Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washngton

A Psychology for Democracy

A Presentation Given by Henry T. Stein, Ph.D.
At the 21st International Congress of Individual Psychology
August 6, 1999, Oak Brook, Illinois


This paper reflects my passionate interest in the ideas and character of five architects of democracy: Socrates, Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Abraham Maslow, and Alfred Adler, and their potential impact on American life.

In the United States, we live in a unique democratic political structure that held great promise two centuries ago, but has eroded badly into unbridled self-interest. Instead of cooperative democratic families, schools, and businesses, we frequently find competitive, autocratic, or anarchic circles of conflict. Our stated political ideals too often blatantly contradict our normal daily behavior.

Two political critics, William Greider and Philip Slater, believe that our vision and realization of democracy have deteriorated badly. They agree on one fundamental solution to the re-vitalization of democracy. The democratic ideal must start within the individual and gradually spread to family, friendships, school, and the world of work. Only people who have developed a democratic character structure can make democratic living a reality. It takes daily small-scale practice of democratic principles to prepare a citizen for the wider challenges of social responsibility.

How can we foster the development of democratic character in our citizens? First, train parents to develop democratic parenting practices at home that will give children an early experience of a democratic family life. Second, train teachers to develop democratic practices in the classroom. They could extend or correct the home climate. Subsequently, universities and businesses can provide further opportunities for training in democratic living.

One of the last frontiers for developing democratic character, or correcting an undemocratic one, is psychotherapy. Unfortunately, many value-free therapeutic approaches relieve personal distress, but reinforce self-centeredness. Classical Adlerian psychotherapy, with its emphasis on social equality, mutual respect, cooperation, responsibility, and contribution, provides the means of re-vitalizing democracy by addressing the core of the problem: correcting undemocratic character structures, in both therapists and clients.

Classical Adlerian psychology offers hope in a time of widespread disillusionment. The re-vitalization of democracy will not only have to come from the top down. It will also have to come from the bottom up: a grass roots movement of ordinary people living, loving, and working democratically every day.

Role of Character in Our Political Ideal

The early American political ideal of democracy was tempered by an awareness of the role of character. The framers of the Constitution understood well that advancing the ideal of "liberty and justice for all" requires a virtuous citizenry. Thomas Jefferson argued that democracy depends upon the cultivation of "public-spiritedness" which will not flourish spontaneously, but must be taught. Benjamin Franklin stated that "only a virtuous people are capable of freedom" and Theodore Roosevelt claimed that "educating a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society." When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830's, it was the Americans' propensity for civic association and civic virtue that most impressed him as the key to their unprecedented ability to make democracy work. Quoting Marvin Berkowitz, in his article, "Educating for Character and Democracy:" "It is clear that moral character is part of democratic functioning." Unfortunately, the development of democratic character has been neglected for generations.

Contemporary Problems in Our Democracy

Today, many negative influences prevent or inhibit the actualization of our democratic ideal; some of them are political. Vaclav Havel has warned that democracy arouses mistrust in some parts of the world because it lacks a "spiritual dimension that connects all cultures and, in fact, all humanity." For many people, the concept of rights, with responsibility and obligation, has been displaced by the idea of rights as the entitlements of individuals freed of "any and all ties of reciprocal obligation and mutual interdependence." Philip Slater, in A Dream Deferred, states: "Most people see democracy as a merely political phenomenon. Democracy does not stop at the borders of politics: it only begins there. Most of our public and private organizations are still authoritarian in structure; our corporations, professions, and educational institutions have yet to feel more than the palest breath of democratic influence. Most Americans work in settings that are resolutely authoritarian, especially the working class." Slater believes that authoritarian rulers are antagonistic to anything that will help the public "grow up," such as the exposure of secrets or the expenditure of funds for education. In a democracy, the fundamental goal of education is development. For authoritarians, it is obedience. An ignorant populace is more likely to be an obedient one. Less money for education means larger classes and less qualified teahers, who often devote a disproportionate ampount of time to merely maintaining silence and control. As a result, students primarily learn how to take orders and be quiet, which many consider a worthy educational achievemen.

Finally, Slater offers a scathing criticism of a powerful wealth addict: "It is impossible for a billionaire to believe fully in democracy, for a feeling of community and interdependence would make it impossible for him to continue to clutch with such tenacity to so disproportionate a share of the world's resources." In The Betrayal of American Democracy, William Greider states: "Americans cannot teach democracy to the world until they restore their own." Politically, our democracy is still struggling through a troubled adolescence.

We also have some serious economic problems that inhibit democratic living. In "The New American Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution," Michael Lind, the senior editor of the New Republic, describes our society:

... where the wealthy elites have been enabled, by a deft use of the tax system, the international market, and the relationship between trusts and education, to arrange matters so that they live in a different country from their ostensible fellow citizens. They have their own schools, resorts, banks and information networks. They have their own private police and security systems. They have, by virtue of the "wealth primary," to which all candidates must submit, their own senators and Congressmen.

To correct this plutocratic tendency, Mr. Lind advocates a bracing dose of class consciousness among the hard-working saps who, as the saying goes, " 'play by the rules' and are laid off or impoverished for their pains." William Greider, in One World, Ready or Not, states succinctly: "Democracy itself will always be stunted by the exaggerated political power exercised by concentrated wealth. The problem is not that capital is privately owned, as Marx supposed. The problem is that most people don't own any." About capitalism, Greider adds: "The capitalist process, by its nature, encourages infantile responses from every quarter, as people are led to maximize self-interest and evade responsibility for the collateral consequences of their activities: the damage to other people, society, or the natural environment." Our economic inequities cannot be ignored indefinitely.

The business world runs on conditions that deny democratic functioning every day for many people. Judith Wyatt & Chauncey Hare, authors of Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It, describe the psychologically damaging conditions that many workers experience daily. They claim: "Work abuse is the flagrant mistreatment or silent abuse of people in the staggering number of Western work organizations that remain authoritarian and over-control employees. Ninety-five percent of work organizations are autocratic; they sustain productivity losses and fail to meet their customers' or clients' needs because most top-level managers refuse to share power with employees and instead blame them for systems' problems for which managers themselves are responsible. Most people in these abusive organizations, like children in abusive families, stay blind to the abuse in order to survive it." In describing the massive power of corporations, Charles Reich in Opposing the System, says: "What primarily ails us is 'economic government,' the uncontrolled power of corporations, which operate outside of constitutional restraints." He continues with: "The democratic model is losing out to the authoritarian model in our daily lives here at home. Following the corporate lead, virtually all of our institutions, from schools and colleges to Little League, are based on the top-down model." In that model, the bottom line is economic efficiency, and the managerial system is impatient with such inefficient concepts as constitutional limitations, democratic dialogue, and dignity. Noam Chomsky, in his MIT lecture, "Class War: The Attack on Working People," states: "The U.S. is a business-run society, which means that human rights are subordinated to the overwhelming, overriding need of profit for investors. Decisions are placed in the hands of unaccountable private tyrannies, which means that even if formal democratic practices exist, as they do, they're of peripheral significance." Business should reflect, not contradict, our political ideology.

The media, in its various formats, promotes further negative influences. For example, the tone of many computer games, films, and television programs, seems to be violence as entertainment, since they glorify power over others, revenge, causing others to suffer, and killing them. Scores of the games are usually based on the quantity and speed of destruction. PC Magazine reviewed and praised an addictive computer game called Dungeon Keeper, where, for $45, you can become a "nasty, evil villain." Quoting their review: "The goal of the game is to build a dungeon and then defend it against the do-gooder heroes who are out for your gold." The player creates rooms, including the treasure room, the torture chamber, and the graveyard. If your work force of 'imps' are not working fast enough, you can speed them up by 'slapping them around.'" Are enterprising game developers feeling the pulse of the growing number of greedy, aggressive, and indifferent people that Philip Slater described in his book Wealth Addiction?

Like most tools, the Internet is a "double-edged sword." It has launched a vast information economy, permitting us to access an astounding amount of information and exchange ideas or opinions. However, the absence of feeling or connection neutralizes the quality of contact. George Bond, the editor of Byte Magazine, in an editorial titled "Bosnia On-Line" commented on the dream of democratic forums:

Once upon a time, some of us slogging through the mud of the information cow path believed computer-based communications would build cohesive, coherent communities. We saw conferencing systems as the vehicle to bring people together in great democratic forums. In our fantasies, we saw the realization of what the early Greek philosophers had described and dreamed. Boy, were we wrong! Instead of leading people to a golden age, the Internet and other conferencing systems are simply reflecting the world at large. Instead of becoming a great gathering place for the democratic exchange of ideas, the Internet in particular is becoming a fragmented world riddled with enclaves of xenophobic, crabby egotists.

The Internet is also crammed with "get rich quick" e-mail spamming, news-group flaming, and pornography. An abundance of information should not be mistaken for wisdom. Freedom without responsibility is anarchy, not democracy.

In our schools, although educators express interest in character education and education for democracy, they cannot agree about what constitutes character, how it is formed, and how to improve it. And in our arena of psychology, we have seen a proliferation of value-free, short-sighted psychologies that promote the well-being of individuals, but seem indifferent to the impact of those individuals on our democratic society.

Positive Influences and Solutions

To balance out the picture of the state of democratic functioning in this country, I'll now turn to some positive influences and solutions proposed by a variety of authors. On the political/philosophical level, Vaclav Havel has suggested a wider sense of political responsibility: "Democracy is the unfinished story of human aspirations. Man must discover again within himself a deeper sense of responsibility toward the world, which means responsibility toward something higher than himself." Havel's call for self-transcendence in order to attain political health echoes Adler's ideas about the need to overcome egocentricity in order to attain psychological health.

Economics can use an infusion of democratic thinking. In his book Socioeconomic Democracy, Robley George has proposed some form of universal, guaranteed personal income, as well as a maximum allowable level of personal wealth. In One World, Ready or Not, William Greider calls for a democratization of capitalism, re-distribution of wealth, and a reform of the credit system. On the aesthetic frontier, Frank Lloyd Wright, America's greatest architect, in An Architecture for Democracy, spoke eloquently for the rights of every American to have a piece of land of his own and an affordable, environmentally enriching home. Correcting our severe economic inequities will be a difficult task, with an understandable resistance from those accustomed to excessive privilege and power. A dangerous climate of mutual contempt between rich and poor must be overcome for us to feel united in a quest for "the common good."

Fortunately, in the world of business, we see some forward-thinking, humanistic movements. In Good Company: Caring as Fiercely as You Compete: Lessons from America's Best Companies, Hal Rosenbluth and Diane McFerrin Peters give many examples of companies that put their people first. They open their book with the following introduction: "Business can have an overwhelming effect on our lives, perhaps more than anything else except our family and loved ones. Business can contribute to our happiness, but it can also make our lives miserable. Companies can not only positively influence lives, they have an obligation to do so. Companies have every right to expect the very best from their employees, but only when they create an environment worthy of it." They conclude with the statement: "Companies can be built on friendship, where people fight for success because they care so much about each other." Their book reflects the ideas developed by fourteen American companies that meet every year for a symposium. In his book Maverick, Ricardo Semler has vividly described the transformation of his Brazilian company, Semco, from a traditional, autocratic pyramid to a model of democracy in the workplace.

As a contrast to mean-spirited video and computer games, I have wondered about the possibility of creating positive games based on the qualities of cooperation, compassion, and helping. Scoring could be based on the circle of community feeling one might develop, radiating out in concentric circles from the self, to a parent, sibling, spouse, family, neighborhood, community, city, state, nation, the world, and other species.

The Internet offers an unprecedented opportunity to disseminate information world-wide at a very reasonable cost, democratizing knowledge. Since September of 1996, the Alfred Adler Institute of San Francisco has maintained a Classical Adlerian website at devoted to Adler's original teachings and their relevance to democratic living. In ten years, nearly 460,000 visits to the site have been logged in; over 100,000 people have visited the original discussion forum established on Behavior OnLine; and 70,000 people have visited the new Yahoo-sponsored discussion forum. Currently, about 1,500 people visit our site each day. Our mailing list helps us correspond with people in eighty-five countries. Adler's original teachings and the contributions of other Classical Adlerians are finally becoming accessible from almost anywhere in the world, fulfilling Adler's wish to make his psychology avaialable to everyone. .

Education can provide early positive influence, especially in the areas of character education and education for democracy. Unspiring examples of democratically run schools, cooperative learning, and service learning curriculums provide the crucial experience of practicing democracy. The family, however, can be the most important early positive influence on children. John Gastil, in Democracy in Small Groups, quotes Carole Patemen, who believes that: "Democratic parenting should be viewed as a responsibility of citizenship, on a par with other forms of public service." Our dedication to parent and teacher education has been admirable, but a little short-sighted. It is not enough to encourage cooperation within the family or classroom; the focus must be extended to improving the community.

At its best, psychology can nurture democratic living. Leo Rattner, an Adlerian, in his journal article "Individual Psychology and Democracy," makes a solid connection between the two. "We suggest that in order to be a good psychologist, one must be a good democrat, too. This is not meant in a partisan sense. Rather, it means that every psychologist should develop a personal philosophy based on democratic principles. However, such a personal philosophy would be meaningless, if merely lip service were paid to it. More than almost anyone else, the psychologist must make a living reality of democracy in order to succeed in his professional work." I would add that the credibility of any therapist or teacher depends on the congruence of his character with his words.

Potential for Adlerian Contributions

As clinicians and educators, we can do much more to contribute effectively to the evolution of democracy. A synthesis of Socrates, Maslow, and Adler gives us the tools we need.

With the Socratic style of questioning we can lead individuals to their own conclusions, discussing the merits and mechanics of democracy as a political system, and demonstrating democratic living as a way to conduct our daily lives. Socratic questioning can help children, teenagers, and adults, stimulating critical thinking, challenging undemocratic assumptions, and eliciting useful conclusions. More democratic than didactic indoctrination, the Socratic method is inherently compatible with Adlerian principles and can be used effectively by both therapists and educators.

In a spitiual kinship with Adler, Abraham Maslow inspires us with his vision of the fully functioning, self-actualizing individual, who possesses a democratic character structure. Too often, psychology and education get bogged down in what people are, rather than what they can become. Many years ago, Maslow wrote a book called Eupsychian Management about ideal people in an ideal business environment. This suggests a new term, "Eupsychian Democracy," reflecting psychologically democratic people building an ideal, democratic political structure.

Individual Psychology gives us a holistic set of pedagogic and therapeutic tools that can foster the development of democratic character in a child, and correct the destructive capacity of undemocratic character in an adult. Adler's unity of philosophy, personality model, and treatment principles support the evolution of the democratic ideal. Gemeinshaftsgefuehl, the "feeling of community," provides the essential emotional and spiritual backbone for democratic living.

This synthesis of Socrates, Maslow, and Adler suggests a dynamic role for the Adlerian psychotherapist, as a "full-service facilitator of democratic living." By focusing on the value of contributing to the lives of others as our therapeutic goal, we establish our sense of social responsibiity, benefitting not only the individual client, but the whole democratic society. A prerequisite for assuming this responsibility is the correction of any undemocratic character structure in ourselves. It is not enough to merely identify our own "style of life," or just call it counter-transference; we must overcome such tendencies. Consequently, Adlerian psychotherapists have an obligation to fully overcome any undemocratic tendencies in their style of life through a personal study-analysis, part of the complete training for the original, first-generation Adlerians..

Becoming a "full service facilitator" means reaching out with a congruence of democratic character as a psychotherapist, educator, and consultant to improve daily living, at home, school, and in business. We need to help peole develop a more democratic character structure, congruently reflected in their daily thinking, feeling, and behavior. The purpose of work can be elevated from just "making a living" to self-realization and creative social contribution. Couples needs to learn how to communicate respectfully, and cooperate democratically for mutual benefit. Families need to demonstrate democracy as a living, daily reality in the home. Schools need to provide opportunities for practicing democracy in larger groups. Businesses need to transform from autocratic, profit-driven, psychological liabilities into democratic, people-driven social assets. Adlerians can help at all of these levels by developing the knowledge and skill to do depth psychotherapy, couple counseling, family therapy, career assessment and guidance, and organizational consulting. In addition to providing parent and teacher education, we could offer workshops on "psychology for democracy" to children and teen-agers, as well as adults. More than any other psychology, we have the philosophy, theory, and practice to infuse each citizen with the ability and inspiration to transform daily life into a democratic reality.

Nurturing Our Inner Life

The rich inner life of all human beings must be given a chance to grow and blossom, if we are to find creative solutions to the evolution of a democratic way of life. Norman Lear, television producer, and founder of "People for the American Way," adds an eloquent call for a nurturing of the spirit. In a 1990 address to the National Educational Association titled "Education for the Spirit," he stated:

I have a deep concern about what I consider to be an unhealthy reticence in our culture generally, and in education in particular, to discuss what may be the most distinctive trait of all human beings. I'm talking about ourmysterious inner life, the fertile invisible realm that is the wellspring for our species' creativity and morality. It is that portion of ourselves that impels us to create art and literature, and study ethics, philosophy and history. It is that portion of our being that gives rise to our sense of awe and wonder and longing for truth, beauty and a higher order of meaning. For want of a better term, one could call it the spiritual life of our species.

And yet, as a student of the American psyche, at no time in my life can I remember our culture being so estranged from this essential part of itself. One can see it in the loss of faith in leaders and institutions--the cynicism, selfishness and erosion of civility--and the hunger for connectedness that stalks our nation today.

Most Americans seem to be aware, I believe, that our society has seriously lost its way. Our popular culture celebrates the material and largely ignores the spiritual. Greed is the order of the day in a society preoccupied at all levels with the pursuit of bottom-lines, celebrating consumption, careerism, and winning, and living by the creed of "I've-got-mine-Jack." We have become a number-oriented culture that puts more faith in what we can see, touch, and hear, and are suspicious of the unquantifiable, the intuitive, the mysterious.

Where we drift as a society is determined today more by the decisions of corporate managers--and the values that dictate their decisions--than by any other single influence. Short-term thinking, corrosive individualism, fixating on "economic man"--these are some of the forces that now pervade our culture, at the expense of the human spirit, since business became the fountainhead of values in our society.

Our future is written in our children, many of whom seem shockingly apathetic to the world around them. Their egocentricity was affirmed recently in two studies by People for the American Way and the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press. As the study notes, 72% of young people consider career success their most important life goal and the third most important goal is "enjoying yourself and having a good time." "Being involved and helping your community be a better place" ranks dead last. Only 12% consider voting an important part of being of a good citizen. We are raising young people with no sense of the common good, on which democracy is built.

If we hope to penetrate to the spiritual quick of today's youth, igniting their interest in the world, in social wrongs and personal morality, the schools cannot avoid teaching about the core values that bind our society together. The inner life cannot be ignored.

Alfred Adler was a man before his time. He showed us how to awaken the democratic spirit in every human being and harness that individual's creative power for the common good. Today, more than ever, his psychology of values can provide the solution to many of our social problems, an enrichment of our inner life, and a re-vitalization of democracy.


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