Democracy in America: paths to renewal

Michael Edwards
21 November 2006

It was the morning after election-day, and New Yorkers awoke to a sun-filled sky. Lilacs bloomed on Broadway, children, freshly-scrubbed, arrived at school on time, fear was banished from the public imagination, and Central Park flowed with milk and honey along its pathways. (Ruth Rosen's post-election contribution to openDemocracy has something of this flavour). America had rediscovered its faith in democracy, and banished corruption and extremism from politics at last. "Stop the gridlock, stop the nastiness, and get something done" as Nancy Boyda from Kansas put it to the New York Times, "people are tired of the excuses." Right on, Nancy.

Well, not quite. The New York sky was actually slate grey that morning and streaked with rain, a suitable metaphor for an election whose long-term outcomes are decidedly cloudy. Is this really a new beginning for American politics? The birth of a new consensus across society in favour of broad-based reforms and political accountability? A concrete signal that voters won't stand for scandal, incompetence, and deliberate polarisation, whoever it is that sits in the White House? Or will it be simply another turn in the game of revolving chairs between narrow political interests that has alienated large parts of the electorate over the last many years?

Much will depend on the early behaviour of those in power. Will Democrats use their new majority to settle old scores or model new behaviours that can lay the foundations for bipartisan progress on health care, social security, taxes, wages and foreign affairs? Will Republicans pull back from policies that clearly have no mandate from the public, or use the rump of the current Congress to push through the remainder of their pre-election agenda? And will the energies released by the election be channelled into greater participation and innovation in politics so that America will have more to share with others about democracy than a thin veneer of elections, legal procedures and a written constitution?

Michael Edwards is director of the Governance & Civil Society Program at the Ford Foundation, but writes here in a personal capacity. He is the author of Civil Society (Polity Press, 2003) and

Future Positive: International Co-operation in the 21st Century

(James & James, 2004).

Thomasina Williams and Alta Starr also contributed to this article

Also by Michael Edwards in openDemocracy:

"For Alan Beavan" (25 September 2001)

"Love, reason and the future of civil society" (22 December 2005)

Common, not middle, ground

Obviously, deep and long-lasting progress requires much more than a shift in voting patterns. Exit polls do show that voters were motivated by government corruption, the economy and the war in Iraq, in that order, so while not a mandate for fundamental political reform, there does seem to be a desire to clean up politics from a broad swathe of the electorate (fully 60% of voters disapproved of the way Congress was doing its job). Even so, transforming American democracy will take two generations or more, and a good place to start is by examining the relationship between politics and difference with fresh eyes and more imagination.

Despite panegyrics to the contrary, globalisation does not eradicate differences of thought, culture, identity and experience. The surface of the world may be flat, as Thomas Friedman puts it, but underneath the surface our lives are increasingly defined by the sharp edges of our social, political, economic and religious views - and at the global level (perish the thought) the recognition that western capitalism and liberal democracy may not constitute the "end of history" after all, merely one of a number of paths to the good society that are equally legitimate in the eyes of their beholders.

Perhaps Americans are beginning to realise that their own society looks like this too, not just on hot-button items like taxes, immigration, abortion and gay marriage, but on deeper questions of public and private responsibility, the limits and potential of government and markets, and the role that religion should play in the public sphere.

Faced by differences of this nature, people tend to fall into one of two camps. The first sees difference as something to be eradicated or overthrown, either voluntarily as people of opposing views come to realise the error of their benighted ways, or through coercion by governments elected to pursue the orthodoxies and interests of the majority (or perhaps increasingly, the fifty-first percentile of those who can be goaded into voting).

The second camp sees difference as deep-rooted and persistent, but not locked into perpetual or absolute cultural divides. In that case, the priority for politics is to balance difference and autonomy with some sense of a cross-cutting public interest so that societies can move forward on the basis of equal rights and entitlements towards some negotiated long term goals - an impossible task in any absolute sense, but the very essence of political leadership in days gone by. It is the absence of this kind of leadership that defines our ham-fisted attempts to strike the right balance between difference and commonality across Europe, the United States and the rest of the world today.

However, one thing is clear: conventional, first past the post, zero-sum, winner-take-all politics are very poor at tackling this basic question, and they get worse as systems of representation become eroded or fossilised. The only solution is to combine different forms of democracy in new and liberating ways - representative, deliberative, and participatory; identity-based, issue-based and cross-cutting; local, national and global.

These new combinations of politics can accommodate diversity by diffusing power across many different spheres and levels of democratic participation, influence and decision-making, so encouraging people of different views to engage with each-other in substantive ways. Like rocks in a stream, the sharp edges of our differences might then be softened over time as they knock against each other. How to do this while preserving the legitimate authority we need to enforce decisions is the central challenge facing politics in the many years to come.

This is not a call for a mushy middle-ground in which differences are elided for the sake of superficial consensus. You can't bake a cake from the icing down, as the saying goes, or build a public without confronting deep-seated inequalities of voice and representation. "Civility" implies full-blooded but non-violent engagement, not politeness. America is no stranger to a middle-ground that has been shifted further and further in one direction by voices that dominate the negotiating process under the guise of public deliberation.

But when people do talk to each-other on equal terms (and listen), it's surprising how much common ground appears, especially when political affiliations don't necessarily coincide with what one side assumes about the other. The election of a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat like Jon Tester in Montana is one example of this; the influence of independent voters in swinging the election in many states is another; and the gradual dawning to Democrats that, at its best, religion might have much to offer them is a third (after all, there's nothing so subversive as unconditional love, as I've argued in openDemocracy before; see "Love, reason and the future of civil society", 22 December 2005).

Also in openDemocracy on the US mid-term elections:

James Crabtree & Carl Pope, "Climate change: the great election puzzle" (16-27 October 2006)

Ruth Rosen, "South Dakota, sexual politics, and the American elections" (27 October 2006)

Godfrey Hodgson, "American politics: corrosion by the dollar" (6 November 2006)

Godfrey Hodgson, "Washington: the earth moves" (9 November 2006)

Ruth Rosen, "America’s election: Daddy’s swagger vs Mommy’s care" (14 November 2006)

Norman Birnbaum, "One week after the storm" (15 November 2006)

A hole in the heart

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to reverse the hollowing-out of democracy, because the problems we face are the cumulative result of so many different forces and factors - not just lodged in the political system itself but also grounded in rising economic inequality, persistent discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation, the erosion of the public sphere, the commercialisation of higher education, rising media consolidation, and some disturbing trends in associational life. Fixing these problems requires untangling a very complicated knot, strand by strand, and then finding new ways to weave them back together again. So where to start?

People do want honesty, fairness, transparency and accountability in politics, whichever party they support. It's not rocket science, and these principles are the bedrock of any meaningful democratic system. But clearly general principles aren't enough, so here are two sets of suggestions for some concrete improvements, based on innovations that already are in play.

First, rebuild and protect the basic integrity of the electoral system to guarantee equality of vote. That implies fixing the holes that have already appeared in electronic voting, outlawing redistricting for partisan advantage, experimenting with alternative voting methods (including direct election of the president through a compact among states to have the electoral college reflect the popular vote in their states, as advocated by Fair Vote, enshrining a federal right to vote in the US constitution, introducing automatic and election-day voter registration, and implementing real felon re-enfranchisement.

Great potential exists in the use of technology and the internet: for example, the League of Women Voters' vote411.org, which makes information on the location of polling places easier to find; voter hotlines like MyVote1 and OurVote, and electronic tracking of the problems voters experience by voterstory.com and Video the Vote (which makes visual evidence of improprieties immediately available on YouTube).

It's time to reward good (small "d") democrats of all parties and punish those who deliberately manipulate the systems and structures of democracy to exclude, discriminate, lie, and cheat their way to power. So how about banning any candidate, party or interest-group found guilty from participating in the next election?

Second, find ways to deepen and expand civic and political participation to guarantee equality of voice, animate the non-representative parts of the system, and connect the two together. At every level of American society, people are already fashioning an "independent politics" that responds to their real, nuanced concerns, rather than to standardised policies driven down from the top of the system by both major parties. At the city level, SCOPE in Los Angeles, for example, encourages citizens in marginalised communities not just to vote, but to extend and continue their participation in civic and political life into new alliances and planning processes, including for "green development" and inner-city regeneration through the so-called Apollo Alliance.

At the state level, Southern Echo led a community-based redistricting process in 1990 that eventually doubled the number of African-American elected officials in the Mississippi state legislature, and at the same time encouraged community leaders to run for local seats on school and county boards, and as sheriffs, tax assessors, judges and mayors. These leaders stay connected to their local organisations, and these local organisations demand accountability from them, inside a shared framework of "community interest before self-interest" that has the potential to radically alter political incentives across the state.

Minnesota Works Together is another new campaign that aims to effect a cultural shift from "me to we" at the state level. It already has a Civic Life Legislative Working Group that helps politicians from different factions find common ground and make connections to citizens groups, business leaders and local officials, so that they can address the challenges Minnesota faces effectively, and collectively.

And at the national level, initiatives like the Red-Blue Project - coordinated by Internews Interactive and the Public Conversations Project - offer citizens ways to engage with others on divisive issues via the web. In this respect, America has much to learn from other parts of the world where democracy is being deepened and extended in important ways, especially in Brazil, India and South Africa (whose experience was part of the inspiration for "Minnesota Works Together"). So as a final recommendation, how about a new federal democracy commission to cull these lessons for use back home?

That many of these possibilities seem so unlikely is a mark of the distancing we feel from the reality of current political practice. But alternatives are already taking shape in the quieter places of America, usually far from the glare of the political and media spotlight. The challenge is to mainstream and scale them up so that things start to change at the federal level too.

And that brings us back to leadership - "by their actions shall ye know them." Are there any independent, principled, visionary and bridge-building politicians out there ready to lead this revolution? Step forward Barack Obama (probably the only member of the Senate who cut his teeth as a community organiser - in Chicago)? Imagine the demonstration effect - locally, nationally and globally - of a United States president who sets out to model a radically different form of political action from their inaugural speech onwards.

So, over to you, Mr President and Madam Speaker. Show the world that America can be home to a new weave of politics and power that marries freedom with equality, and recreates the sense that citizens belong to more than an agglomeration of squabbling interests. Then, when President Obama or whoever else enters the White House in 2008, "exporting American democracy" will have a very different and much more welcome ring. And who knows, even an "Englishman in New York" like me might actually have a vote.

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