Slow Democracy

November 7, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedRegardless of who wins the election today, that man will proceed forward with the knowledge that half of the voting public did not support him.  Regardless of which candidate "wins," he will struggle to act with a similarly divided Congress.  If there ever was a time for a book like Susan Clark’s and Woden Teachout’s Slow Democracy, that time is today.

 Early in its pages, Clark and Teachout poke fun at their own title: who wants their democracy to be "slow"?  Yet ratherthan snail’s pace, Clark and Teachout had a very different definition in mind.  Building from the energy of the Slow Food movement, they envision recapturing some of the more intangible and precious aspects of democracy — aspects which America has abandoned in our relentless pursuit of "efficiency."

A caveat:  I’m the worst cynic about politics, so much so that for many years I didn’t even vote.  "It doesn’t make any difference," I’d say.  The Transition Movement’s "Cheerful Disclaimer" beautifully captured my opinions:

If we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late
If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little
But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.

And Clark and Teachout have caused me to rethink what that all means.

Not a how-to

At first I was frustrated by their book.  "This is not a ‘how-to’ or a facilitator’s handbook," they wrote.  Then what good is it?  I grumbled, and nearly pitched it across the room.

But they hooked me anyway.

"Calling America a democracy is like calling football tennis."  Yup to that one!  I’m with you.

"’Government is too slow already’ … We agree."  Ok, you got me listening.

Slow Democracy does include a short appendix to cover the how-to’s.  I flipped to "slow democracy rules" early in my reading, and it didn’t strike me as particularly meaningful or insightful at the time.  That was because I didn’t really get it about what this slow democracy stuff meant.

Junk-food democracy

Empasizing the parallels to the Slow Food movement, Clark & Teachout say "What we have now is the McDonald’s of democracy.  It isn’t necessarily a rapid process, any more than our processed foods–with slaughterhouses, processing plants, intercontinental transportation routes, and months in the freezer — are actually quick.  But it’s fast in the sense that fast food is fast:  it’s a centralized process based on the premise of efficiency, delivering a simple, easy-to-use produce, but one that leaves citizens undernourished and unsatisfied."

Yikes.  Now they’re really speaking my language.  I’m one of those undernourished, unsatisfied citizens.  One who vainly tried to fast rather than partake of the junk!

Clark & Teachout have done their homework.  In some cases they go back to the roots of American democracy, and quote the amazement of European observers at how engaged early Americans were in political discourse.  At other times they go to local examples of citizens taking action and getting things done in their hometowns.  Because that’s what Slow Democracy comes down to:  "it is a reminder of the care needed for full-blooded, empowered community decision making."

Community decision-making

If you said "politics" to me a week or so ago (before I’d read Slow Democracy), it would have called to my mind the over-polished images of the national elections, the farce of a staged debate, the big-corporate buyout of local initiatives, and that panicked adrenaline of head-to-head conflict:  you’re either For or Against.  There was nothing "building" about it.  Give me my shovel, and let me get back to real work.

"Slow democracy presents a paradigm shift: instead of seeing politics as something that is national, Washington-based, and out of reach, we can see the real possibilities at home."

Instead, Clark and Teachout coax me to think about the times I’ve worked with my city councilman and the mayor’s office and the (massive) local school board as well as with teachers and neighbors, in building a community garden.  The examples in Slow Democracy are about local people putting local resources to work and getting real, meaningful stuff done.  They are about local people working together with other local people — even those with different opening paradigms  — unearthing, and then achieving, a common goal.

"Michael Pollan … Carlo Petrini … Woody Tasch … Bill McKibben … emphasize the need for everyone to come together to make change.  But what will that ‘coming together’ look like?  With Slow Democracy we are taking that next step, proposing a shift in the way we think about community and democratic engagement."  This book is all about making that mental shift.

Making the Shift

For a self-confessed political cynic, I have to say that even after 214 pages, I’m still "in transition."  Such a shift is a big one to make.  But I think I needed to read Slow Democracy … and I still need to let it sink in.Image Removed

Within the Transition Movement, we are willing to admit that in order to cope with peak oil, climate change, economic contraction, peak everything, and social injustice, it’s going to take transformative change in every area of human endeavor.  I like to refer to David Holmgren’s Permaculture Flower when I say this, because every petal is gonna change.  Clark and Teachout are making a valiant effort to guide us toward change in the Governance petal.

As I said before, they do offer an appendix of "slow democracy rules" and one of "slow democracy resources," but perhaps we (as a society) aren’t quite there yet.  Perhaps (and the "get into action already" part of me really hates to admit this) Clark & Teachout are dead-on right in offering a book that is about the Why of change, that describes the valuable aspects of the democratic heritage we have abandoned.  We are so distant from it right now that we (undernourished and unsatisfied fast-democracy junkies) might have difficulty wrapping our minds around the vision of what could be.

A question of scale

One question that lingers, even after I’ve finished their book, is perhaps my eternal question: that of Scale.  Clark & Teachout begin with tales of Vermont town meetings.  They present a myriad of delightful success stories from small towns getting together, finding the commonalities, and moving forward beyond strife.  But all of these are stories of pools of people which are far, far smaller than the one I’m wrestling with.  Heck, the population of Clark & Teachout’s entire STATE is similar to the constituency of one Los Angeles city councilman.  I wonder how the Slow Democracy ideas would play out here.

But in my heart of hearts I probably already know the answer: it’s better than what we have now.  Getting off the junk food diet is essential.  It’s essential toward increasing citizen engagement, it’s essential toward improving our personal satisfaction with the state of the world, and it’s essential toward making the kind of changes we all know need to be made.

Read Slow Democracy and see if you agree.  


Joanne Poyourow directs the Environmental Change-Makers nonprofit in Los Angeles.  In seven years of activities, the Change-Makers have built two community gardens and launched the Transition Movement’s presence in Los Angeles.  This December, Joanne will be offering a webinar about "Building a Vibrant Local Economy" through Transition US.

Joanne Poyourow

Joanne Poyourow is the co-founder of the Environmental Change-Makers in Los Angeles.  In their 10 years of operations the Change-Makers have done many things including building two community gardens, and initiating Transition ideas in many areas of Southern California.

Tags: book review, Politics, Slow Democracy