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. 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 contributor(s) only.

[W]e’re either going to survive together or die together. This century’s unfolding trauma could be exactly what we need to ensure we flourish together in the future, by obliging us to learn some collective wisdom and develop institutions, ways of governance, and technologies that promote opportunity, ensure fairness, and guarantee our security within the remaining fabric of life on Earth.—Thomas Homer-Dixon[1]

This is the final planned post in the Democracy Rising series for Resilience. As noted at the top of each post, the series is about what deliberative democracy (DD) is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. Democracy Rising has barely scratched the surface of this vast body of knowledge and practice; it’s not really a primer and is barely an introduction. But we have tried to give readers snapshots of these topics that I hope will encourage them to learn more. Here I want to recap the topics and then offer some parting thoughts on why I believe that deliberative democracy is essential to the building and maintenance of resilient communities and thus to the future wellbeing of humans and the planet.

What’s in the Posts

There is a rough logic behind the sequence of posts, from the general and theoretical to the practical, but due to some editorial hiccups certain posts appeared a bit out of turn. The posts are grouped thematically below. To read further, click on the individual links or go the Democracy Rising index pages.

The introductory post, DR1, sketches the outlines of DD against the background of the current crisis of democracy and argues that fixing what’s broken at the top will require fixing what’s broken at the bottom as well. The key to that is engaging ordinary people much more closely in governance; DD is a proven method and process for doing that.

DR2 is a pot-pourri of short general arguments in favor of DD. DR4 and DR5 discuss deliberation’s power as an adaptive governance system that capitalizes on human evolutionary history, cognitive capacities, and social relations.

DR3 and DR17 draw connections between DD and environmental sustainability. DR22 shows how deliberation grounded in our love for the places where we live helps inspire environmental knowledge and action alike.

Three of the central pillars of deliberative democracy—inclusion, deliberation itself, and power—are explored in DR6, DR7, and DR8 respectively.

DR9 and DR10 discuss the importance of group facilitation skills in successful deliberations and point readers to extensive resources for further learning and training. DR11 provides a catalog of existing methods for hosting and running deliberative events and advice on how to prepare for and conduct them.

DR12, DR13, DR14, DR15, and DR16 constitute a five-part deep-ish dive into some of the common tasks and challenges—and how to deal with them—that deliberative events typically pose for organizers.

DR18 discusses deliberation and its importance to democracy in light of court decisions that have stressed free expression rather than true free speech.

DR19, DR20, DR21, DR25, and DR26 illustrate the use of deliberation in specific contexts, including—crucially—classrooms. Deliberation can be taught to and used by students as early as the fourth grade.

DR23 and DR24 describe two examples of ways deliberative methods have been deployed to help inform public policy at larger-than-local political scales.

These 26 posts add up to roughly 50,000 words on deliberative democracy and how to tap its power, from some of the most experienced and knowledgeable practitioners in the field.

Why Bother?

  • Because of the links between democracy and sustainability. David Orr has argued that these links are “intimate and reciprocal”) and a recent essay by Stan Cox asserted that the emergencies we face in both realms “are intertwined. Either we find meaningful responses to both, or we fail dramatically on both.” If, as Cox believes, we’ve arrived at not a crossroads but a T-junction, then either we’re headed for a system in which democratic channels of information and democratic methods of governance tap the collective perceptions, support, and will of many people—which would lead us in the direction of sustainability—or we live under autocratic rulers and watch while they focus on their own immediate interests and kick the polycrisis can further down the road.
  • Because, in fact, many of those in ruling elites are hardly small-d democrats and seek instead to replace democracy with more autocratic structures. Stories about nominal democracies turning in autocratic directions around the world are plentiful; search online on Brazil, Hungary, India, or Italy, for instance. In the United Kingdom, bills have been introduced that would penalize people who take part in public protests in which “serious disruption to two or more individuals or to an organisation” occurs—picketing on a sidewalk?—by being forced to wear electronic monitoring devices. In the United States, some elected representatives apparently don’t believe in democracy, and certain activists have openly called for monarchy. Those are anecdotes, but here are some data: according to the nonprofit Freedom House, in 2021 25 countries became “more free” and 60 became “less free” compared to the previous year; nearly two in five of all people in the world live in Not Free countries, the highest proportion in a quarter century.
  • Because democracy has suffered from malign neglect of its essential constituents, the citizens—a neglect that we citizens have ourselves been complicit in. As a result, our democracies are repeatedly captured and corrupted. The corrective to that is ongoing citizen engagement. The hard truth is that we can either do the work of cultivating and nurturing democracy ourselves, or allow it to be taken from us and done by others—who will have their own agendas. Think of it as a garden: you start with the soil, preparing it for seeding, and you work with the grassroots, cultivating a crop and nurturing it carefully over time. Democracy is more like an annual crop than a perennial one; it needs to be refreshed periodically. It won’t keep thriving if it’s left alone.

In the United States, democracy’s troubles and the alienation of citizens are starkly on display. Recently a liberal pundit wrote of “two distinct threats to American democracy,” naming the refusal among many Republicans to accept the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, and the growing disconnect between government policy and public opinion. These are right as far as they go, but there are also the vast and growing inequality gap and the polycrisis itself: climate change and all the other signs of human overshoot. None of these is conducive to political stability no matter what form a government takes. (Not to mention the renewed threat of nuclear conflict, a long-slumbering dragon that has begun to stir.)

Even more dismaying is the evidence that people know democracy is struggling but are preoccupied with their economic security or have given up. In a recent poll, for instance, over 70 percent of U.S. voters said American democracy was at risk, but only 7 percent saw it as the most important problem facing the country. Another study found that nearly one in three could be described as “completely alienated” politically, i.e., feeling that their voices are ignored and politicians can’t be trusted to put national interests ahead of party interests. Only 7 percent felt that U.S. democracy is “doing well.”

In the face of this disaffection it’s tempting to pour a stiff drink and indulge in maudlin rants about the incompetence of homo sapiens to run even its own affairs, much less a complex planetary ecosystem with millions of other species. But deliberative democracy is a more constructive response—a means of restoring integrity to governance, addressing the polycrisis, and building community capital at the same time.  Because, in a crisis, what do you need? At minimum: a clear view, a calm mind, a way to marshall cooperation, some options, and resources for responding. Deliberative democracy is well suited to address these needs, because it

  • crowdsources public views and data collection,
  • allows and encourages thoughtful consideration of problems,
  • taps collective intelligence for solutions and/or coping methods, and
  • creates political buy-in and support for action.

Deliberative democracy is not the only way to achieve these results, but it may be the best way. Matt Leighninger, a DD expert and DR contributor (DR17), notes that we have lots of existing mechanisms designed to encourage civic engagement; local governments, state governments, and other institutions interact with the public in various sorts of ways, such as open council meetings and town halls, “but most of them are terrible.” The cliché is that you get two minutes at the microphone after standing in line for half an hour, while the officials at the head of the room sneak glances at their phones. As Democracy Rising has attempted to show, the methods of deliberative democracy bring ordinary citizens into governance in a much deeper, richer, and more substantive way.

 The Stakes

The steady drumbeat of studies and scientists’ warnings about the polycrisis over the last few years has awakened many people to what’s at stake while numbing others. Either way, if you were to emerge like Rip Van Winkle from a decades-long sleep tomorrow morning and see a sober report like this one (from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) on the growing risk of civilizational collapse, you would be excused for freaking out.

No matter what the techno-optimists say, it’s hard to see how any whiz-bang gadget, or combination of them, can get us out of this mess (though there is no doubt we will try that strategy). The apotheosis of techno-optimist thinking is the Mars-colonization project. Mars enthusiasts say we must go there to “back up” civilization in case it all goes sideways here on Earth. I’ve never understood that argument. Why would a quintessentially social and political problem yield to a technical solution? Unless we learn how to run a planet with respect and restraint here and now, what would be different there? Why would the technical solution of Mars colonization work when the technical solutions for Earth have failed?

We have a livable planet already; why not keep it that way rather than spending trillions to make an unlivable planet livable?

That is not to say that there are not crucial technical elements to any plan with a hope of addressing the polycrisis, but what those elements are, and how they are deployed, demands democratic input. There is no better time to allow unheard voices to speak than now, when we must decide how to address pressing challenges that affect all creatures on the planet.

As things stand, even in well-established democracies the working assumption is that people can’t, shouldn’t, or don’t want to run their own affairs as communities; that’s what the specialists—representatives, bureaucrats, etc.—are for. Up to a point, this is true. Most of us, most of the time, don’t feel the need to make every last decision about our communities ourselves. That truly would be unworkable, and that’s what competent administrators are for. What most people want is for their voices to be heard, to be involved in the decisions that are setting the course for the community.

But our sociopolitical system—including its assumptions about who and what people are and what they’re for—has essentially privileged people as consumers over people as citizens. Over the last few decades we have increasingly consigned our citizenship responsibilities to elected officials and their armies of support staff—plus political parties, lobbyists, interest groups, political action committees, dark-money contributors, etc.

It’s obvious that if we wish to keep democracy alive, we will have to work harder at it. A truer democracy, one grounded more firmly in deliberation among engaged citizens, would be a challenge—but also immensely rewarding. If the future offers less in the way of material comforts and distractions, at least it could offer far more in the way of the social, psychological, and spiritual payoffs that come from dynamic self-governing communities.[2]

Democracy, in the broad sense of bottom-up governance, is ancient; it also comes and goes, and apparently always has (see DR5). It may be waning now. But this is a trend, not fate, and is reversible. So plant a seed: start a neighborhood discussion group! (See DR11.) It could be a revolutionary act.

 

[1] Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2020), p. 53.

[2] All this may sound like warmed-over Murray Bookchin, which it is. And it should be noted that his vision is inspirational but not plug-and-play. For instance, he argues that only the abolition of the state will allow organic, self-actualizing, non-hierarchical communities to flourish. Abolition is a tall order—will states abolish themselves?—and maybe backwards: maybe it’s the slow, steady, persistent cultivation of local self-governing communities that will undermine the state by shifting power away from it—but allow retention of the capacity for large-scale cooperative action through confederalism. That seems necessary in a world where other states remain illiberally governed. Likewise, Bookchin seems to think that such a revolution would have to happen everywhere at the same time, which is impossible but also unnecessary (see Chapter 6 in this analysis of Bookchin’s views).

 

Teaser photo credit: MrPlanter (direct link to image) via Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.