Problems Behind the Problems

The Problems Behind the Problems

We probe underneath obvious problems to find the deeper causes, or "problems behind the problems," that prevent democracy from working as it should.

Citizens are sidelined—they aren’t always engaged in politics. Maybe the political system has sidelined them by gerrymandering their voting precincts. Or maybe they’ve sidelined themselves because they don’t think they can make a difference.

A second problem comes on the heels of the first: the political system is polarized. Issues are framed in ways that promote divisiveness. Not all options for solving a problem are considered.

The result is a dearth of deliberative reasoning and decision making. Citizens may be involved but tend to make poor decisions: people often react hastily without reaching shared or reflective judgment.

Communities face daunting problems that can only be solved if citizens work together to produce things that counter them. People disagree about what to do, which prevents them from joining forces. Traditional routines for solving problems may also limit the role citizens play.

Another problem is that citizens think they don’t have the necessary resources to act. Yet institutions can’t do their jobs as well as they should without the benefit of citizen action, which can complement the work of institutions.

When citizens do act, they often don’t have a shared sense of purpose. Citizen efforts can go in so many different directions that they aren’t effective. Institutional attempts to organize them can backfire by draining away the vital energy that people bring.

The mutual distrust between citizens and most major institutions has been quite acute for decades. Citizens see institutions as unresponsive as well as ineffective, and institutions doubt that citizens are responsible and capable.