Bridging the Theory/Action Gap: One Key to Improving the Effectiveness of Efforts to Strengthen Democracy


Newsletter 131 - Friday, July 7, 2023



From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

Over the last several months, we (Guy and Heidi) have had occasion to think about the problems of hyper-polarization, the decline of democracy, and intractable conflict from two quite distinct, but complementary, perspectives. One perspective focuses on theoretically assessing the nature of the problem and what needs to be done to fix it, while the second focuses on recruiting and funding people to undertake specific pro-democracy projects. This essay reflects on this experience in ways that, we hope, highlight ways in which the two efforts could be strengthened by learning more from each other.

The Pro-Democracy Theorists 

In June we were invited to participate in a two-day brainstorming session on the global challenges facing democracy. The session brought together a small group of accomplished scholars and journalists who had, from very different theoretical perspectives, spent years trying to understand why global trends seem to be taking us further away from the democratic ideal and toward some kind of much more dystopian future. After spending some time trying to understand one another's perspectives (and their intellectual and empirical foundations), the group then focused its attention on building a list of what we collectively knew about what it would take to cultivate the kind of resilient democracies that most everyone would see as an attractive place to live.

While the group was quick to acknowledge the limitations of its brief but intense effort and the need to involve many more voices in the discussion, it was, we think, still able to assemble a pretty comprehensive list of areas in which those wanting to help heal and strengthen democracy could make important contributions. That said, the group did not get a chance to talk about the critically important question of exactly how they could bring about the kind of changes that they realized were critically necessary. Their focus was clearly on the "what needs to be done" and not the "how to do it" side of the equation.

The Pro-Democracy Actors

This meeting occurred at a time when we were also tangentially involved in efforts of a number of large, pro-democracy groups that are focused on recruiting people to carry out an expanding array of concrete, local projects, each designed to help address the crises facing U.S. democracy. While participants in this effort had already put together an impressive array of projects in a few of the areas identified by the theory group (e.g., bridge building and electoral reform) they had yet to focus on most of the things that the theorists thought needed doing (though, we think, they certainly could develop the capacity to do much of this work). 

What we find most impressive about the second group is their ability to nurture and expand very large networks of people who are deeply concerned about democracy's failings and willing to take concerted action to help remedy those problems.

Both of these activities roughly coincided with our posting, on Beyond Intractability's Substack newsletter, two articles debating ways in which the philanthropic sector might best be able to help address democracy's ongoing crises.1 In many ways, the debate embedded in these posts echoed earlier newsletter posts on the question of neutrality2 and whether pro-democracy efforts should be focused on left-leaning efforts to defeat right-wing, populist extremism (which many see as the principal threat to democracy) or whether they should embrace a much more multifaceted approach that tries to build support across the political divide for collaborative solutions to societal problems (that would benefit both the left and right).  


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Bridging the Gap between Theorists and Actors

While the theorists recognized the dangers of right-wing extremism and the need to develop collaborative solutions to common problems (solutions that benefit people on all sides of the divide), it saw many other problems that would need to be addressed by any comprehensive effort to build a resilient democracy. The balance of this essay is an effort to help bridge the gap between big picture democracy (and conflict) theorists such as those who participated in the theory discussions we had a few weeks ago, and what we call the pro-democracy actors who are engaged in active efforts to strengthen democratic governance in concrete (often local) instances. Our goal is to encourage democracy actors to develop more effective projects by incorporating more insights from the democracy theorists who have been trying to carefully think through what needs to be done.  In doing this, we hope to encourage people to start filling the many gaps that exist in current pro-democracy efforts. We also want to encourage democracy theorists to operationalize their big picture thinking in ways that combine their assessment about what needs to be done with concrete images about exactly how their broad goals might realistically be achieved.

This will require building relationships between the actor and theory communities (as well as with potential funders) and then using those relationships to develop theoretically promising solutions that the actor and funder communities are likely (with appropriate training, mentorship, and experience) to be willing and able to implement. This, in turn, is likely to require an array of new projects designed to facilitate this collaboration.


The sections which follow highlight and organize our image of the things that the theory group thought were most needed.  Because of the informal nature of our discussions (which were conducted under Chatham House rules) and the complex nature of the topic, it is likely that other meeting participants would produce a somewhat different list with differing descriptions of and justifications for each idea. 

Because our primary area of expertise focuses on the democratic crisis in the United States, the sections below are presented in the U.S. context.  Other theory participants had much more international expertise and would doubtless be able to point out the many ways in which the U.S. crisis differs from the crises facing other modern democracies. That said, we think that most of the underlying principles implicit in this essay could be adapted to these other contexts.

The discussion below suggests the need for both totally new types of projects and modifications of ongoing efforts. In some cases, these efforts may be stand-alone projects focused exclusively on efforts to strengthen democracy and diffuse societal tensions. In other cases, the needed activities may be incorporated into the conflict and democracy-related work that organizations are already doing in either advocacy or intermediary roles. 

Democracy Education

To start with, the theory group recognized the need for a wide range of projects designed to promote public understanding of democracy's attributes and strengths (and potential), especially as compared with alternative forms of governance (which generally involve some combination of authoritarianism, chaos, and, quite possibly, violence). To be successful, the citizens of a democracy need to understand how they can use democratic institutions to defend and advance their own interests, and why it is important that they give their fellow citizens comparable opportunities to protect their interests. The public also needs to understand the many ways in which democratic institutions are being attacked by unscrupulous actors who are trying to advance their selfish interests at the expense of everyone else. And, they need to know how to defend democracy and their interests in the face of such attacks.

The group recognized the need to promote this kind of public understanding at the K-12 level and in higher education. Building the base of support needed to do this requires a neutral, nonpartisan approach to civic education — an approach that avoids the now common tendency to cast civic education efforts in partisan terms that, in various ways, try to undermine the legitimacy of the "other side." The desire to avoid getting caught in the crossfire between advocates of partisan approaches to civic education does much to explain why, at least in the United States, civic education has so seriously atrophied. (Many school districts have chosen not to teach civics instead of arguing about its curriculum. But this has left America's young with a shocking and dangerous lack of understanding of even the most basic concepts of democratic governance.3)

There is, of course, a companion need to promote similar levels of understanding among the general adult population. Without a captive audience and an ability to hold students accountable for learning, it is much more difficult to help the adult population improve its understanding of the advantages of supporting and participating in democratic institutions and processes. This is especially true given the social and psychological dynamics that lead the media to produce and the public to consume so much inflammatory and divisive content.  Still, there is a clear and continuing need for projects which use the full range of communication media to defend democracy (and outline ways in which it can be improved and strengthened) so that it better meets the public's needs. 

Bridge Building

As we have discussed in previous posts, strengthening public support for democratic institutions is, in many ways, dependent upon the success of projects that would break down the prevailing us-vs-them, good-vs-evil stereotypes that now plague so many democracies and replace them with mutual understanding, respect for differences, and collaborative joint problem-solving. Such projects would replace the inaccurate, inflammatory, and self-serving images that now prevail with an image of how we can live together peacefully, despite our differences. This is one of the areas in which there is a great deal of activity among the conflict actors discussed above. While these groups have made important progress in using small-scale, dialogue-type processes to improve relationships at the interpersonal level, work is still needed to scale these efforts up in ways that transform the views of the millions of people who make up modern societies.

Democratic Rights and Obligations

The democracy theorists also recognized the need for projects which help the citizenry understand the rights they enjoy in a democracy — rights that do much to protect citizens on the losing side of elections from the "tyranny of the majority." It is absolutely essential that citizens understand that they can lose an election, and still be "okay." Citizens also need to understand the remedies available to them should their rights be violated and the obligations that accompany those rights including, especially, the obligation to help guarantee that their fellow citizens (even citizens with whom they disagree) enjoy the same rights.  

Among the most fundamental political rights that need to be recognized and protected in this context are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to due process and equal protection of the laws, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Perhaps even more central to democratic success is the right to vote and the right to have one's vote be fairly counted — rights which also entail a responsibility to consider one's vote seriously and thoughtfully. 

While there are major efforts to help people understand and protect their rights (and exercise corresponding responsibilities), part of the reason for democracy's difficulties is that, in far too many cases, these efforts have been unable to reach a sufficiently large share of the population. This, in turn, is reflected in a less vigorous defense of these rights and, in many places, an erosion of these rights — an erosion that is seen as one of the principal indicators of democratic decline. (The erosion of freedom of speech and freedom of religion are two that are particularly under attack in now in the U.S.)

Balancing Competing Interests

In addition to the core, broadly accepted rights (and responsibilities) discussed above, there are other, more controversial rights including material rights like the right to healthcare, housing, education, and a job. Here serious questions revolve around who, exactly, is responsible for providing these quite expensive benefits to their fellow citizens (or, indeed, if anyone is) and what are the obligations of the recipients of such benefits. Answering such questions requires a complex balancing of competing interests.

The same is true for the serious disagreements surrounding "culture war" issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, redress for past periods of discrimination (such as slavery and, later, segregation in the U.S.), the rights of nonhuman species, and, in the US, the "right to bear arms."  With respect to these issues, democratic governments are continually called upon to make (and then later re-evaluate and make again) decisions about exactly how these and similar issues will, at least for each time and place, be handled.

The same governments are called upon to make a myriad of decisions on a wide range of more discretionary topics that are vital to protecting the public. These include, for example, national defense, environmental protection, social insurance, education, infrastructure construction and maintenance, healthcare, commerce, law enforcement, and management of the commons. 

For each of these issues, democracies employ an extraordinarily complex decision-making process that determines social policies on these issues at any given time — policies that are repeatedly revised as the balance of political power continually shifts and society evolves. The process is built around a complex hierarchy of interacting decision-makers with citizens electing legislators (at the national, state, and local levels) who write laws, levy taxes, and allocate funds. These legislative decisions are then carried out by an executive administration that promulgates and enforces more detailed regulations and distributes funds to specific organizations and individuals. All of this is reviewed for consistency within existing law and constitutional rights by the judiciary (that also, under civil law, resolves disputes between private citizens).  This cumbersome process includes plenty of opportunities for public involvement and participation (including, unfortunately, opportunities for corrupt, vested interests to influence decisions and "veto groups" to prevent any decisions from being made).  

The success of democracy depends on the ability of this vast apparatus to yield outcomes in a timely manner which are seen as wise (decisions that do, in fact, yield the expected and desired outcomes) and equitable (with corruption and conflicts of interest minimized and aggregate benefits distributed fairly). 

Democracy can fail in one of three ways. In illiberal democracies, control of this vast process passes to a relatively small circle of corrupt individuals who, while maintaining the facade of democracy, control the decisions to the point where the system is little more than a sugarcoated, 21st-century version of authoritarian rule. Alternatively, the system can fall into paralytic dysfunction in which a chaotic stream of conflicts makes it impossible to make the decisions needed to effectively govern. Finally, there is the possibility that, in the absence of a generally agreed-upon nonviolent dispute resolution process, competing parties will resort to violence as the only way to protect their interests — violence that could easily escalate catastrophically. 

Not surprisingly, the theory group concentrated its efforts on avoiding these points of failure, promoting a more resilient democracy, and cultivating the ability of democratic institutions to balance competing interests in ways that both effectively meet challenges and enjoy broad public support. 

Fighting Corruption

Another area of focus of the theory group was on the need to prevent corruption of democratic processes in ways that serve narrow, selfish interests at the expense of the common good. At one extreme, you have Machiavellian, tyrant wannabes who try to use democratic mechanisms to attain powerful positions within society, and then use those positions to solidify power so they can prevent effective challenges to their corrupt rule. Beyond this, there is much smaller scale corruption, in which unscrupulous (and sometimes criminal) actors undermine democracy's ability to provide for the needs of its citizens by "negotiating" sweetheart deals that allow them to profit enormously at the public's expense. These are often associated with the vast, entrenched bureaucracies associated with various "industrial complexes" which oversell the perpetual need for expensive, inefficient (and, sometimes, counterproductive) government activities. We are all familiar with President Eisenhower's warning about the "military-industrial complex," and the conflict-of-interest problem that underlies it. Unfortunately, the same conflict-of-interest problem has the potential to undermine virtually any expensive government undertaking, including many programs favored by the progressive left (which tends to be more supportive of large government projects then the right, which tends to favor lower taxes and limited government).  To combat all of these problems, there is a need for a wide range of watchdog groups to expose and delegitimize such corruption, as well as companion democratic processes which effectively enforce conflict-of-interest rules. 

Electoral Processes 

Another important area of emphasis for the theory group was the promotion of electoral processes that give citizens meaningful choices and guarantee the availability of mechanisms through which they can remove leaders who betray the public trust.  To do this, there was a need for groups that demand and then help guarantee truly trustworthy elections, promote the equitable regulation of campaign financing, and encourage honest and understandable media coverage (while exposing deliberate disinformation). Beyond this, there is a need for people to champion reforms that would reduce the advantages now enjoyed by especially extreme candidates at the expense of moderates (e.g., partisan primaries) and replace uncontested elections (associated with "safe seats" and gerrymandering, for example) with elections in which voters have meaningful choices. Most importantly, citizens need to have confidence that, even if they lose an election, their fundamental rights will be protected, and they will have a realistic opportunity to argue their case in the next election. If voters conclude that an election loss would be so catastrophic that they will never be able to recover, then they are likely to do whatever it takes to win — even if that means using political strategies that they would normally consider illegitimate and immoral. They may even resort to illegal strategies that threaten the very foundations of democracy. 

Checks and Balances

We also need projects to help people understand and use the system of checks and balances to prevent the kind of corruption outlined above.  This requires programs that evaluate the judiciary on the basis of its defense of the rule of law and not the partisan policy implications of its decisions. Those who want different policies need to work through legislative processes — processes that need to be defended against various forms of obstructionism that far too often (in the U.S. at least) prevent legislators from fulfilling their responsibilities. We also need trustworthy executives who will faithfully execute the law, but not attempt to claim unchecked lawmaking power of their own.  In addition, we need people willing to vigorously oppose the various forms of "lawfare" through which the legal system is used to harass people with frivolous accusations. And, we need to make sure that the citizenry has the power to remove (through elections, impeachment, or term limits) officials from any branch of government who betray the public trust.

Mutually Beneficial Problem Solving

Still another area in which major pro-democracy efforts are needed involves the cultivation of collaborative democratic problem-solving skills and institutions that demonstrate that there really are mutually beneficial ways of balancing our competing interests. While such compromises inevitably fall short of the kind of total victory that so many aspire to (and so rarely achieve), they do provide protection from the kind of total defeat that so many fear. They also permit the building of the kind of broad- based support needed to effectively challenge concentrated vested interests and produce real solutions to common problems. This is an area that Kleinfeld and Idriss saw as especially in need of philanthropic support.

There are also a wide range of opportunities and processes for providing meaningful public participation in democratic decision-making with respect to specific, often local, issues. To be successful, citizen involvement needs to be much more than simply voting every couple of years, sending in occasional campaign contributions, and cheering for one's side as one watches the news.  Democracy works best when people are involved in and take joint ownership of decisions that affect their daily lives.  To do this, we need to develop and strengthen the wide array of mechanisms currently available for meaningfully involving citizens in day-to-day democratic decision-making.

This is something that is easier to do at the level of local governance, where participants in democratic processes have to live with the results of their decisions and with people with whom they disagree. This kind of local-first approach to democracy is also consistent with the core democratic principle of self-determination where citizens should have the freedom to determine how they will govern their community.  There are, of course, many cases in which large-scale problems (like national defense, pandemic protection, or climate change) affect large numbers of localities, and, therefore, require decisions at national and even international levels. That said, it is still important for communities within a democracy to avoid trying to impose their cultural values on other communities with different values as much as possible.

The Media

Finally, to support the many democracy-promoting efforts outlined above, there is a need for a much-improved system for gathering and distributing political news that takes us away from the prevailing, very inflammatory, us-vs-them coverage that now dominates. We need a system that better distributes information that explains, in an understandable and engaging way, the problems we face and how we (including the left and the right) could work together to solve those problems. We also need a system that complements stories about society's many problems with other stories about the many people and organizations that are working to address these problems. People need to see that there is hope, and that there are positive efforts that should be supported. 

To do this we need to get past the media's tendency to play to our cognitive biases — biases that lead us to focus our attention on things that are scary and anger-producing, while diverting our attention from hopeful and positive news.  While there will always be stories of outrageous and tragic events that deserve coverage and some appropriate response, we should not make the mistake of neglecting and failing to support the many people who, in countless ways, are strengthening society and making all our lives better. While obvious inequities demand attention, we live in a time of remarkable prosperity with dramatic declines in the rate of global poverty (despite rapid, but now slowing, population growth).  We also need to recognize that, despite its many problems, the high-tech global economy does provide us with an astonishing array of remarkably low-cost goods and services that, in so many ways, make our lives better. Finally, as we continue to fight over so many things, we should take a moment to appreciate the fact that we have the right to do so – a right that is conspicuously lacking in so many less democratic societies).

Beyond this, there is a critical need to improve the process through which political stories are selected for inclusion in our individual daily "newsfeeds" either by the editors of various print and broadcast publications, or the algorithms used by social media and other news aggregators that determine what stories we see.  At a societal level, pretty much everything we know about political issues comes to us through these newsfeeds. Unfortunately, the structure of high-tech information systems and their financial incentives encourage the media to play to our psychological biases — biases that encourage the us-vs-them thinking that is at the core of so many of our problems. This, too, is an area where concrete problem-solving is much needed.


As was clear from the theory discussion and, we hope, this brief essay, there are a great many areas in which efforts to build a stronger and more resilient democracy are critically needed. Our hope is that the philanthropic community (and individual donors), as well as the many other individuals in the actor community who are willing to take up the cause, will find an area within the broad list of problems outlined above to focus their efforts. They will then need to take the time to develop the in-depth expertise needed to be effective. Our further hope is that those in the theory community will increasingly focus on ways in which their work can more directly support the many actors (including philanthropists) who are trying to help strengthen democracy. 


1  These included Newsletter 126: Social Justice Advocacy, Bridge-Building and Philanthropy: How Do These Intersect? and Newsletter 127: Rachel Kleinfeld and Shamil Idriss on Polarization, Philanthropic Plurality, Social Justice, and Democracy.

2  These included, among others,   On Oppression, Justice, Advocacy, Neutrality, and Peacebuilding -- Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Newsletters 53, 54, and 55), Newsletter 56, Additional Perspectives on Oppression, Justice, Advocacy, Neutrality, and Peacebuilding, Newsletter 60: How Do We Get What We Want and Need? Through Polarization or Bridge-building, Reframing, and "Omni-Win" Approaches? 

3  When Heidi taught juniors and seniors at the University of Colorado, many did not really understand the difference between an elected president and a king.  They didn't understand why the president couldn't do anything that he wanted, being seemingly unaware of the limitations posed by the legislative and judicial branches of government. 


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