During the final fifteen minutes of the Clean Recovery Forum in Adelaide, the audience and panellists engaged in an important discussion about what citizens in a democracy need to do to get the outcomes society prefers. The classic line from Joseph de Maistre was mentioned, “every nation gets the government it deserves,” and then the discussion moved passed this frequently uncomfortable truth to consider how to get difficult things done. I write frequently uncomfortable here, because you have to be dissatisfied with the state of the world, the state of government, and the impact you are having on the world to identify and feel the negative connotations of de Maistre’s sharp little barb.

Clean Recovery Forum, University of Adelaide, January 28th, 2021 by Sustainable Prosperity:

By the end of the forum it was clear to me that a democracy like Australia can only achieve good outcomes in difficult times when (and if) its citizens understand what is going on, know what they want, collectively articulate what they want, support politicians to deliver what they want, and hold politicians accountable if they do not deliver what has been clearly articulated by a majority of citizens.

Unfortunately, democratic citizens have been making a consistent mistake across the world for decades, limiting the success of progressive politics: we have been referring to (and thinking of) our democratically elected politicians as leaders rather than as our elected representatives. Leaders are meant to have big ideas and big plans, which we can get behind and support to fruition. In contrast, at best, elected representatives reflect what the majority of the citizenry think and want on the day of a democratic election. If the majority of the citizenry think about wanting to maintain the best of yesterday, and don’t want to think about how today’s inaction will make tomorrow worse, then our elected representatives will speak about how much needs to be done, while doing very little of what is needed, as they have no mandate to do more than they are doing. Our elected representatives will not do anything new unless (and until) a majority of us make it clear that this is what we support and expect.

Our elected representatives can, of course, also be leaders, but most democratic nations do not have a good recent track record of supporting and electing representatives who are committed to implementing big ideas to improve the world.

Citizens who want to improve the world have supported progressive politics in democracy after democracy for decades, but not in the numbers necessary to make truly effective progressive politics and policies suitable for overcoming climate change, systemic unemployment, and rising inequality.

Lobbying current politicians has some value, so that they can come to appreciate what kind of future citizens are thinking about, but what really matters is changing the political landscape in which representatives are elected and represent us.

If we (the citizens) want change, then we have to change ourselves as well as what is politically probable. A majority of citizens need to understand what is going on, know what we want, collectively articulate what we want, support politicians to deliver what we want, and hold our elected representatives accountable if they do not deliver what has been clearly articulated by a majority of citizens. Successful progressive politics will require a majority of citizens to become politically aware and active, which will involve new people standing up with new ideas to be our elected representatives. If we don’t find and support these new people and ideas, then getting the government we deserve will continue to be an uncomfortable truth.

Each democratic citizen who wants to live in a better world has a role to play in improving the world. Even if you are not sure what your specific role is, be sure that you are responsible for playing a part.

In my case, I know what role I am prepared to play: I am very good at empowering people to work well in teams and to solve complex problems. I have spent years learning and refining how to do these things, but never with a clearly defined goal in mind. Historically, I would have said that my job is to empower people, but after the Clean Recovery Forum I am now prepared to say that my job is to empower people to improve the world. This may not seem like much of a change for you, if you are comfortable directing people to think about and do specific things, but, for me, preserving and fostering individuals’ agency is sacrosanct.

Like me, you may not be willing to lead a movement or to stand for election, but there is so much else that needs to be done to increase the probability of improving the world. As Ira Chaleff argues, we can all be Courageous Followers: we can serve a set of shared values, we can assume responsibility, we can support the leader and the group, we can question counter-productive policies, we can participate in transformation, and we can take moral action. If we do all of these things, and empower other people to do all of these things, then it is probable, rather than just possible, that we can improve the world.

Ira Chaleff – Tobias Center – The Courageous Follower Model (2009):

Criticising politicians for not being brave enough is easy, and saying that democratic institutions are too slow and outdated takes no effort at all, but neither statement will improve the world. If we want better outcomes, then we have to do brave things, and making whatever contribution we can to expanding the informed and active citizenry is the place to start. There need to be more politically aware and active citizens who support progressive policies, so that we can solve pressing problems. I am going to empower people to improve the world, and I encourage you to identify and play your own part in making a better future probable.

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