No matter how many people we encounter, the human mind is capable of finding neat categories that they can be organized into. It is so common as to seem like human nature. For example, surveys routinely divide people into sex, race, class, profession and by our shopping, ideological and sexual preferences. Like with many whose minds compulsively create patterns, mine, too, tends to fit people, phenomena, and experiences into quasi-logical clusters. I confess that I find much pleasure in identifying patterns and categories that help me make sense of our complex world. I then inhabit this world with people who play the roles that, in turn, help to create and maintain those patterns and categories. These roles become my archetypes. At best, this propensity helps me make sense of the infinite complexity around me and, at worst, I am guilty of over simplification.
Now that I have confessed to this unfortunate tendency to generalize about complex people and their many layered motivations, I will now explain my altogether simple system to make sense of the ecosystem within which democratic societies exist. Most citizens in democratic countries can be said to either exist, or in time fall into, reasonably distinct (but sometimes overlapping) roles or archetypes. I present them here not to condemn by labelling, but because it is important to recognize the various roles people play in keeping the system together. Also, if we are to create strong and healthy democracies, we need to appreciate the value of positive behaviors and be wary of the dangers of some collective behaviors. Needless to say, one can inhabit, fully or partially, more than one of these categories at a given time.
The role of the citizen in a democracy has been much neglected. Much of the attention devoted to democracy has been focused on its institutions and leaders. Considerably less attention has been invested in studying the nature and character of a citizenry, except in terms of their voting habits and practices. Viewing citizens primarily as voters (or protesters) diminishes their role from key stakeholder to campaign cheerleader.
Moreover, in viewing democracy primarily as a system of laws, institutions and governing mechanisms, we neglect the role played by society and culture – both are products of a people, their history, values, aspirations, fears, inadequacies and capriciousness.
Democracy is a system of government that is as dependent upon the quality of the citizenry as much as its institutions and leaders. The relative education, commitment and values of the citizens determines the robustness of the government as well as the sustainability of the system. So much depends upon the people behind the institutions.
My rough system of archetypes seeks to identify the quality and nature of the citizens in a democracy by examining their explicit and implicit beliefs, behaviors and emotional propensities. By examining closely the people in a democratic society, we are better able to understand the nature and the challenges that they pose to the system of government. This is particularly important because, unlike in autocratic systems, in a democracy it is the people and not just leaders or institutions that determine the effectiveness and viability of the system and the state.
Belief: The most amazing, magnificent and astounding invention since sliced bread! Democracy is the perfect system of political order and the arc of history will always bend towards justice and progress.
Behavior: Tends to promote democracy as universally applicable. Tends to attribute problems in a democracy to ineffective implementation, corruption and conspiracies rather than acknowledging incompatibility with a people’s values, culture or the behavior of citizens.
Primary Emotions: Swinging between HOPE and DESPAIR.
Challenge: Their unflagging belief that democracy is the universally best system leads them to disregard serious cultural differences around ideas such as individual freedom, collectivism, equality, fairness, duty and obedience that often prevents democracy from taking root in some societies. It also makes it more likely that the Believer will see value in bringing democracy to society regardless of its maturity or development.
Belief: If I cannot see it, touch it or spend it- it it ain’t there!
Tends to believe that idealism is a luxury afforded only to those touched by good fortune, untouched by harsh experience or, even worse, unhampered by reality. Believes that reality is what they can see and touch- their health, children, education, careers and retirement accounts.
Behavior: Tends to judge success of a democracy mostly through the lens of economics and law and order, not as much in terms of liberty, rights or freedom (except for freedom of the market). Democracy and values tend to be seen as nebulous and large issues that one has no control over. Willing to help saving the world- if there is business or career advantage to doing so!
Primary Emotions: CONTENTMENT (in good times) turning easily to DISTRUST and ANGER when their world falls apart. Their Competitiveness is accompanied by AGGRESSION, which is accompanied by DEFENSIVENESS when questioned of their choices or priorities.
Challenge: It is difficult to get them to care much about anything that might threaten their career prospects or personal resources- without a clear ROI (Return On Investment). They can also have trouble standing up for abstract ideas such as human rights and mistake their own personal comfort for universal wellbeing.
Belief: Yeah right, be my guest, waste your time!
The system is so corrupt and beyond repair that nothing anyone does will make a difference.
Behavior: Tends to refrain from action unless guaranteed of results. They also tend to be deeply stuck in their own beliefs and unwilling to accept any new information or ideas that might force them to change their minds.
Primary Emotion: HOPELESSNESS masked as SMUGNESS.
Challenge: Their contempt for incremental change can infect those who are interested in action and their presence in teams can hold up decision making even at early stages.
Belief: Bring down that dirty rotten system, comrades!
Even more than the Cynic, the Anarchist sees the entire existing political, economic and social edifice as unjust, unequal and undemocratic. Persuaded that rules are inherently oppressive they believe that only total revolution that destroys everything (except, presumably, their own selves, friends and family) can give birth to a truly just society.
Behavior: Tends to selectively marshal ‘facts’ and ‘theories’ that can justify total and complete revolution. Particularly fascinated by the redemptive power of violence as ‘propaganda by deed’.
Primary Emotions: HOPELESSNESS masked as SNEERING (sometimes paraded as ANGER).
Challenge: Holding out for radical change they reject negotiation as compromise, play spoiler and almost always risk escalating the conflict. The Anarchist is also unlikely to be a constructive partner to those seriously engaged in political or societal reform.
The Social Justice Warriors
Belief: If even one suffers, the whole world is guilty- and must pay!
Believes in the possibility of creating a perfectly ordered world where complete equality and justice can and should prevail. They are persuaded that the world is divided into two groups: the victims and the oppressors. Their favorite whipping boys are white men and the evil patriarchy.
Behavior: Tends to be aggressive in advocacy of their own group’s (gender, racial minority, or sexual orientation) rights and not as concerned or committed to the health of the larger political system. Tends to judge the success of a democracy mostly in terms of its success in ensuring that all ‘victim’ groups have the same privileges and resources that the ‘oppressor’ has. Tends to be stubborn about their own beliefs and unwilling to accept new information or ideas that might force them to change their minds. Given how righteous their cause is, they find it easy to silence or condemn anyone who might disagree with them.
Primary Emotion: ANGER and RIGHTEOUSNESS (usually conjoined through fire and brimstone).
Challenge: Their single focus makes them excellent partners for other angry activists seeking passionate and tactical support. Their inability to compromise makes it difficult for them to make allies with those who create significant but incremental change. Their righteous anger makes it difficult to communicate or engage with them unless you are willing to agree with them completely.
The Culturally Threatened
Belief: Our victimhood is superior to your oppression Their own traditional ‘way of life’ is under threat and they are being oppressed in their own homeland. All who are unlike them, who look, behave and think differently are aliens, enemies and an existential threat’.
Behavior: Tends to be most protective about their culture and way of life. They are resistant to change and see negotiation (let alone accommodation) on vital issues as cultural and civilizational suicide. Tends to marginalize themselves even further but can often create allies with other similarly vulnerable and angry groups.
Primary Emotion: FEAR, HURT and HUMILIATION finally contributing to ANGER.
Challenge: Their memory of real or imagined betrayal creates so much anger and distrust of others that it makes it harder to bring them to the table.
The Free Marketers
Belief: God is in the Market and all is well with the Consumers
Democratic freedom equals market freedom. Governments are the enemy of freedom and, in any case, are inherently inefficient.
Behavior: Tends to view government services and regulation as being at the expense of the free market and the entrepreneur, vehemently opposed to regulating businesses and tends to see those who fail to thrive within the system as objects of charity or, even, lazy and morally deficient.
Primary Emotion: SATISFACTION and COMPLACENCY in economic good times. IMPATIENCE about speed of deregulation and tendency to move to ANGER when things don’t work the way they want it to.
Challenge: They tend to discount the democratic process as slow, messy, and inefficient. They can also be easily swayed by autocrats who promise deregulation, higher stock prices, profitability, and efficient government.
Belief: No need to overreact- all will be well, once again
Democracy is good but everything is cyclical. We have seen this disruption before. What goes up will come down….. and in time will go up again.
Behavior: Focuses on self, career, and family. Can pursue esoteric and eclectic interests even as the political structure is crumbling. Rejects calls to contribute at a public or civic level as unnecessary, reactive, immature or unevolved.
Primary Emotion: CONFIDENCE- tending to be relaxed and seeing no reason to get all worked up. Until their own thriving and security are threatened. Then it becomes INSECURITY and FEAR.
Challenge: Sees enthusiasm that leads to action as a sign of reactivity, immaturity and hence is unlikely to act even to preempt possible danger. Their coolness, easily viewed as ‘maturity’, can sway many and prevent vital planning and action.
The Time Constrained
Belief: Make time for a political meeting- are you kidding me????
Democracy is a good thing, but personal and professional survival takes up all my time. Serious activism is for professionals and politicians. In any case, things can’t be too bad, we still have elections, don’t we?
Behavior: Will be intellectually supportive of other folks acting. Can at best have time only for Facebook or Twitter activism. Can also be superficially savvy and deeply ignorant of issues because they have not kept up with their learning.
Primary Emotion: STRESS, ANXIETY and DEFENSIVENESS when called on to participate.
Challenge: Being genuinely strapped for time, the biggest challenge is motivating them to carve out time to save their freedoms and rights. The bigger problem is that they may not understand the issue of citizen participation in democracy as well as they might imagine.
Belief: Things are terrible and getting worse
Democracy is always at risk and things will, very soon, get very worse,
Behavior: Tends to be, always, looking for signs that democracy is breaking down. Sees dark clouds framing silver linings and warns everyone about them.
Primary Emotion: VULNERABILITY, INSECURITY and finally FEAR about losing freedom and rights.
Challenge: Being able to feel HOPE as an emotion. Finding it difficult to accept the complacency (and ignorance) of those who do not share their concerns.
The ‘Empowered’ Consumer
Belief: If the price is right, I’ll take two!
Democracy is a political system designed to deliver services. If it fails to do so we should seek other forms of government that can better deliver – or privatize it.
Behavior: Tends to be not just empowered but also feels entitled to ‘contracted’ or even ‘deserved’ services. Tends to be very critical about less than perfect results and aggressive about inefficiencies and corruption. Also, tends to be not as concerned about the health of the larger political system as they are about specific services.
Primary Emotions: ENTHUSIASM for quality services and ANGER at not being adequately served and the system having failed ‘good’ consumers.
Challenge: Helping them recognize that sustainability of results and outcomes depends on the health of the system or the process. That efficient delivery can come with huge social and personal costs.
Again, these archetypes are broad and general. You may encounter some of these and not others. Regardless, most discussions around the state of our democracy will surface many of these beliefs and behaviors. This should, at the very least, raise a few questions:
- Would you, for a well-paying job, move your family to the UAE or China for ten years?
- For the sake of financial wellbeing would you give up your democratic citizenship?
- If you once moved to a non-democratic country, what did you miss about your democratic country of origin?
- Is there any freedoms or right that you missed most?
- What do you most dislike about living in a democracy?
- Would you prefer to live in a poor democracy or a wealthy non-democratic society?
- What would you be willing to invest to protect your freedom and rights in a democracy? Higher taxes, time or energy?
- At what point would it no longer be worthwhile to invest any further in your own democracy?
- Does being a citizen or resident of a democracy come with specific expectations?
How we, the citizens of democratic societies, respond to these questions will determine what we invest in our democracy, what shape it takes, and how long it survives. Many tend to see citizenship as a transactional relationship, similar to the relationship between the consumer and the business where the citizen pays taxes in return for a functioning domestic infrastructure, a strong economy and the maintenance of law and order. Externally they receive guarantee of strong borders, favorable trade terms, security from foreign aggression and a sense of national pride. This consumer- business provider system is only marginally more empowering than the historically common place autocratic systems where the relationship is paternalistic, between unequals.
My worry is that in most democracies today, including the USA, UK, India and Turkey, a significant majority seems unaware that they are required to invest in a democratic political system that treats them as responsible adults. Instead they delegate to professional politicians, bureaucrats, activists and business folk the arduous task of keeping their political system afloat.
This has huge implications for all of our freedoms and rights. If we are ignorant about the nature of democracy, the higher responsibilities of citizenship and the vast knowledge and maturity required from citizens, we can be unwittingly complicit in allowing our unique experiment in responsible self-government (in other words, adult living) to wither away.
Whether it be in individuals, groups or nations, freedom and liberty are meaningless if there are no boundaries. It is only when they are combined with creativity, intelligence and hard work that they result in works of genius (worthy of Homo Sapiens).