterns of democracy and tame this wicked issue for our generation, we must harness the energy of difference for learning and growth. If we fail, then our ignorance will unleash a force that will consume all hope for a democratic future for our country.  

Glenda Eoyang

Join a global network of learning about HSD!
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.