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To Restore Democracy, Restore Civic Trust

by Dr. Brook Manville, Author, Consultant and regular contributor to

As part of SDI's "Foundations of Democracy" series, we are asking academics and thinkers from around the world what conditions they believe we need to have in place as a society to enable a meaningful and equal democracy. We asked Dr. Brook Manville the question: "What underlying societal norms and practices are necessary for a democracy to thrive? (e.g. what kinds of things do citizens just need to do, or aspire to, as a standard part of their culture on an everyday basis)."
Dr. Brook Manville
The U.S. presidency of Donald Trump was a living diorama of lessons about democracy’s most forgotten secret: that human systems of self-governance can be defined by tangible institutions and rules, but can’t operate (much less flourish) without intangible beliefs and behaviors shared by the people for whom the system exists: its citizens. Mr. Trump’s tenure was a virtual catalogue of intangibles whose abuse can quickly erode the civic life on which democracy depends.

What, in fact, are the beliefs and behaviors to be found in such a catalogue? Thinking through the social and psychological complexity of how millions of people can govern themselves will quickly overwhelm you. But one concept always rises to the top of any list: trust. To survive and thrive, democracy must run on trust.

You’re likely nodding “yes,” but now take it another level: what’s the actual meaning and nature of this trust? The problem with this all-salving word is that it soothes while just hanging in space: it’s-feel-good, ambiguous, and nobody doubts we need more of it. But let’s press for the so-what a little harder.
Say the word trust, and most people quickly imagine “trusting someone else, and expecting them to trust you.” The concept is most easily connected to people, e.g., “for democracy to work, political parties need to trust one another.” Or the citizens “need to trust their elected officials.” And they “need to trust the citizens who elected them.” But if we want trust to be something meaningful and actionable, we need to get more specific about the “what,” and not just the “who.”

Defining who needs to trust whom in a democracy is easy enough. The harder part is defining what that trust must be about, and what it must achieve for the overall system to work. For that question, let me offer a simple framework: trust exists and enables democracy when citizens (whether individually or in groups, vis-à-vis other individuals or groups): 1) share certain normative beliefs, that is, hold concepts and ideas in their minds about how their democracy should function “in real life”; and 2) then consistently make decisions and take action guided by those beliefs.

So, what then are the critical shared beliefs and corresponding decisions and actions that enable democracy to flourish? Once again, there’s a pretty long list of candidates. But here are six suggestions to help ground the trust you might expect of your fellow citizens: the belief you want to be shared, and the subsequent actions you hope will follow. And of course, if this trust is to work, you’ll be signing up for the same six too:

1. Common good: that there is some roughly definable set of public goods and purpose that makes the cost and trouble of our self-governance worthwhile, even if we can’t always agree exactly what that is. But we share enough understanding to prioritize our decisions and actions to support it; and when we disagree, we debate and learn from each other to find enough common ground to keep working for some shared understanding.

2. Participation: that as citizens we will, in some way or other, do our best to contribute to self-governance and the stewardship of the public good—e.g., by paying taxes, volunteering, voting, adding to public debate, and rising to the defense of our state when needed

3. Assuming civic good intentions: that, though all humans have personal needs and desires, we give fellow citizens the benefit of the doubt that their motives appropriately prioritize the common good, just as we do. And that their different perspectives need to be heard and considered, just as we expect ours to be.

4. Merit: that as citizens we strive for excellence as a standard, and make decisions based on objective facts, demonstrated results, and constructive debate—not ideological beliefs, unscientific superstition, or partisan prejudices.

5. Closure: that though we will often disagree about policy, elections, and other issues of public life, once we have reached a fair and lawful decision, all of us as citizens will support that.

6. Politics instead of violence—that, as citizens, we respect each other’s differences, and the democratic process by which we make decisions; and that we abjure anyone using force and violence in that process.
Brook Manville is Principle of Philip Brook Manville, a consultancy focused on business strategy, organizational & executive development, and historical research. Brook's clients have been major foundations, non-profit organizations, and network-style membership enterprises ( Previously a partner at McKinsey & Company, Brook has also held senior executive positions at United Way of America, Saba Software, and CBS Inc. He writes regularly for and other online publications. His recent books include the Harvard Business Review Leader's Handbook (co-authored with Ron Ashkenas); Judgment Calls: 12 Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right (co-authored with Thomas Davenport); and A Company of Citizens. What the World's First Democracy Teaches Leaders About Creating Great Organizations (co-authored with Josh Ober). Brook is currently collaborating again with Josh Ober on a new book The Civic Bargain: Reinventing Democracy, forthcoming from Princeton University Press.


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