I can’t resist starting my second book review with a story about my first book review. Recently, while standing in an hour-long U.S. Customs line at Washington Dulles, I pulled out Slow Democracy. Listening to others complain about the untenable situation as we crisscrossed back and forth, I read, holding up the book title for all to see. Finally someone said, “What is that book about?” I delivered a succinct summary, consciously using tools I had just learned to include diversity, to all within earshot. What followed was a splendid example of slow democracy.
People rallied from jetlag, shook off fatigue, spoke over wailing babies, and listened to each other share stories and experiences about an issue close to all our hearts: the democracy crisis in America. I was inspired to see in action the main contentions in Slow Democracy: i.e., people care about democracy and want to bring it back to the local level.
Slow Democracy is a book for emerging community leaders, students, and people ready to do the real work of participatory democracy––to invest personal time and energy; to learn to frame issues in ways that connect rather than polarize people; to learn ways to include and engage people in discussing and deliberating issues; to learn to draw from, not depend on, expert research, balanced with local wisdom of stories, knowledge, and experience; and to have the patience to trust that this process––democracy up close and personal––will yield practical solutions supported by most, rather than endless gridlock manipulated by the few who profit from the status quo.
Authors Susan Clark and Woden Teachout bring in surveys and studies to validate the chasm between national and local politics, the chasm that is bending the extremes of Tea Party and Occupy together. Americans’ overwhelming disgust and distrust of politics is actually focused on the adversarial, polarized national system-schism dominated by billionaires and fake corporate persons. Meanwhile, human persons hunger for an inclusive, deliberative, empowering, and local process to find creative binding solutions for critical, urgent issues, and spontaneous conversations about how to fulfill this need burst out in unlikely places––like the line at U.S. Customs.
Aware that the adversarial organizing techniques and polarized solutions used to frame national issues make for “town meetings from hell,” the authors use history to frame our current disconnect between national and local power before shifting to the techniques and understanding needed to bring people together to rebuild and recreate participatory democracy.
The relevant history to the premise of Slow Democracy is the shift from local authority over local matters, present through the 1830s, to remote, (supposed) representational, and centralized authority over all matters including local. The authors describe how, at the turn of the century, market-place efficiency and the rise of scientist “experts” as authorities began to infuse governments and social systems. Then, two twentieth century events required federal intervention to overcome local politics––the Scopes (Monkey) Trial and the civil rights movement, which fueled a growing rejection of small town authority and local knowledge. Now, the pendulum is swinging back to engage people in local, participatory democracy (slow democracy) as these institutions “constitute the strength of free nations,” as historian Alexis de Tocqueville astutely observed in 1831.
Culture cognition is key to slow democracy. It turns out that humans have a built-in ways for ignoring information that challenges our worldview, our reality, which in turn is framed mostly on selective listening (how many people watch Democracy Now! and Fox News?); cultural signals about sources (would you believe that guy?); our choice of friends (mirror thinking); cognitive filters (who is not guilty of biases that influence whether we accept or reject information?); and repetitive messages (that grind down resistance or enforce acceptance). The authors ask: Can you make a credible case for why a reasonable person on the “other side” believes the opposite of what you believe? If not, you are guilty of using these short cuts to frame your reality.
Learning and using tools to break through our own cognitive filters is key to deliberative democracy. Luckily, we are not a nation of liberal-conservative ideologues with worldviews starkly aligned in red or blue camps, but rather a nation of four archetypes: think Mother Joneses (egalitarian-collectivists), Ron Pauls (egalitarian-individualists), Mr. Gekko, the fictional corporate raider in the film Wall Street (hierarchical-individualists), and the Catholic Church (hierarchical-collectivists). Each archetype has its own needs and drivers (and filters). Meet the needs of the archetype––and you’ve got a conversation!
Slow Democracy explains tools that communities are using to frame issues for inclusion of this diversity. A group process known as a “charrette” worked in a poor neighborhood of south Minneapolis to design a successful housing project and rebuild a sense of pride in community. In Randolph, New Hampshire, community leaders used “cultural vouching,” in which a person from one archetype speaks the language of another archetype to frame an issue, to bridge disagreements and successfully protect one-third of the town’s land base “free-market” development. In Chicago, success with engaging citizens in participatory budgeting led to similar success with the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy,” in which residents and officers work together to reduce crime. Austin uses a variety of tools to engage residents including Speak Week, Meeting-in-a-Box, City Works Academy, community task forces, interactive community forums, and online tools. These tools are all ways to put real power in the hands of local citizenry.
Slow democracy creates an inviting, supporting environment where individuals can make connections, rebuild trust, and venture to engage in creative change based on human values and rights. It’s the work we all hunger to do. Slow Democracy gives us tools to begin the work of reclaiming and reinvigorating local authority over local issues––and the promise of leading our national politicians by example.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]