The Soul of Democracy Isn't in Politics



Democracies flourish when large numbers of citizens have the capacity to shape civic life. Social entrepreneurship is a process that allows citizens to do just that.


To the degree that a significant percentage of the population - not just a few appointed oligarchs or elected elites - are engaged in leadership efforts to address problems, and to the extent that they know how to be effective in creating change, they will feel more confident and powerful as citizens, and the society will be more adaptive, creative, and resilient.


Democracy is a process of continual adaptation. Citizens experiment in the building of solutions and institutions to meet their needs at different moments in history.


Abraham Lincoln saw the evolution of the nation as an iterative process, with each new generation standing on the shoulders of the one before it, striving to bring society a little closer to its founding ideals of freedom and equality.


Social entrepreneurship sheds a light on how change happens and how societies renew themselves. It also adds a dimension to the study of democracy, expanding the role of citizenship beyond merely paying taxes and casting ballots. In the years ahead, more citizens will consider it natural to take the lead in creating solutions to systemic social problems.


Why Government Is Ineffective in Social Change


The changemaker faces a perpetual uphill climb, overcoming the apathy, habit, incomprehension, and disbelief of naysayers, while forging against the heated resistance of those with vested interests. Niccolo Machiavelli captured it brilliantly with his analysis on Change and Innovation in his 16th century political treatise, The Prince:


“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience in them.”


Given those challenges, it's no surprise why serious, systemic problems don't get solved more readily through politics or modern democracies.


Over the past few decades, social entrepreneurs around the globe have demonstrated that in pre-democratic contexts, or in fragile emerging democracies, their work builds the skills and aptitudes that ignite and reinforce citizen power. Each time an individual stands up and acts effectively to address a problem, others are emboldened to do the same. People first come to believe that change is possible, and then they learn how to advance change themselves.


A New Stage of Democracy


As the field of social entrepreneurship continues to expand, it may foreshadow a new stage in democracy - one animated by citizens who are actively involved in solving real problems. A thriving economy requires that many people build new businesses and serve them in different ways. An adaptive society requires that many people construct and collaborate on new solutions. Today we can see that real success demands more than just profit seeking; it also coordinates solution seeking, as change agents respond to new problems and new opportunities.


The social entrepreneur helps others to envision a new possibility, appreciate its meaning, and recognize how it can be broken down into doable steps that build momentum for positive social change.


A Return to Democracy's Founding Principles


What we don't have is the collective belief that with citizenship comes a responsibility to serve society. Beyond taxation to pay for the social safety net, we don't ask or expect citizens to assume responsibility for the well-being of anyone outside their immediate families.


It's worth asking how modern democracies have evolved - or perhaps devolved - to accept individualistic social norms that would erode into tribalistic societies, partisan politics, and myopic self-interest.


The Founding Fathers of the United States didn't just look after their own economic interests; they built institutions to realize their vision for a new nation. In doing so, they illustrated the power and responsibility of citizenship. Today, the example they set can be seen in contemporary form not in bureaucratic political institutions, but in the field of social entrepreneurship, with hands-on institution-building and problem solving emerging as a more common expression of citizenship.


A vision of vibrant citizenship is captured beautifully by John Gardner in his book Self-Renewal:


"Society is not like a machine that is created at some point in time, and then maintained with minimum effort. It is being continuously recreated, for good or ill, by its members. This will strike some as burdensome responsibility. But it will summon others to greatness.