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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.

The following is an excerpt from Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012): 

Over the past twenty years, scholars and practitioners in the emerging field of dialogue and deliberation have discovered a pent-up demand for authentic community interaction, in which citizens can have their voices heard locally and make a difference. Americans are eager for a return to community service; in one recent poll, nearly 90% of respondents said that they valued being involved in their communities.  And with a new generation of  technological tools at our command, we are more skilled in self-organizing than at any other point in our past. We have the ability to make choices that are more ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable, and the will to implement them. The message from slow democracy’s grassroots is clear: it may take time, but it’s worth it.

If we’re going to take the time to slow down, we want quality. Slow democracy doesn’t mean we have to attend every poorly advertised, badly run city council meeting. What slow democracy can help us do is learn to identify authentic, healthy processes; participate judiciously and with the patient confidence that real change takes time; and support the people who engage us in meaningful decision making, so they’ll do it some more. Inclusive, well-run deliberations with effective follow-through can make an enormous difference in the life of a community.

Slow food advocates know that a sustainable food system must offer healthy food in an ecologically viable way, but there’s more. As journalist Ben Hewitt describes in The Town That Food Saved, “It must feed the locals.” Just as slow food cannot only feed the rich and elite, slow democracy must be open to all. The people, or demos in Greek, are at the heart of the word “democracy.” 

Finding a place in the life of the already overburdened and underprivileged—such as single working parents, or low-wage workers who string together two or three jobs—is one of the greatest challenges of slow democracy. But these are the populations most often shut out of the democratic process, and most in need of what it has to offer. Slow democracy incorporates people from all walks of life and the full range of the human condition: from talkers to doers, from those who value charts and graphs to those who love chatting over coffee. It makes room for those who like to talk at microphones but also celebrates the vast majority of us who would, frankly, rather die than make a speech. It builds on the already-existing web of relationships that form a community, recognizing that some of our best ideas come while taking a walk with a neighbor. And it forges new relationships, introducing us to people we might have avoided but come to appreciate.

Slow democracy says to parents who want to understand local school spending and be able to influence it: we need your expertise. Slow democracy says to landowners who care about their property values and the decisions that affect them: you are not alone.

Slow democracy gives a vocabulary to people who would like more decisions to be made with, not by, their leaders. It gives confidence to policy makers who have a hunch that citizens have valuable wisdom and skills to share. And it offers a checklist to those who wonder whether their community’s democratic process is all it should be.

Slow Is on the Rise

The slow food movement has spawned slow movements of other kinds. Most notably, the “slow money” movement urges economic support for local, sustainable endeavors and an understanding that quick profit should not be the only criterion for investment. Slow democracy takes its inspiration from these other movements. They are invigorating citizens to take back power from centralized institutions, and we seek a parallel understanding for our towns, schools, and communities.

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