Democracy Rising is a series of blog posts on deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. Written by deliberation scholars and practitioners, the series originates in the United States but will discuss principles and draw upon examples from around the world. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributors only.

Introduction: Idiots Я Us

Most Americans consider the freedom from politics to be part of their wellbeing.—Robert Samuelson[1]

Politicians are always letting the public off the hook—it might be the most unforgivably dishonest thing they do.—George Packer[2]

Democracy is not the multiplication of ignorant opinions.
—Beatrice Webb[3]

To be meaningful, democracy requires settings that allow direct knowledge of persons and issues.—William Ophuls[4]

Come now, and let us reason together.—Isaiah 1:18

Pop quiz: the American political system is (pick one):

  1. A) still, after nearly 250 years, a visionary triumph of robust representative democracy, a beacon to all nations and peoples seeking the fairest, most just way for people to govern themselves and collectively create a common future; or
  2. B) a corrupt, sclerotic, and cynical train wreck of a system dominated by entrenched elites and run by a two-party political cartel with a death grip on power, incapable of facing and addressing a host of critical challenges and content to feather its own nest—and its donors’—while the country goes off the rails.

Chances are you picked B.

If so, you have lots of company. Democracy seems to be wobbling or fading in many places across the globe, but lately the United States has displayed some particularly alarming signs of weakness. Volumes have been written about our governance system’s problems and failures: the corruption, the pandering, the polarization, the embedded racism, the lack of social mobility, the vast inequalities of wealth and income. A great many Americans are exhausted by these problems, despairing at their seeming intractability, and hungry for something better. And of course these concerns are hardly exclusive to Americans; millions of people all around the world share the desire for more responsive political systems and a greater capacity to shape their collective lives together.

Regular visitors to Resilience.org likely are already familiar with many possibilities for reforming our political systems to make them more responsive and effective. This Democracy Rising series of blog posts will focus on one that may not be so well known: deliberative democracy.

The deliberative democracy (DD) process discussed in this series is a bottom-up approach that regularly and deeply engages ordinary people—and their concerns, ideas, and values—in the process of identifying and addressing the problems of their communities and regions.[5] Though under-appreciated, it has an ancient pedigree and is growing in popularity worldwide. At one time it might have been made the foundation of the American political system, and in fact it was considered. The Founders might have encouraged and supported engagement, discussion, and power-wielding by ordinary people, but (with a few exceptions) most of them thought the system would work better without such broad participation. In effect, they designed an oligarchy—they kept the reins of power in elite hands by reducing everyone else to bystanders, or at best mere voters—and restricted voting to property-holding white males.[6]

The system enshrined in the U.S. Constitution included the sensible notion of dividing power to prevent anybody from having too much—the famous “checks and balances.” But it was basically meant to keep people and their differences apart and to resolve those differences at a distance. After so many years, too many of us hardly know how to work out differences among ourselves. In fact we can hardly imagine doing so. The right to vote (though now under siege) has gradually been extended to most adults, but too many of us still have little or no direct role in making the laws and policies that shape our communities and our nation. We may join political parties, work for candidates, and even run for office ourselves. But mostly we limit ourselves to grousing, which naturally focuses on what’s broken at the top.

Of course, the system is broken at the top. But in far too many communities it’s also broken at the bottom, and the top probably won’t get fixed until the bottom is. If the system doesn’t work for the people it’s meant to serve, maybe it’s because those people are just not engaged with it. In many cases, whole groups have been disenfranchised or squeezed out, and years (or centuries) of such marginalization have understandably driven many members of those groups to give up. In other cases the call of consumerism drowns out everything else. Many of us have simply decided, consciously or not, to focus solely on our private lives.

And so, by one pathway or another, a critical share of us has become idiots.

“Idiot” comes from a Greek root that means a private, un- or mis-informed person, one who is concerned only with narrowly defined interests and rejects personal commitment or investment in the wider community.[7] That’s the opposite of  what we must become, i.e., citizens, as the Greeks understood the term—meaning civically conscious and engaged community members.[8]

In the United States our current approach to developing such community members sets a pretty low bar. High schools require civics courses that discuss the three branches of government and tout party membership, the virtues of voting, listening to candidate debates, and so on. Those are not necessarily bad things—they just don’t work very well. Every state requires some civics education[9] but the requirements are wildly uneven, and misconceptions and gaps in students’ knowledge abound. (Despite what some civics test results suggest, Osama bin Laden was never U.S. Vice President. Utah is not a country.[10])

We need a deeper process. The foundation of this Democracy Rising series of blog posts is that deliberative democracy is one of keys to curing what ails our system. Plenty of attention has been given to various top-down fixes to the machinery of governance, but we also need to shift the system’s center of gravity from political parties, which are clubs for people who seek power (and the money to acquire it), to ordinary citizens. For that to work, people must cultivate ongoing conversations with each other about their own governance. When this happens broadly and consistently, it can create a more educated—and less credulous—public, tap the distributed knowledge and wisdom of many more people, create buy-in for policies, and hold the larger system and its servants to closer account.

These are bold claims, but there is plenty of evidence for them, both here in the United States and elsewhere, as later posts will show.

What is deliberative democracy? Despite being largely under the public radar, DD is a surprisingly broad field that harbors a number of different conceptions.[11] But in this series it refers to a vision of governance that:

  • is locally focused;
  • invites citizens into structured and modulated gatherings (in person and/or online) to support ongoing, respectful, and public dialogue, exchange, and mutual education;
  • engages ordinary people and strives to be broadly inclusive of all community members;
  • is based on solid, balanced information and transparent processes; and
  • addresses “wicked” issues and aims to arrive at public judgments about them that are rooted in participants’ values[12] and firmly and consistently linked to policy outcomes.

DD is a worldview, as well as a method and process for cultivating a robust form of citizenship. DD is highly participatory: it starts with the assumption that ordinary people can gather to discuss an issue, not as adversaries seeking to win a debate (though they may well disagree, and not even like each other much), but as collaborators looking for solutions to shared problems. DD routinely taps expert knowledge, but experts are not in charge. Crucially, it also seeks to exert influence on bureaucrats, officials, and politicians, because a key aim of successful deliberative democracy is power, i.e., its ability to shape policy.

The remaining posts in this series, written by a variety of DD theorists and practitioners with varying perspectives, will discuss these ideas in more detail, drawing on examples and stories from the United States and elsewhere. The posts will mix glimpses of deliberation’s long history and some key milestones in America’s political journey with more nuts-and-bolts topics. We will take a look at what social and cognitive science has to say about why DD makes sense as a way for human beings to run their own affairs. Other posts will show how deliberation and its power to educate people into citizenship could help us address some of the major crises facing America—and the world—including widening inequality and our multifaceted sustainability crisis. And although DD’s primary focus is on local communities, the expanding adoption of deliberative democracy could eventually—aspirationally—cross  a threshold and, by aggregation, create a widespread culture of deliberation that would have tangible ripple effects at national and even international levels.

The Resilience readership is highly knowledgeable about sustainability policies and practices, but transition activists and communities will need to raise their game on self-governance as well. Like communication, organizing, and “soft skills” in general, governance can’t be taken for granted. We believe that Resilience readers, as well as millions of other people, are hungry for a democracy that is more responsive to their countries’ needs and better suited to the challenges facing them. Building deliberative democratic cultures will be valuable both in enhancing support for sustainability action and in creating the kind of community cohesion necessary to weather the ecological, social, political, and economic turmoil ahead. And so, because we want to inspire readers to rebuild the system from the bottom up and from the inside out, we will offer some practical advice on how to do it. Our aim is to support a movement of “democracy preppers” who want to stockpile social and community capital rather than dried beans and ammunition.

We believe that our national political systems cannot work well and with integrity unless we build and strengthen local political systems that do so—and deliberating citizens are the heart and soul of local politics. This series aims to show where that’s happening already, how it can happen nearly anywhere—and how it can be a great source of satisfaction and stronger communities.

[1] “Why Clinton Hangs On,” The Washington Post, April 1, 1998, p. A19.

[2] “Parting Words,” The New Yorker, January 23, 2017, p. 17.

[3] Cited in Edward Luce, The Retreat of Western Liberalism (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), p. 75.

[4] Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012), p. 78 note 4.

[5] Deliberative democracy is an expansive and evolving field, and there are other approaches to it—and tensions and trade-offs among them. Democracy Rising posts will explore these to an extent, but our particular focus will be mainly on bottom-up approaches that are tied as firmly as possible to policy outcomes.

[6] See Daniel Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), pp. 10, 11; and Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), p. 9.

[7] Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 42.

[8]Given that immigration policies and practices are hot-button issues in many places, “citizen” can be a fraught term. Those issues are highly worthy of deliberation but are beyond the scope of this series. In these posts “citizen” refers to a role, not necessarily a legal state—that is, it signifies anyone who devotes a significant share of their time and energy to the concerns and wellbeing of the communities where they live.

[9] Education Commission of the States, December 12, 2016, 50-State Comparison: Civic Education Policies, https://www.ecs.org/citizenship-education-policies/.

[10] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/13/us-history-lesson-video-casts-negative-light-on-public-school-system_n_1594700.html.

[11] David Kahane and Gwendolyn Blue, “The Theory and Practice of Deliberative Democracy,” Chapter 2 in Lorelei Hanson, ed., Public Deliberation on Climate Change (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2018), p. 78.

[12] “Whereas public deliberation needs to be anchored in facts, sound judgment—whether on the part of individuals or groups—is not based mainly on a command of pertinent facts, as policy experts often assume. Deliberation consists chiefly of exchanges about what individuals and groups value, their priorities and personal stories, and their relevance to public concerns.” In Keith Melville et al., “National Issues Forums,” Chapter 3 in John Gastil and Peter Levine, The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the 21st Century (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), p.  42.

 

Teaser photo credit: By Eugène Delacroix – Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives via artsy.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27539198