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

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.

Slow democracy presents a paradigm shift: instead of seeing politics as something that is national, Washington-based, and out of reach, we can see the real possibilities at home. Communities have the ability to address fundamental issues and create real change. Many of them have already done so.

We think the greatest promise of modern democracy lies right in our local communities. And our goal is twofold: to expand the power of those places where democracy is most vital, and to ensure that those citizens have the tools to govern themselves in the most inclusive, democratic, empowered, and effective ways possible.

We recognize that there is always a gap between democracy (the political ideal) and government (the administrative apparatus that enforces laws and regulations). But that gap varies in size. Right now, on our national level, it is a chasm. It is hard to look at Washington and see anything that looks remotely radical or thrilling. But there are places—local places that many of us call home—where that gap is, or can be, much smaller.

If our future holds an increased focus on local food, local energy, and local economy, then surely we will need to improve our skills at local governance. Many of the local/slow activism books (for example, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food, and Woody Tasch’s Inquiries into the Nature of  Slow Money) and those that sound the alarm (Bill McKibben’s Eaarth) emphasize the need for everyone to come together to make change. But what will that “coming together” look like? With Slow Democracy we are taking that next step, proposing a shift in the way we think about community and democratic engagement.

Does every democratic process need to be “slow”—in other words, must we talk about everything, and include and empower everyone, all the time? Clearly, that would be not only impractical but enough to drive us mad. As political scholar Benjamin Barber argues, a strong democracy is not one where everyone participates all the time, nor where some people participate all the time, but where everyone participates some of the time.  Or, as the  slow money movement says, “We must slow our money down—not all of it, of course, but enough to matter.”

The Slow Democracy Alternative

Slow democracy offers broad principles, tools, and vocabulary that citizens can use to create a healthy local democracy. And slow democracy  is local—happening in the communities and towns that we all live in, whose processes we can be part of. It weaves together three key elements of democratic decision making:

Inclusion—ensuring broad, diverse public participation

Deliberation—defining problems and weighing solutions through a public process based on sound information and respectful relationships

Power—defining a clear connection between citizen participation, public decisions, and action.

These principles are inspired by the emergence of new ways of thinking, new fields of inquiry, and the exciting real-time experiments that are happening in communities right now. Across the country and the world, citizens and local governments are feeling their way toward self-government and better decision making. Some are addressing painful issues like racism and crime; others are taking on the too-hot-to-handle concerns—like local budget cuts and planning controversies—that often rend communities or go unaddressed because of lack of political will. Most aren’t thinking about paradigm shifts; they are simply trying to solve real problems by using their community assets. But what they are doing is slow democracy: 

 In Austin, Texas, residents use a technique called “meeting in a box”to gather with friends and neighbors in hundreds of locations around the city, from community centers to living rooms, to offer their ideas on key city priorities like housing. Meeting results are sent directly to city staff members who use them to shape the city’s comprehensive plan for the future

In districts of New York City and Chicago, and under consideration in a growing number of communities, a new participatory budgeting process means that local residents develop ideas for projects that would most improve their daily lives, on issues like street resurfacing and lighting, bike lanes, and parks and playgrounds. Then it’s the citizens, not representatives, who make the binding decisions on how to spend funds

In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, citizens have used a community dialogue and deliberation approach to find creative solutions to school redistricting, sustainable development, planning, race relations, and other complex issues.

In downtown Chicago, the police department has been working directly with residents to identify priorities and solve problems for nearly twenty years; their approach has reduced crime rates and transformed their relationship with residents of many tougher neighborhoods.

In coastal Maine, a town that was ravaged by a Walmart battle is using a community planning process, with input from over a thousand residents, to save the town’s historic downtown and encourage economic development.

In seven northwestern states, inclusive community conversations have helped citizens of poor towns and reservations identify the poverty issues that affect them, envision solutions, and create local businesses and institutions to bring new life to their communities.

Democracy—Fact and Fiction 

Much of what we know about democracy we have learned from “watching the show” at the national level. But what may be true about national democracy is not necessarily true in our towns and neighborhoods. So if we’re going to engage politically at the local level, many of us will need to relearn what democracy means. Too many people have turned away from the political process because of widely held ideas and myths that don’t hold true at the local level. Let’s address some of the more common ones.

“Democracy is about fighting.”

There is a time for advocacy; but it’s not all the time. We can struggle to find the best answer; but that doesn’t always mean we have to fight each other. Media reports might make us think that if there’s no controversy, then nothing is happening. But with creativity and respectful deliberation, citizens are often able to find workable solutions at the community level. Significant transformations can happen locally and spread outward from there.

“Democracy is about winning.”

Our national two-party system is set up to create winners and losers—and to keep all other perspectives out of the equation. At the local level, democracy can look much different. With careful work, we can help reduce that left/right dynamic and create new cross-community connections. Instead of being about “winning,” local democracy can actually be about making the best decision. Then, in the long run, everyone wins.

“Local government is something to get around, not something to work with.”

When we lose faith in our local government, we turn our backs on one of the most valuable allies we can have. We need to make our local government a “we” and not a “they.” This will open doors to resources, power, and the natural flow of ideas that comes from a functioning democracy.

“Talking about things only makes things worse.”

The person who coined the phrase “a camel is a horse designed by a committee” had obviously endured a torturous group process. We’re going to highlight some of the breakthrough processes now being used at the local level; these aren’t your grandfather’s budget meetings. You’ll see how they’re helping communities make thoughtful decisions and how you can make them happen in your community.

“Problems are becoming too complex for citizens to understand.”

Yes, many of today’s issues are complicated. But local people are smart and invested—with access to national resources that can help them figure out the intricacies. That’s all the more reason to seek out local wisdom and creativity.

“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.

Working on the local level, with a balance of freedom and unity, we see the possibility of reinventing government in our own times. 

Copyright Chelsea Green 2012 -- Excerpted with permission from the publisher. 


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