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Slow Democracy: An Antidote to Today's Money-Corrupted, Corporate-Dominated Politics

Instead of seeing politics as something that is national, Washington-based, and out of reach, the real possibilities are close to home, argue the authors of a new book.

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“We should leave difficult problems to the experts.”

Slow democracy doesn’t mean we don’t need outside experts. It only means that we should use them as consultants, rather than handing our power over to them. No one knows more about living in your community than you and your neighbors. In today’s interconnected world, communities are finding myriad new creative arrangements to tap citizen energy, talents, and, yes, expertise.

“Public participation takes too long.”

Citizen involvement takes time. But with democracy, we get to choose: Do we want citizen participation up front, which comes with the side benefits of local wisdom and buy-in? Or do we prefer to take a gamble on making speedy decisions and spending even more time cleaning up afterward, in a firestorm of cynicism, backlash, and protest? Slow democracy gives communities the wisdom to identify which public questions are most ripe for public engagement, and the skills to take them on. 

“Government is too slow already.”

We agree. Gridlock is destroying us at the national level. That’s why we need to get things moving at the local level. Communities are making progress on budget decisions, race and social conflicts, and finding creative environmental solutions that our national leaders can only dream about.

The Politics of Slow Democracy 

So whose side is slow democracy on? Is slow democracy a left-wing Occupation to wrest power from corporations? Or is it a right-wing move to shrink government down to the size where we can drown in a Tea Party teapot?

We know that slow food has a leftie reputation. And we’ll admit it from the beginning: as coauthors, on most issues we’re over there on the left ourselves. But we want to be clear. Slow democracy is not about the left talking among themselves. Nor is it about strengthening a uniquely progressive agenda—unless you believe that getting more people engaged in local decision making is purely a left-wing enterprise.

Instead, slow democracy is about dropping the left-right labels and trying to find real-world solutions to real-world problems. While this presents an enormous challenge on a national level, it is remarkably doable on a local level.

“Freedom and Unity” is the motto of our home state of Vermont, and at times we are awed by the wisdom of that balancing framework. We can’t help but notice that our motto doesn’t give us the choice of “Freedom orUnity”; but then again, we never found the motto of our good neighbors in New Hampshire, “Live Free or Die,” very practical. We each must have the freedom to pursue happiness, but each of us also has some responsibility for the common good.

Adopted in 1788, back before Vermont was even a state, “Freedom and Unity” has held us together through extraordinary deliberations, from whether to join the cause of the Civil War to whether women should be able to vote to whether to allow civil unions and gay marriage.

The motto offers us guidance only, not answers. As historian Joseph Ellis noted, even America’s founders knew they could never create a constitution or governance structure full of answers; instead, their legacy to us is much more valuable: “a framework in which the salient questions could continue to be debated.” The founders’ gift to us is a structure—slow, perhaps, but astonishingly durable up until now—for finding the right balance, on each issue, between freedom and unity.

Freedom: when we arrive at the table, we’ll argue the merits of our various economic, environmental, and social concerns. Unity: we will put our heads together to find the best possible balance of those priorities. Freedom and unity: with every decision we make, we’ll also weigh whether we are strengthening or weakening our democratic structure. Even as we engage in democracy, we must simultaneously keep an eye on protecting that democracy. Reaching for the fastest, cheapest, or most “efficient” answer, if it bypasses the democratic process, will exact a lasting price.

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