Thoughts on Participatory Democracy

In my opinion, there is no more thoughtful and well-written person out there contributing to the discussion about the continuing development of American society than my friend and activist for education alternatives, Ron Miller. His recent piece, “Toward Participatory Democracy”, published in Education Revolution, eloquently elaborates on an activist thread in American history that motivates my own cheerleading for a more egalitarian world.

Ron has done his research and connected a lot of dots in American history from Colonial times through the Industrial Age, 20th century “progressivism”, radicalism of the 1960s, and the political-corporatism of our current situation. Looking at the big picture, Ron writes…

There has always been a struggle in American history between democracy and elitism, and despite the cherished memory of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, this nation has never fully trusted “the people” to govern themselves. Sometimes this mistrust reflects sophisticated political reasoning, in the tradition of Plato and the British conservative Edmund Burke, asserting that governance is a complex and delicate art best practiced by those who are specially educated or fit for it, or by those who claim to have a greater stake in the outcome.

Critiquing our Mastery of the Democratic Process

I actually agree with that critique by Plato and Burke that good governance is a skill that needs to be developed and studiously practiced. As I look at how governance is practiced in the United States at every level – from Congress to local legislative bodies, plus outside of government in local schools, businesses and community groups – I see much of it as dysfunctional. It seems too often to be about fear and ego, to be about “us and them”, and thus tending toward manipulation and control rather than facilitation of a common good.

Where I part company with Plato and Burke, is that I don’t believe our “governance elite” (in our legislatures and corporate boardrooms) are as a whole any better at its practice than the rest of us. Certainly I watch Congress these days and see a mostly dysfunctional governing body driven by ego and protecting privilege (while hypocritically justifying it based on ideological convictions). I’ve participated in corporate leadership meetings where directors and VPs are more interested in showing off how they can throw their weight around rather than thoughtfully coming to a consensus on solving the issues on the meeting’s agenda. And I’ve been in plenty of more informal community group meetings where two people will argue back and forth, dominating the discussion, and whoever is leading or moderating the meeting does not think to maybe suggest that we go around the table and give everyone present their opportunity to address the issue at stake.

For a democratic country, we don’t seem to be a people who are well versed in democratic process and practice. It is certainly not something most of us learn going to school, where there is generally a pecking order of principals and teachers carrying out the educational directives of educational bureaucrats even higher up the “food chain”, directives that students (and more and more even teachers these days) have little or no say in. In schools in particular, but also in many families, I see this as “adultist” us and them thinking, creating an unjustified and dysfunctional gulf between adults and youth.

Well… me on that soapbox for the umpteenth time! But back to Ron’s thoughts…

Even so, the early American republic, as the astute French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, was engaged in an ambitious, exciting experiment to see how fully democracy might be practiced. Participation in local politics (at least, by white males) was robust, and relatively little power was concentrated in distant institutions such as the federal government.

This was a politically idyllic period that Jefferson speaks to in his vision for American society (a nation of politically empowered citizen farm owners). I think even today, many Tea Party and other conservatives and libertarians long to some how reinvent this pastoral (and Protestant dominated) America.

Enlightened State Social Engineering

I think many progressives, on the other hand, are enamored with what they see as the enlightened social engineering of the 19th century synergizing the emerging social sciences with the techniques of industrial mass production. Ron speaks to that in his piece…

After the Civil War, however, “the United States underwent one of the most profound economic revolutions any country has ever experienced” according to historian Eric Foner… The rise of huge corporate entities, unprecedented concentrations of private wealth, and the rapid crowding of cities by immigrant workers changed the face of American democracy. By the early twentieth century, intellectuals were seriously debating whether the principles of Jeffersonian democracy were becoming obsolete in a society of mass production, mass media, and imperialist government. Some argued that the complexity and magnitude of industrial age society required efficient management by experts, not messy negotiation between the diverse interests of engaged citizens.

Participatory Democracy Takes a Backseat

Radical educator and educational historian John Taylor Gatto argues that our bold American experiment in egalitarian democracy, championed by Jefferson and others, was derailed both by forces of big business and progressivism. By both industrial barons like Carnegie and his concentration of economic power (in the factory owners at the expense of the workers) and reformers like Horace Mann in his concentration of educational power in the state government (at the expense of the natural self-directed development of individuals with the context of family and local communities).

Industrialism and the concentration of power first in individual industrial barons and later corporations, that co-opting the power of the social sciences and their capacity for social engineering, has led to the “corporatism” that we have seen emerge in the 20th century and flourishing in the 21st. I certainly have read a good argument in Raymond Callahan’s book, “Education and the Cult of Efficiency”, that the free practice of public education outside the auspices of business values and corporate control, ended in the early 20th century.

Ron argues that there were progressive educators in the early part of the 20th century that tried to buck that trend…

John Dewey was one leading intellectual who sought to reaffirm democratic ideals for this new age. For half a century, in numerous lectures, books, and articles, he patiently argued that a democratic social organization is the best culture for ensuring the fullest development and expression of each person’s unique talents and life purposes. Even in a complex industrial society, where political and economic decisions become increasingly technical, impersonal, and far-reaching — especially in such a society — individuals need to feel that they are valuable constituents of a responsive, cohesive community. Dewey asserted that genuine democracy involves far more than periodic voting for politicians — it requires intelligent, active participation “in the formation of values that regulate the living of men [and women] together.” He insisted that “all those who are affected by social institutions must have a share in producing and managing them.”

Dewey and other progressive educators tried to reassert public education’s role as a force for preserving and strengthening a democratic society in the 1920s and again in the 1960s, but mostly failed in that effort. Certainly from the 1980s on – from Reagen’s “A Nation at Risk” through “No Child Left Behind” and continuing with Obama’s “Race to the Top” – a vision of education that is centralized, standardized and “corporatized” has held sway and been supported by both conservatives and mainstream progressive politicians.

Ron calls out in his piece that Dewey was trying to rekindle the ideas of “participatory” democracy that hearkened back to Jefferson but acknowledging the new realities of an urbanized and industrialized society. And that that more egalitarian view was carried forward by radicals from the 1960s like Tom Hayden, challenging the more limited vision of “conventional liberalism”.

One biographer, Robert Westbrook, concluded that “Among liberal intellectuals of the twentieth century, Dewey was the most important advocate of participatory democracy.” One of the many thinkers Dewey influenced, a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan named Arnold Kaufman, was a mentor to Tom Hayden and other founders of Students for a Democratic Society in the early 1960s. Hayden recently commented that “Kaufman’s case for participatory democracy flowed directly from John Dewey’s writings in the 1920s and ’30s.” He “used the term to signify that democracy‚ as defined in conventional liberal discourse, was far too limited when reduced to electoral choice and concepts like the free marketplace of ideas.”

Reasserting Participatory Democracy

Ron highlights history from the early 1960s that I was previously not aware of. Particularly the 1962 “Port Huron Statement”, drafted by Hayden and his peers as a manifesto for the emerging student movement. Ron highlights one passage from that document.

As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.

Noting (in the use of the word “men” here) that a consciousness of equality for women had not yet emerged, still it is a powerful statement that is consistent with the early ideas of Jefferson and Dewey. Democracy should not be a spectator sport, a high-stakes game played only by political and economic elites, followed vicariously by the rest of us on cable news and talk radio. We should be weaving democracy and democratic process into every level, institution and venue of our lives.

So what does a “participatory democracy” real look like, or perhaps more important, act like? It’s important to imagine where we could be as a first step to making it so. Ron calls out four principles for our political life…

* that decision-making of basic social consequence be carried on by public groupings;

* that politics be seen positively, as the art of collectively creating an acceptable pattern of social relations;

* that politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community, thus being a necessary, though not sufficient, means of finding meaning in personal life;

* that the political order should serve to clarify problems in a way instrumental to their solution; it should provide outlets for the expression of personal grievance and aspiration; opposing views should be organized so as to illuminate choices and facilities the attainment of goals…

Ron sums up these principles as…

The essence of democratic idealism in a society that has grown over-organized, hierarchical, and authoritarian. It is the antidote to technocracy (rule by experts, bureaucrats and administrators) and represents a renewed faith in the intelligence and moral judgment of common citizens pursuing their daily lives and interests. Because it challenges conventional political practices in modern mass society, it is a radical position.

I grew up around that idealism, coincidentally in the same progressive Midwestern University town of Ann Arbor Michigan where Tom Hayden developed his thoughts. I was thirteen in 1968 (younger than Hayden), and my mom’s involvement in local Democratic party organizing, the anti-war movement, and later the feminist movement, exposed me to all these ideas, along with what participatory democracy looks like in practice. A decade later I would employ these techniques myself as a feminist “community organizer” in Los Angeles working for the National Organization for Women on the ERA ratification campaign.

Infecting our Young People with the Democracy Bug

Since those heady political days as an older youth and young adult, my focus has been mainly as a parent. Certainly one who considers himself a card-carrying progressive activist (that sort of “lefty”) but also a person who tries to think outside the box (like we left-handers, the other sort of “lefty”, tend to do). Wearing both those “lefty parent” hats, I have not been able to avoid bearing daily witness to the rules of engagement between youth and adults. First their mom and I with our own kids. Second our kids’ friends and their parents. Third all of the above young people and the adult staff (mainly school teachers and principals) that they encountered in schools.

Where I seem to part company with many other progressives, is that I see that these principles of participatory democracy are not only good for the “goose & gander” (we adult types) but also good for the “goslings” (our kids) as well. I think many progressives are totally missing what I see as our best opportunity to transform our society by “infecting” our youth with the “germ” of democratic process.

We progressive people should be raising our kids to question authority (starting with our own) and participate as fully as possible in our family decision-making processes. That rather than treating our young people as semi-functional beings whose lives must be thoroughly stage-managed by their parents and the educational institutions of the state (in loco parentis). We should send our kids to school urging them to stand up for their rights as human beings to a voice and a vote in the institutions that govern them. We should lobby their teachers and principals to implement elements of democratic process in school, towards giving our kids “full citizenship” in their own schools.

What better way could we accomplish what Ron calls for when he writes…

It seems to me that this is one of the key tasks for us, as we struggle to move from a globalized mass society dominated by elites toward a decentralized, human-scale society rooted in community and bioregion: we need to learn how to see social hierarchy as being constructed rather than inevitable.

And if we are going to construct it, it makes no sense to me to let our kids languish for thirteen years in an institution that does not give them any practice in that construction process, beyond teaching them “about democracy”, in a social studies class here and there. Though our schools were founded on democratic ideals of an equal education for everyone, they generally do not give students the opportunity to practice the democratic process consistent with those ideals.

Ron concludes his thoughtful piece writing…

Participatory democracy is not a utopian ideal at odds with human nature, but an expression of attainable values that a society could choose to pursue. It seems that rapid industrialization and then the sudden emergence of technologies for mass communications threw the American democratic experiment off balance for a century or more. Enormous wealth and power became tantalizingly available, and fueled “dominator” cultural patterns at the expense of the partnership vision that inspired early American democracy. But since the rebellions of the 1960s, it appears that we have begun to recognize what we have lost, and millions of citizens are working to reclaim that vision.

We progressives should do our best to make our own kids allies in that struggle by giving them a chance to “walk the walk” rather than just hear us adults “talk the talk”.

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