Plato hated democracy. He’d have a lot of friends today.

But Plato’s hatred for democracy was for a very different reason than that of today’s critics, many of them fans of authoritarian strong men.

In fact, Plato would see them as a case in point: the problem with democracy is that it caters to people’s need for easy answers. This, he believed, made them dangerously prone to demagogues. Democracy, he wrote, marginalizes the wise.

It’s human nature to want the easy answer. To be assuaged and reassured. We want the diet pill for governance—someone who says, “Follow me. I know the way. And I know who’s responsible for your problems.”

Do this. Eat that. Avoid this one food. This one exercise will fix everything.

But things aren’t easy. There is no superfood for governance. Democracy least of all.

Just look at us. Individually, we have a hard enough time governing ourselves. We get sucked into fights with strangers. We have bad habits we can’t break. We procrastinate. We blame others. We eat the wrong foods, give up on our goals, and choose the wrong partners.

The problems with democracy are numerous. And as we enter the long slog toward another Presidential election, these problems come front and center.

Many of them are structural but—and this might sound naive—many of them are behavioral, stemming from our struggles using power and our struggles with self-governing, literally.

Lao Tzu said, Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.

Now, this is not the answer. It’s not the solution. It’s one piece of the puzzle. We’re just over 300 years into modern democracy, and it’s time to take stock—in particular of what it takes for people to do the hard work of making democracy work.

When I consider the inner challenges of self-governing, I see these four critical components we need to discuss, cultivate, and work at.

1. Democracy is a habit

Regime change is easy. Habits are hard. I call democracy a habit because there’s no easy fix. Whatever we’re trying to solve, fix, or improve, we’ve tried and failed several times. It’s frustrating. Problems are endemic, entrenched, and complex.

The economy, health care, infrastructure, education, rights, and equity. There’s going to be piecemeal progress. It’s one step forward, two steps back. So we need to train ourselves to keep at it, like a habit.

But ‘regime change’ is tempting because it promises swift relief from our societal frustrations. We’ve fallen off the wagon, so instead of just going back to a moderate exercise routine, we sign up for a marathon, run 6 miles a day for a week, and get injured.

We pigged out on the weekend and ate four bowls of ice cream. But rather than just getting back to our normal diet, we go on a 6-week cleanse.

This isn’t a new habit, but a recipe for failure. We’ll get injured, tired, depleted, and find ourselves falling off that wagon.

Democracy is the same. We set our sights way too high, and refuse to settle for 60% of our demands. We won’t compromise if it doesn’t speak to our highest ideals.

And then we end up with nothing.

Thinking of democracy as a habit, we look at what’s realistic, what small piece is achievable, and what is 1% better than yesterday, even if it’s not perfect.

What can we stick with and build incrementally?

2. Probably not in my lifetime

Things change slowly. What we spend our lives fighting for may not bear fruit while we’re alive. And that is a tough pill to swallow.

Why should I fight for something I can’t immediately benefit from? And even when a law is made, it’s never perfectly achieved. A law is passed, then challenged or revoked. A law is enacted but not evenly or justly enforced. So what’s the point?

This is what I admire most about social activists, that they work towards goals that they may never achieve. And it speaks to our deepest values. Why raise children to be good adults if you’re not going to see the rewards of your efforts? Why work hard writing a book if it might not be read by anyone? Why invest in learning if it doesn’t make money?

The answer to these questions was captured best by Richard Rorty who wrote, You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning. Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.

3. Formulate what you stand for (not just what you’re against).

The easiest part of governing is being in opposition. The easiest form of argument is pointing out the flaws in the other’s position or launching ad hominem attacks. The easiest way to parent is to say “I’m not going to be like my mother/father.”

It’s much easier to identify what we’re against than what we stand for—to express our antipathy than to express our aspirations. Unfortunately, politics is almost always the former.

At the start of Barack Obama’s term, Mitch McConnell, then Republican Senate Majority leader, said that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president. I don’t want to pass any legislation because Obama can claim credit.”

And with that, he changed the work of legislating from solving problems and creating change to simply being in opposition. Not offering alternatives. Not working on a compromise. Simply dunking on your opponent.

Aspirational governing is a heck of a lot more difficult than negative governing. Promoting a “culture war” is more attractive than “building back better.” Because being against is seductive; it makes us feel powerful.

But it’s not true power, just the semblance of power. It’s a form of cheating to simply define ourselves in relation to the other, but not in terms of our deepest values and aspirations. It takes effort to articulate what you want, why it’s useful, and what it will do for people.

4. You’re going to lose.

I’m 64 years old, and in the past 4 decades of voting, in all the elections—municipal, state, federal—that I’ve participated in, my “team” has won about 35% of the time. And I have to be satisfied with that.

Like not seeing change in our lifetime, that’s tough. In a democracy, you lose. You sometimes lose a lot. I have often wondered why there is very little written about losing because, in my view, democracy is as much about losing as it is about freedom, rights, liberty, and all that other good stuff.

Being able to lose is an underrated ability and crucial to the democratic process. Along with that is its twin, how to win and be gracious about it.

Being able to lose means being able to put your feelings aside and keep your eyes on the bigger picture (see above: being loyal to a dream country).

It means being able to see your opponent as your collaborator, and one with more leverage. It means swallowing your pride and working together with them, to do what you can to further your issue.

And if you’re a winner, remember, it’s only temporary. Tomorrow you may be on the other side. So don’t gloat. And above all, treat your opponent well because they might be the ones celebrating next time.

Democracy is the ultimate long game.

And so maybe it’s no surprise that it seems to be teetering on the edge of collapse at a time when we as a society are obsessed with winning, getting our way, and the next quick fix.

But the things that make democracy so challenging (and sometimes frustrating) are also what makes its potential so beautiful: patience, perseverance, selflessness, and cooperation.

These ideals aren’t just at the bedrock of democracy. They’re the bedrock of humanity. And they’re worth cultivating and celebrating — even if they don’t promise a quick fix cure-all for all of society’s problems.

Thanks for reading.