Slow democracy

At a time when 95 per cent of Americans disapprove of their own Congress, what hope is there for democracy in the USA? Plenty, if democracy itself can be transformed. This is the fourth article in our series on “trans-partisan politics”.

Susan Clark Woden Teachout
20 November 2013

Credit: Stacy Harbaugh, Midwest Environmental Advocates and All rights reserved.

Is there anything less popular among Americans than their own government? During the temporary shutdown in October 2013, the public’s approval rating for Congress dipped to an all-time low of five per cent. “A majority of Americans say they would enjoy seeing Congress torn limb from limb by a ferocious bear,” quipped humorist Andy Borowitz at the time. The only disagreement was “which species of bear would be best suited for the assignment.”

Such stories make us want to laugh and cry. Given this level of cynicism about government, what hope is there that people will use the democratic process to make change? Looking carefully, we find small seedlings of optimism, breaking through green and vigorous, at the local level. While most Americans share a disdain for national politics, many are finding new possibilities locally by taking governance back into their own hands. And by working to change the political process, they are also being changed themselves. It’s a process we call “slow democracy:” taking time to co-create new forms of politics based on inclusion, deliberation and local power.

Citizen advocacy at the local level brings to mind the story of David and Goliath. For some people, these fights are heartening. When communities successfully organize against corporations and ban genetically modified crops, or win back the right to create a local energy plan or market local foods, some feel hope for an empowered future. For other people, however, local advocacy is a source of pain and skepticism. Get real, they say; in the long run, the big money behind projects like genetically modified foods and fracking for natural gas will always win, no matter how earnest the local efforts.

Regardless of where you stand on this spectrum, relentless local battles bear witness to the fact that it’s not just the content of laws and policies that needs changing, but also the system of making them. Local power is necessary but not sufficient. Political systems consist of relationships, and in the US system, adversarial relationships are the norm. Issues are divided along lines that are determined by interest groups, including political parties, industry lobbies, and environmental and social justice organizations. These groups determine the menu of political choices that’s on offer, and it’s a menu that is both short and relatively fixed. There may be a debate that produces winners and losers, but there is little public deliberation out of which something new and creative might emerge.

If we want to re-energize democracy it has to be more than the same old political system transposed to the community level. Instead we need slow democracy, which is not a clarion call for endless meetings but a reminder of the care that’s needed for full-blooded community decision making.

Slow democracy takes its name from the “slow food” movement, which argues that the centralization and homogenization of “fast food” symbolizes much of what is wrong in society. Paralleling slow food’s push for authenticity in what we eat, slow democracy calls for firsthand knowledge of the local decisions that affect us. Just as slow food encourages cooks and eaters to become more intimately involved with the production of local food, slow democracy weaves together three key elements of democratic decision making: inclusion - ensuring broad, diverse public participation; deliberation - defining problems, weighing options, and co-creating solutions through sound information and respectful relationships; and power - defining a clear connection between citizen participation, public decisions, and action.

To appreciate what these principles mean in practice, consider the story of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Once the home of a major air force base, the city was thrown into economic and social flux when the base was closed with the loss of thousands of jobs. As Portsmouth’s demographics changed, the city’s elementary schools became unbalanced, with two under-enrolled schools and another that was bursting with students.

“Changing the way schools work, especially elementary schools, is… probably one of the most intense things a city can go through,” recalls city manager John Bohenko. Local lawyer Jim Noucas puts it more bluntly: “Tackling the issue was political suicide,” he said. In early public discussions regarding redistricting, some residents resorted to painful insinuations about other people’s class and culture. Recalls Noucas, “People stood up at public hearings and denigrated the elementary school that was literally ‘on the other side of the tracks.’” While parents argued, leaders equivocated, and students suffered, the issue went unresolved for a decade.

Desperate for a solution, the school board appointed a redistricting committee in 2000 that discovered a technique called “study circles.” Organizers rallied 105 citizen volunteers to participate in a series of small-group meetings, a diverse group that represented the demographic make-up of the city. Rather than diving into decision-making, the study circles encouraged a slow and careful approach to deliberation. First, the groups visited all three schools to ensure excellent information gathering. They also spent hours sharing stories as parents and neighbors, breaking down stereotypes and building trust and understanding.

Then, when the groups were ready to discuss policy options, the issues were framed openly. Rather than polarizing “option A against option B,” the study circles talked about “what issues…the redistricting committee should consider in balancing the enrollments of the schools.” This inclusive framing generated innovative ideas and common ground. In the final phase of the process, the groups reported back to a school board that had been involved in the process from the beginning and was therefore more open to hearing their ideas. The board developed a proposal to help balance the quality of the three schools backed by $2 million of improvements, which the 105 “ambassadors” explained to parents and neighbors. The proposal received broad voter support and was approved, ending a decade-long destructive stalemate. A “slow” process proved to be the fastest route to success.

Over the past fifteen years, Portsmouth has used study circles to address many more issues including school bullying, the city’s master plan, racism, and environmental sustainability. Citizens have created “Portsmouth Listens,” a committee of volunteers trained in facilitating the public dialogues that are now integral to addressing the city’s toughest issues. Small-group discussions are now used at election time as an alternative to divisive debates between candidates. And hardest to describe but perhaps most important, many of Portsmouth’s residents sense a fundamental shift, speaking of an increase in civic pride, an improvement in public participation, and heightened expectations of what democratic participation can offer. As city councilor Chris Dwyer noted, “we’ve raised the bar.”

Portsmouth’s experience is not unique: it represents a new generation of slow democracy experiments. For example, participatory budgeting techniques are inspiring renewed citizen energy in cities around the globe. Scholars and practitioners have dramatically increased the study and practice of dialogue and deliberation both nationally and internationally. This new wave has the potential to transform both individuals and communities.

Neurological research is revealing why slow democracy processes can help citizens to absorb new information and craft fresh solutions. Brain science tells us that we can use our full intellectual capacity more effectively when we avoid triggering “us versus them” responses. Communications researcher John Gastil notes that democratic deliberation “has shown the power of thoughtful, respectful, public exchange in generating consensus among citizens of diverse moral persuasions…appropriately structured deliberation achieves this…by slowing people down.

Portsmouth and other communities have shown that citizens will take the time that’s needed for slow democracy when they can see that their involvement makes a difference. Yet time and time again governments create policies that shift power from local entities to the state and federal levels. The removal of opportunities for citizens to collaborate face-to-face, create local solutions, and experience real, hands-on decision making is causing a creeping democracy deficit in the United States.

We desperately need leaders with clarity, wisdom, and courage - and voters to elect them. If people have been in leadership positions themselves, they will have a much better idea of what real political leadership entails. They will know not to expect agreements overnight, and be able to distinguish between bullying and respectful deliberation, and between political posturing and authentic debate. 

Slow democracy is not just an add-on to representative government - the two systems complement each other. As communities become more engaged in decision making, larger agencies can step back from micromanagement and work to support and connect local efforts. As one local official in Portsmouth, New Hampshire concluded, “There can be no going back to the old ways of doing things.”

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