Monday, February 12, 2024

Questions, Engagement, and Democratic Institutions

Here is my question:  what is the relationship between our ability to ask good questions as a culture, our capacity for self-governance, and our democratic institutions? 

At the Right Question Institute (RQI), we know that when we formulate questions about anything, we organize our thinking about what we do not know.  That deceptively simple, self-conscious act of naming what you want to know is what creates an engaged learner, a curious individual. We believe that, though it’s been long neglected, it’s a fundamental critical thinking skill, as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.

Furthermore, in the course of three decades, we’ve discovered that asking good questions is not just an ability some people are born with but an innate potential that we all have.  And even more importantly, we’ve learned how to model, teach, facilitate, develop and strengthen that innate capacity. In an open society, it’s a good thing: better questions make us all better critical thinkers and more engaged, lifelong learners. And the more we learn, the better our questions become.


This is not just an abstract or “academic” matter; we’ve also discovered that when we formulate questions about decisions that affect us –  decisions that are made in our communities, in our businesses and in our government – we become engaged as citizens in our republic.  We’ve simplified and streamlined this process so thousands of partners and even beginners can teach it, encouraging and supporting its everyday use. In spreading this seemingly simple question formulation skill in conjunction with our focus on decisions, we are, in fact, building capacity for democratic action at scale, creating a political resource that all of our democratic institutions depend on: engaged citizens.  

Unlike other forms of government and social organization, democracy REQUIRES widespread critical thinking and civic engagement.  In fact, that capacity to ask critical questions becomes a form of cultural and cognitive infrastructure both fostered by and required by democracies. Without engaged citizenry, history has shown us how democracies decline, eventually succumbing to the non-democratic or anti-democratic forces and interests that inevitably arise and align against it.

In the remainder of this document, we use System Dynamics (SD) to understand this reciprocal relationship between capacity for democratic engagement – a characteristic of a population – and the democratic institutions required for self-government.  And finally, we consider how spreading the skill of question formulation and focus on decisions can help stimulate engagement and fortify our democratic institutions.

This is a virtuous cycle: a self-reinforcing or “positive feedback loop” of the “good” kind.  

In System Dynamics graphical technique this is called a “causal loop diagram.”  The arrows represent causes and effects between one “entity” or “thing” or “node” and another.  Notice the direction of the cause/effect and the ‘+’ signs above on each cause and effect relationship.  Read the diagram as follows:  The greater our capacity for democratic engagement, the more democratic participation, and the stronger are our institutions.  Also, the stronger our democracy – through positive experiences, trust, and regular opportunities to model, learn and practice these skills – the more we increase our capacity for democratic engagement and self-government at every level. The ‘+’ signs in both relationships are used to indicate that increased capacity and institutional strength are self-reinforcing, moving each other in the same direction. 


Unfortunately, the absence of this capacity and weakness in public, democratic institutions can also drive decline.  We can think of this as a self-reinforcing or positive feedback loop of the “bad” kind:  a vicious cycle.  A decline in our public institutions produces negative experiences (or the absence of experiences) which in turn decrease trust and diminish our social and cultural capacity for engagement.  That’s why the relationships in both diagrams are annotated with ‘+’ indicators:  all of these forces are moving in the same “bad” direction.

Clearly, there are other factors which directly diminish or undermine both our democratic institutions and our capacity for democratic engagement. For now, I have modeled these social, economic and cultural factors in our system but as being independent of or external to the vicious cycle itself.  Think of them as context for the moment.


(In fact, as we shall soon see, these independent forces can also be modeled as forces which are part of the feedback loop. But for now, suffice to say that the decline in our capacity for democratic engagement is caused by both contextual factors and the decline in our democratic institutions themselves.  Obviously, this is very complicated.  There are many other external or exogenous forces that are not shown, some of which directly strengthen our capacity for self-government and our institutions.  We’ll get to that at the end of this essay.)

Although these two loops appear to be distinct and opposing loops – both virtuous and vicious cycles – they are really two sides of a single coin.  In order to think of this as a single system, let’s model our capacity for democratic engagement as a neutral, political and cognitive reservoir that can be either augmented OR diminished, for example.  And can we think of the strength of our democratic institutions in the same way: in fact, they can become stronger OR weaker in our system. Then we can also neutralize the relationships between them and combine these loops into a single system.  


Notice how changes in both capacity or strength, and experience and participation can be “virtuous” or “vicious”;  however, in either case, whether they are “good” or “bad”, they both positively reinforce the cycle – moving them both capacity and strength in the same directions – and are thus indicated with a ‘+’.  

In this way, positive feedback loops (of the both the “good” and “bad” kind) can drive the system in either direction:

  • diminished capacity for democratic engagement diminishes strength of our institutions; 
  • diminished strength of our institutions diminishes capacity for democratic engagement;  
  • increased capacity for democratic engagement increases strength of our institutions; 
  • increased strength of our institutions increases capacity for democratic engagement.

You can see that this is an unstable system.  Negative trends will reinforce one another as will positive ones.  How can we understand these opposing forces?  Once things get started in one direction or the other, how can things change?

How can contextual forces influence which ones come to dominate?  What about external forces that are not modeled at all, so called “exogenous” forces?

In the next diagram we have added the two contextual anti-democratic forces we considered before back into the system.  However, this time we can show how those forces which diminish capacity or strength move in opposite directions.  In other words, as these anti-democratic forces increase, the reservoirs of institutional strength and capacity are diminished.  Furthermore, as the strength of democratic institutions wane and they cannot defend themselves, those forces organized to attack or diminish them actually become more effective and grow!  Also, weaker institutions can contribute to social and economic factors that diminish our capacity for self-government such as poverty, poor health, overwork, low pay, substance abuse, poor housing, poor education, crime, violence, apathy, inattention, and cynicism, to name a few.  Because each of these cause/effect relationships move in opposite directions, they are indicated with a ‘-’ sign.

Notice that the inversion indicated by the ‘-’ sign appears on both sides of these anti-democratic forces.  Because the direction of change is reversed twice, it is still self-reinforcing.  Both of these are examples of positive feedback of both the “good” and “bad” kind.  The more democratic the system is, the weaker those anti-democratic forces become.  And the stronger those anti-democratic forces are, the weaker our democracy becomes.

Now that virtuous cycle and vicious cycle are part of the same feedback loop and we can clearly see how anti-democratic interests, if they are not countered, might overwhelm the virtuous cycle!  

Before we go any farther, in Diagram 7 below let’s consider negative or balancing feedback in the form of reform movements in general.  As the strength of our democratic institutions wanes, democratic renewal and reform movements are energized and grow.  This effect is tagged with a ‘-’ sign indicating that trends are reversed in the relationship.  The weaker our institutions the more pressure is exerted on our reform movements.  


Meanwhile, as these movements grow, our institutions are also strengthened.  This effect is tagged with a ‘+’ sign indicating that these changes move in the same direction.  However, as we begin to experience more effective and fair engagement with our institutions – indicated with a ‘-’ sign – the impetus for reform movements are diminished, movement in the opposite direction.

Together, this produces balancing feedback (at least in a healthy society). As movements succeed and institutions are strengthened, reform movements lose purpose and become weaker. In other words, the purpose of a reform movement is to strengthen or improve institutions. The purpose of institutions is to preserve and protect the gains of past movements.  Together these balancing feedback cycles produce cycles of progress and regression as well as hope and despair in our democratic experiment.  But as Rev. Martin Luther King and inspiration of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s once said, “We shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.

(Recall how competing virtuous and vicious cycles in a positive feedback loop can drive a chaotic and unstable system.  Without balancing feedback and the possibility of reform, less healthy societies experience greater corruption, decline, civil unrest, and even civil war or revolution.)

Remember the point about better questions and the work of RQI from above?  At last we’re ready to put it all together, including the effect of RQI and our strategy to build capacity for democratic engagement by teaching the skill of question formulation and our focus on decisions.  Notice how RQI and many of our partners are engaged in social services, civics education, and building the capacity of democratic engagement at every level.  And this is the basis for seeking financial and operational support from non-partisan, renewal and reform movements.


The question of our time is, of course, which cycle will dominate? And just how destructive can the vicious cycle become without inflicting lasting damage on our democratic institutions?

Obviously, the outcome is unknowable.  But we at RQI believe that our workshops and training can help millions of individuals develop the skills they need to build capacity and drive the system in a positive direction.  And as far as we know, we are the ONLY organization using highly distributed, low-cost, and powerful tools to improve EVERY CITIZEN’S ability to produce and improve their own questions.

Read more about our work and donate here.


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