Deliberative Democracy

slow democracy

Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home

by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout

Book Review

Slow Democracy is about a process known as “deliberative democracy.” This is a type of direct democracy in which community members play a genuine role in local governance decisions.

The book is mainly about the growing number of communities (in New York, Chicago, Washington State, Oregon, Maine, Gloucester Massachusetts, Boulder Colorado, Austin Texas, Canada, India, Eastern Europe, Australia) that have incorporated deliberative community meetings into decisions involving planning, governance, and budgeting. In the US, the 2008 global meltdown has led to ongoing state and municipal budget deficits. Cutting services is always unpopular. Thus there is strong motivation for local officials to involve the community in tough budgeting decisions.

Clark and Teachout see three alarming trends occurring in industrial society. Both public resources and governance decisions are moving towards increasing centralization and privatization. Increasingly private corporations usurp resources that rightfully belong to the public, while simultaneously making governance decisions that used to be made by elected officials. Meanwhile the public response to the corporate takeover of society has been apathy and disengagement from public life.

The authors see the deliberative democracy movement as the ideal prescription to counteract these destructive trends. The process goes by different names in different areas – study circles, charettes, meetings in a box, Who Decides, Portsmouth Listens, Living Room Conversations. Yet all seem to operate by the same underlying principle: a commitment to identify potential solutions to community problems through a public process based on good information and respectful relationships.

The New England Town Hall Meeting

Clark and Teachout begin their book with a description of the New England town hall meeting, in which residents themselves serve as the legislative branch of government. Hundreds of towns in six New England states still govern themselves via town meetings, as they have done since pre-revolutionary times. This type of direct democracy was hard to transplant to the sparsely populated settlements of the Wild West, though it was revived briefly in the Populist and Progressive movements of the late 19th century. Outside of New England it virtually vanished with the massive expansion of federal government that occurred with the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War. Between 1945 and 1990, hundreds of thousands of federal, state, and municipal workers gradually took over decisions that were previously made in public meetings.

Slow Democracy’s Track Record

The most dramatic success Clark and Teachout describe is when the residents of Gloucester Massachusetts ousted Suez, the French multinational that ran their water supply, and galvanized the community to start their own water company. Through a similar process, the residents of Boulder Colorado replaced coal-based Xcel Energy with their own renewables-based electric company. Slow Democracy also describes the multiple successes of the local sovereignty movement, in which the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has helped communities in the Northeast and on the West Coast pass ordinances banning hog farms, toxic sludge, fracking, GE crops, and aquifer depletion for bottled water plants.

Cultural Cognition

For me the most valuable chapter was about the Yale Law School Cultural Cognition Project  (See earlier post Are Right-Left Labels Obsolete?) and other tools to enhance effective deliberation among groups with opposing political views. The authors begin by dispelling the myth that the US is hopelessly split into left-right ideologues. In 2007 the Cultural Cognition Project interviewed a random sample of 5,000 Americans. As predicted, the interviewees didn’t self-select into neat left-right or liberal-conservative camps. Instead their core beliefs could be plotted on a two dimensional grid depending on their views about hierarchical authority vs egalitarianism and individualism vs collective responsibility. The study results are available at Cultural Cognition Project.

It turns out that living in the same community causes residents to share many of the same concerns, despite profound differences in their worldview. Clark and Teachout give examples of successful community conversations between groups with opposing views on climate change, the Israel-Palestine conflict and abortion. All were successful in finding some areas of agreement, while simultaneously discovering the media was playing a major role in fanning the clash between them.

The book includes valuable appendices on ground rules for local officials and ordinary citizens seeking to set up effective “study circles,” as well as organizations willing to help facilitate the process and publications offering additional tools.

Originally published in Dissident Voice

Are Right-Left Labels Obsolete?

chart4Many activists are starting to reject traditional liberal-conservative and left-right labels as overused and meaningless. Susan Clark and Wooden Teachout, writing in Slow Democracy (Chelsea Green Publishing 2012), seem to agree. One of the most valuable chapters in their book discusses the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School. In their 2006-2007 Risk and Culture Study, the project conducted in-depth interviews with a random sample of 5,000 Americans. Guess what? The interviewees didn’t self-select into neat left-right or liberal-conservative camps. Instead their core beliefs could be plotted on a two dimensional grid based on attitudes towards hierarchical authority vs egalitarianism and individualism vs collective responsibility. The study results are available at Cultural Cognition Project

A hierarchical worldview considers authority natural and (often) God-given. An egalitarian worldview advocates that all people should be treated equally and have equal opportunities. Individualists believe that we’re all on our own and responsible for our own success or failure. Collectivists believe that the needs of the community take precedence over those of individuals and that society is responsible for ensuring that everyone has a chance to succeed.

The Four Quadrant View of Politics

In the Yale Law School study, nearly everyone fell into one of four quadrants. The hierarchist-individualists who landed in the upper left corner are the extreme free market entrepreneurs who maintain that greed is good – that the free market only functions well when thousands of individuals balance each other out by pursuing their own greedy self-interest.

In the upper right corner are the hierarchist-collectivists. Clark and Teachout cite the example of the Catholic Church. Catholics believe strongly in the traditional hierarchy of the church and family and their collective responsibility to everyone in the community.

Libertarians, the egalitarian-individualists, are found in the lower left corner. They believe in free markets and personal liberty and disapprove of any governmental role in the collective welfare of society. Most progressives fall in the lower right quadrant with the egalitarian collectivists, those who advocate for equal rights and believe we all have collective responsibility for one another.

The Significance of Red and Blue States

The vast majority of Americans, however, fell into one of two quadrants representing diametrically opposed worldviews. They were either hierarchist-individualist or egalitarian-collectivist. We see this reflected in the profound polarization between so-called Red and Blue states.

Voters’ attitudes towards global warming and gun control can be predicted by the quadrant they fell in. The Cultural Cognition Project also found that individuals who hold egalitarian and collectivist views more readily accept global warming arguments. In contrast, those with hierarchist-individualist views are more likely to favor industry and commerce and to be skeptical of policy that potentially threatens free enterprise.

In studying attitudes towards gun control, they found that hierarchists tend to associate guns with super masculinity and military valor and individualists with self-reliance and bravery. Egalitarians are more likely to link guns with racism and sexism and collectivists to view them as symptomatic of a breakdown in community trust and caring.

My Blip on the Grid (the little red oval below)

My first reaction on learning about the Cultural Cognition Project was to want to know where I fit on the grid, as a left libertarian who finds myself agreeing with Ron Paul on restoring the Bill of Rights, abolishing the Federal Reserve, ending the wars in the Middle East, and legalizing hemp and marijuana.

I also think I’m a collectivist, at least to some extent. I believe society is responsible for giving everyone a chance to succeed. However I’m also quite uncomfortable about living in a society where all personal liberties are sacrificed for the collective good of society. I have seen too many political systems, for example China and Cuba, masquerade as egalitarian-collectivist while they hand over absolute power to an authoritarian tyrant. I also have an innate distrust of group-speak. I can only function in a group if I am confident my individual concerns will be listened to and respected.

I’m curious what readers think of this four quadrant view of political ideology. Which quadrant do you fall in?