Gardens of Democracy: A Review
January 2015
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Peter Bearse, Ph.D.



A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government


GARDENS of DEMOCRACY is almost four years old but it is, like my own books on the subject,[i] still very timely. Why? – Because the ailments that affect our democratic republic are still with us, still unaddressed by our Congress or the 2014 elections. Because the potentials of a more democratic system remain to be realized. Because the fate of our great American democratic experiment is at stake.


I am a gardener; so I love the “gardens” metaphor and how it enriches the book. Gardens of plants need tender loving care; so do the gardens of democracy. Lack of attention to the tending is devastating. Plants wither and die; so can a democracy. A garden thrives within a frame (a set of borders); a republic is a frame for a democracy. The former is physical; the latter, a set of ideas as set forth, for example, in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The book is primarily devoted to examining and redefining the ideas upon which our democratic republic was founded. Ideas are like “seeds.” As introduced in Chapter I:


“The failure of American politics is not just a failure of will or nerve; it is equally a failure of ideas and understanding.” And so the book aims to “offer a new way” by rethinking “how we as citizens create change.”


The ideas offered as “new”, however, have been floating around for at least a generation even though they're much younger than the “old” set. Thus, a question arises immediately: Why should we entertain any realistic hope that the “new” set can replace the “old” when they have been gained so little currency to do so thusfar. Unfortunately, this question, which has to do with the identification of factors inhibiting or encouraging the spread of new ideas, is not one sufficiently addressed by the book. It is somewhat wished away with phrases such as:


            “people construct a social reality...frames are not fixed...Every so often, the idea shifts             radically...We are in the midst of such a shift right now.”


The question still stands along with questions implied by the above. Who's doing the “construct” How are the new ideas spreading? Most important for a democracy: To what extent have they entered the political arena with any palpable influence or impact? It's not obvious, as the authors’ state, that “those who define the metaphors define the terms of politics” [unless, perhaps, they're the stuff of heavy TV advertising paid for by big money]. In terms of the latter, the influence of new metaphors is hardly apparent. 


The new set is drawn from systems dynamics, cybernetics, biology, ecology and behavioral economics.  In a nutshell, the “new” ideas characterize a “complex adaptive system” that is open, dis-equilibrium-dynamic, highly interactive, ecological and interrelational, based on relationships that are social, reciprocal and emotional, not simply calculating and rational. The features are contrasted with a relatively closed, equilibrating system of calculating, atomistically individualistic, competitive relationships. The first set is labeled the source of “Gardenbrain;” the second, “Machinebrain.” These are further characterized as follows:


            “Machine brain sees the world and democracy as a series of mechanisms...(it) treats people as cogs:     votes to be collected by political an      entertwined set of ecosystems...sees     people as interdependent creators of a dynamic world...Gardenbrain changes everything.”[ii] The picture    on page 13 of the book shows the contrast neatly:[iii] 




The authors then go on to use their “new” framework to redefine citizenship, economy, government, wealth and capitalism. The first three are viewed as “the three gardens of democracy.” Unfortunately, their enthusiasm for what others may see as “the new new thing” fast outpaces political reality. There is no attempt to connect rights with responsibilities. A new “standard for citizenship” is euphorically seen as arising from “behavior (that) inescapably (!) creates feedback loops that contagiously (!) shape society...Powerful new metaphors” generate a new economy that is both more competitive and more fair – without a notion of economic justice and what it means. [Parenthetical exclamation points are mine.]


As for the 3rd major category, government, the “aim to reboot a conversation on the actual civic meaning of self-government” raises a question that needs to be asked and answered by all potential political gardener-readers with respect to all three categories:  On the basis of what kind of politics? But for a set of major policy recommendations near the end of the book, politics does not figure. Nor does power: That which would need to be brought to bear to see the recommendations realized. The lack of attention to power in the book is surprising, especially since co-author Liu has been devoting a great deal of attention to it in and through his “Citizen University” [CU]. CU is focused on “teaching the art of powerful citizenship.” He believes that “ordinary people need to understand power.” Because their political “ignorance” is both a “cause and consequence of the concentration of power” that we see in Washington, D.C. and in a “political class” to whom we have “subcontracted” what should be OUR politics, the politics of “We the People.”


The real challenge is how we can break the vicious cycle that these factors have generated; specifically – The widespread attitude towards politics: “Let someone else do it”, aggravated by and aggravating in turn: “We don't know how.” For all their devotion to “system dynamics,” the authors don't seem to fully appreciate how deeply rooted this cycle has become. Their nostrum is to believe that if a few citizens start to “behave” like responsible adults – to get politically involved -- their brothers and sisters will wake up with a “Wow” and leap to join them. As an activist who has spent a lifetime trying every angle – to urge, inspire, cajole, embarrass, nudge and nag fellow citizens to “get involved” – and left feeling frustrated at how few respond, I have reason to doubt such optimism. Did you note the adjective “responsible” before “adult”? Unfortunately, “responsibility” doesn't figure in the book's discussion of “Great Citizenship” [Chapter III]. Shouldn't it? Doesn't every right connote a corresponding responsibility? Isn't there a real danger our rights may diminish or be taken from us if we fail to exercise the interwoven responsibility?[iv]


The fact that Hanauer and Liu look to successful social-democratic societies in Europe as role models raises a whole other set of concerns. Their book doesn't recognize “American Exceptionalism.”[v] It's far more than just an ideological rationale for what the authors refer to as “hyper-individualism”. It's real, deeply rooted in American history and our founding documents. The U.S.A. is the only nation in the world that is founded on the basis of an idea: That “We the People” can build a society in which every individual is equal before the law and has an equal opportunity to fulfill his or her unique set of potentials.


A key behavioral feature in this regard is voluntarism of individual choice. According to Fischer,[vi] voluntarism is the major characteristic distinguishing the USA from its European peers.   Yet, it is not one that supports the overwrought contrast that Hanauer and Liu try to draw – between individualism and social-ism.[vii] Why? – Because from Tocqueville on, we Americans have been seen as a nation of joiners – of associations, clubs, and groups of all sorts. So, instead of  Americans’ sociability or willingness to work with others towards shared goals, the authors would have done better to conceive a democratic process to define public purpose or the apocryphal “common good” in a country that is also the most diverse polity in the world. Ironically, however, they have fallen in the same trap that libertarian supporters of a free market economy have fallen into: Resting their case on communitarian theory rather than political facts. Indeed, free markets, like freedom, are not free, as Hanauer and Liu acknowledge. Gardens of any sort require close attention, as one part of a larger ecological system, and careful tending, as users of a larger commons.


The major impediment to realizing both the beauty and power of the American political community as a garden of democracy is lack of participation by the great American majority in “tending” what should be but is not yet, THEIR garden. Most Americans have divested themselves of ownership of their own political system. To pretend that a different behavior will go viral starting with a few good examples is quite naive. I grew up, politically, under the tutelage of several good examples over a generation ago. I featured many of them in my first book. Neither the book nor the good examples served to spread their fine behavior. It appears to me, as someone who follows politics and political writings carefully, that in even though it has been four years since release of “Gardens of” and seven years since the release of its predecessor, THE TRUE PATRIOT, their ideas have not had any substantial influence, even on those “usual suspects” – those already politically active {and both books were best sellers!}. 


Thus, Hanauer & Liu need to take a step back and ask why. To his credit, Liu is at least on the right track with his Citizens University, focusing on lack-of-knowledge impediments to empowering “We the People.” Hanauer is himself doing God's work at the most risky edge of a chaotic system -- funding new technology-based enterprises. One must also ask, however: Why do so many Americans believe that education and/or technology can solve virtually any public problem? Why such fetishism?


A major part of the answer is not provided by the book. It is that most Americans have lost faith in themselves as members (gardeners) of a political community (garden). I dare say that most denigrate the role of politics in their lives. Again: Why?[viii] This is a question which requires a multifaceted answer. A major facet is the media. Broadcast and other media treatments of media have given politics a bad rap. The images are almost invariably negative. The authors neither acknowledge, nor do they discuss, this and other offsets to their optimism. I count myself, too, as an eternal, inveterate optimist. Yet, we all need to face the fact that the hurdles to be jumped here are more and higher than the authors seem to anticipate or appreciate. 


The garden metaphor is like a beautiful dream [or “theory,” as noted earlier]. Sooner or later, we must wake up and face facts on the ground in order to be able to renew and fulfill this and another, the American Dream, guided by the gardeners' vision. How? The five major recommendations offered under the title “Reclaiming Democracy” should be integral, high priority, political objectives in the platforms of at least one major party. Only one of these, however, “Reform the filibuster”, has figured in debates and votes in the Congress. I believe that the one headed “Reinvigorate voting” would be DOA {dead on arrival} if it were introduced in the Congress.[ix] It says that “Voting in the United States should be  mandatory”. This runs against the grain of our “voluntarism of choice” tradition.


Anyway, another question arises here: Have the authors ever sat down with any congressional leaders to present and discuss their proposals, or spoken to legislators gathered in conference of their party caucus or in congressional committees? After all, the major work on legislative proposals is done in committee. There is a great deal of work to be done to reform political parties and political systems, both more generally and more specifically.[x] For example, there is the problem of gridlock. The best solution – to allow either branch of Congress to call for new elections as in a parliamentary system – would require another CA. What about a new Constitutional Convention?  


One can only hope that the other recommendations put forth by the authors are at least paid serious attention by the 115th Congress, just seated. Is there any chance that the reforms required to “Restrict money in politics” would be enacted? The authors don't seem to recognize that:


  1. Campaign finance reform [CFR] had failed even before their book was published; and
  2. Any further, substantial progress in this direction calls for at least one Constitutional Amendment [CA].


Regarding the latter, Move to Amend has mobilized a grassroots movement that succeeded in getting resolutions passed in over 500 municipalities in 16 states in favor of a CA to get big money out of politics.[xi] But 16 is less than half of the 34 minimum required to call for a Convention of the States.


Nevertheless, Congress has to be the focus for any reform efforts. Why? Because Congress is the only leg of the three-legged stool of our federal republic that is commissioned to work with and for “We the People.”  As such, Congress needs to reform itself. Otherwise, “Government as gardener” is oxymoronic. Carl Domino (R, FL) urged during his 2014 run for Congress: “FIX CONGRESS FIRST!” Yet Congress has proven unable to reform itself. That is why A People's and Citizens' Congress [APaCC] is urging newly elected members to form a caucus in the 115th Congress dedicated to just that goal.[xii] Here again, we see the need to recognize that a better politics, including all the “deadly simple mechanics” thereof, is essential if we are to have any realistic chance to save our republic.

Political activists of over a generation ago, of which I was one, used to describe our activities as “laboring in the vineyards” of our democracy. This means having a handle on the deadly-simple mechanics of politics. The authors admirably suffer from what I have referred to elsewhere as “the politics of good intentions” (that which the road to hell is paved with). “Civics” is not politics. Indeed. As the authors recognize, we “need to reimagine – from the bottom up --  how we do democracy.” Yes, but we need to do this in terms of real-world politics-in-action, not just conceptually.


Notwithstanding the leftovers that would need to be added to its rich compost heap in order to help gestate a new politics,  GARDENS of DEMOCRACY is a first-rate book on new ways to think about our citizenship, economy and government. Then comes the challenge: How to create a better politics. For a better politics is prerequisite to better government, not to mention all the politics that goes on within government. Lots of politics-in-action will be needed to enact the sweeping recommendations for change on pp.151-152. How to get from here to there will depend on political processes, methods and techniques which are neither covered nor referred to in the book. 


Feedback and comments on this piece would be gratefully received and seriously considered by the author. Send to, or to him via P.O. Box 70, Danville, NH 03819. Better yet, start a comment thread through letters to the editor:


[i]     See Bearse, Peter (2004), WE THE PEOPLE: A Conservative Populism and two subsequent books on the same theme, all available through Amazon.

[ii]    This reminds me of another fine book, the one by Naomi Klein (2014) entitled THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING. The    “this” here is climate change. Both indicate a “fix is in” attitude that belies the broad-based, long-term struggle that substantial change requires.

[iii]   Illustration is shown as it appears in the book under review on page 13.

[iv]   Here, it is important to recognize that the authors' prior book, THE TRUE PATRIOT, had effectively redefined citizenship as a responsibility. Unfortunately, this book did not arrive until finishing touches were being put on this review. I had to obtain a copy via interlibrary loan. The two books should have been reviewed together. They are like twins who complement each other greatly.

[v]    Here again, the earlier book not only does so but does so in strong, stirring words on p. 31.

[vi]   Fischer, Claude S. (2015), “The American Volunteer Spirit: As a nation we celebrate individualism, but we're always ready to pitch in for a good cause,” SATURDAY EVENING POST (January/February).

[vii]  Not to be confused with the economic ideology called socialism. The dashed word connotes a social, collaborative or collective attitude or mindset.

[viii] This reminds me of a stock answer that my late mother came up with as a result of my pestering her with “why this; why that”: “Because Y has a long tail.”-- Very prescient; quite wise in ways she never knew.

[ix]    One of the authors' reasons for proposing mandatory voting [MV] is “so that representation of the people is a reality and not a fiction. It is doubtful, however, that MV would accomplish this goal. APaCC was established to help generate a Congress that would both truly represent and empower “We the People.” Representation is a matter of how Members of Congress vote on major bills – whether they vote as the majority of their constituents would like them to vote.

[x]   For more on political parties, see Edwards, Mickey (2012), PARTIES vs.THE PEOPLE: How to turn Democrats and Republicans into Americans. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[xi]    I was involved in my town of Danville. Our resolution was approved by the town's deliberative session and placed on the general election ballot, where it was approved by substantial majority. Over 50 other towns in NH did likewise. A strong state resolution was passed by the NH House, also by a substantial majority. When the resolution got a tie vote in the state's Senate, it was first watered down and then referred to a committee for study [a kiss of death]. Thus, in 2014, NH did not become the 17th state calling for a Constitutional Amendment to get big money out of politics. 2015?

[xii]   For the sake of journalistic transparency and intellectual honesty: The author of this review essay is also the Chairman of APaCC. Prior to the 2014 elections, the organization endorsed 24 candidates, of whom 10 were elected.