New Progressive Alternative Essay on Deepening Democracy

At the Progressive Alternative, our initiative to broaden the vision and restore the integrity of the Democratic Party, I just published an essay explaining that deepening democracy doesn’t always mean “everybody voting on everything” — it means building participatory institutions that open up power to more people in more ways:

When most people imagine deepening democracy — increasing citizen participation in power — their mind often jumps to the furthest extreme of direct democracy: endless meetings of every citizen ignorantly voting on every issue.  If this is what deep democracy means — all of us taking time to discern the right policy regarding inland fisheries regulations and medical device taxes — then deep democracy is ridiculous.

But this is the wrong way to think about deepening democracy. Rather than seeing a deep democracy as a system where every citizen has a vote on every issue, we should imagine it as a system where every citizen has a variety of open avenues to having their voice heard and ideas realized. To deepen democracy is to open up power — the power to start projects, change projects, and stop projects — to more people in more ways.

The mechanism for deepening democracy is the participatory institution: a system that gains political power for the purpose of distributing it to a wider variety of people. A deep democracy would consist of a dense array of interconnected participatory institutions.

One such category of participatory institutions are what one might call “passive input tools”: avenues built into closed governing bodies to allow citizens to directly engage with legislative processes when they have reason to do so. A prime example is the “notice and comment” periods that federal agencies host before enacting new regulations and city planning boards host before approving new zoning changes. Each citizen does not vote on every regulation or zoning change, but when a new change arises that they wish to have input on, they have the opportunity to have their voice heard. Less potent examples include surveys and listening sessions that governing bodies utilize and town hall meetings that legislators occasionally hold.

Even better are “active input tools”: systems which force governing bodies to actively seek citizen participation on certain governing decisions.  One example is participatory budgeting, which sets aside a portion of a governing body’s budget to be decided on by the citizens themselves. Another example is the periodic community visioning, which invites the whole community to come together to lay out its priorities and ideas for the coming years.  One could imagine other active input tools, such as a requirement that Congresspersons hold Congressional District visionings to set priorities for the coming term or a system by which an annual citizen convention is held to place, say, five issues on the ballot without having to go through the initiative or referendum process.

Perhaps the most effective participatory institutions are what we, in the Progressive Alternative intervention, refer to as participatory counterbalances to corporate and state power.  These are standing participatory organizations that address the same issues as bureaucratic entities, but are organized to better engage and amplify the unorganized public at large. The classic example is the trade union, which organizes workers to counterbalance employer power. But other examples include: consumer purchasing cooperatives, which organize consumers of certain projects to counterbalance seller power; tenant unions, which organize tenants to counterbalance landlord power; and the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in D.C., which organize neighborhoods to counterbalance city council power.

Read the full essay — Deepening Democracy: The Varieties of Participatory Institutions here at the Progressive Alternative.

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