guest post by Hank Topper: Next Steps for Rebuilding Democracy

Hank Topper lives in Santa Rosa, California where he has been helping to organize a broad city-wide effort to strengthen neighborhoods and improve the partnership between neighborhoods and city government. Hank is also a part of a small national group that meets regularly to share ideas on the work to rebuild local democracies. Before moving to Santa Rosa, Hank worked for the Environmental Protection Agency where he helped to design and lead the CARE program, EPA’s model community-based initiative. I have written about CARE before on this blog. The following post is by Hank.

It may be a good time for us, the various and diverse individuals and organizations working consciously in some way to strengthen democracy, to rethink our message and our strategy. The far reaching events of the last two years warrant this reexamination. The following are some thoughts to contribute to this reexamination. Let’s start with the first years of the Obama administration and their meaning for our work. It is, unfortunately, safe to say that our politics are in more disarray than two years ago. Not only are dissatisfaction and even despair more widespread, but we also now have a Tea Party movement making gains in directing this despair in ways fundamentally harmful to democracy. While the Obama administration may not be primarily responsible for these developments, it is, none the less, getting a large share of the blame. And, Obama, I would argue, is responsible for some of this the disappointment. He has, to date, failed to articulate either a clear picture of a “new politics” or a clear path we can to take to move towards changing our politics. With the bright promise of the new politics unfulfilled, many are left now to view Obama’s articulation of this hope as only another political trick.

Obama seems to be modeling his presidency on FDR’s government “for the people”, not on the strengthening of a democracy “by the people”. As a result, his practice has too often looked more like “politics as usual” than a new politics. The health care initiative was a classic example of this. Obama chose a Washington centered approach designed to get quick passage of health care reform. While this approach did not include the nation in this discussion, it did include the normal behind the scenes deals with special interests. This left the nation confused and the administration vulnerable to charges that the reform was just another power grab of big government. This appears to be a classic choice of short term over long term gains –politics as is over politics as it could be. There is no doubt that these are extremely difficult times and finding a way to address pressing immediate needs and work on deeper long term change could not be more challenging. So we can only say that Obama has not succeeded in finding a balance that could do this, and that, despite his intentions, the result of the administration’s work to date has resulted in some short term gains at the expense of long term progress in the creation of a new politics.

These developments have important implications for our work on democracy. We need, I think, to speak directly to the national frustration and disappointment with Washington and acknowledge the Obama administration’s failure to meet the expectations for a new politics. We need, more than ever, to articulate the democratic alternative to the dysfunction of our politics and present clear plans for how to create the new politics that we need. Our inability to present a clear democratic alternative means that the huge forces for reform working in our nation, unlike the anti-democratic forces that have developed into a political movement, have not been able to find an effective expression in our politics.

We also need to use the experience of the past two years to bring home the harsh reality that we cannot rely on our national political leaders to lead or even move us towards the new politics we need. The current political culture of our nation makes it extremely difficult for our political leaders, despite their best intentions, to talk about the fundamental changes we need. The lesson for all of us is that we need to stop looking to Washington and to the current political parties to take the lead on rebuilding democracy and take seriously the need for us to build a bottom up movement for democracy. We have spent too much time trying to get Washington to fund and support the work of rebuilding democracy. Let’s let the experience with Obama finally convince us to redirect our efforts to a more realistic strategy of bottom up democracy.

But just as important as addressing the disappointment with the Obama administration, we need to learn how to promote democracy in the context of our severe economic recession. We need to find a way to get people, as they may be doing in the UK, to see this as an opportunity to rebuild local democracy. We can use the failure of our national politics to deal effectively with the crisis as another illustration of the need for a new politics that can build a consensus and make decisions, but we can also use the economic crisis to make the need to rebuild our democratic communities perfectly clear. Governments have reached the limits of their ability to deal with this crisis. We need broad citizen efforts in every community to provide the support we need to get through these difficult times. This recession is a perfect illustration of the need for citizen initiative and the reality that governments can’t solve our problems for us. But we need to do more than use the crisis to talk about what is missing; we need to show in practice how our local democracies can meet this challenge. If we don’t do this, our work to rebuild democracy will become an irrelevant sideshow. Where have local organizations of citizens mobilized to address the challenges of the recession? Wouldn’t it be great if some local towns, cities, and neighborhoods took the lead in this, demonstrating the capacity of citizens to take responsibility for dealing with the recession instead of just relying on state and federal governments to address our needs? This, like the 9/11 attack, is our opportunity to not just talk about how a democracy would handle this but to show it in practice.

In addition to addressing the effects of the recession, our nation is also engaged in a very important conversation about the importance of rebuilding our economy along more sustainable lines. This, again, is a conversation that we need to engage in to raise the fundamental question of the role of citizens in this effort to restructure our economy. Can we create a sustainable economy with government centered technological fixes, which is again the disappointing approach of the Obama administration, or are finding better ways to engage citizens and rebuilding our democracy the key to building a sustainable economy? We need to take the national conversation on how to rebuild our economy as an opportunity to ask the question: What exactly does the “community” part of sustainable communities look like? There is a very large and growing local and “off the grid” movement already underway looking for answers to this question. We have the opportunity to link this sustainable community movement to democracy and help to ensure that sustainable communities are democratic communities.

Getting democracy on the agenda of our national discussion also means trying to shift from our focus on fixing the economy to a much broader discussion of the sources of our current crisis. What makes this crisis so difficult for our nation is the combination of the economic and political crises –a perfect storm building on all of our weaknesses. Perhaps an effective way we can use to get across the central role that the decline in our democracy plays in this might be to talk about the fact that is not just an economic bubble that has created the crisis that we face. We have had a deeper and even longer lasting bubble in our politics as well. Our “political bubble” –call it our bubble of trust in expertise– has resulted from our unrealistic belief that we could turn over responsibility to professionals –scientists, government experts, corporate managers– and let them handle things for us as though they alone had the knowledge needed to run our complex world. We have been talked, just as we were talked into cheap mortgages, into giving up our own democratic power and responsibility to governments, experts, corporations. This “political bubble” of over confidence in experts has gone on much longer than the economic bubble. It has been a long and gradual process beginning at the start of the last century of turning over our responsibility to government experts (government will take care of our problems) and to corporations (the market will satisfy our needs). This bubble of overconfidence in experts has resulted in the erosion of our democracy and the rise of governments and corporations that dominate us rather than serve us. And, just as we should not be surprised at the results of our overconfidence in financial institutions, we should not be surprised at the results of the power that our overconfidence has given to experts. We forgot that power corrupts and would turn experts into special interests and that their interest in power would make it impossible for them to work together. So, the deep anger in our nation is not only a result of the failure of this class of professionals created by our overconfidence in expertise, it is also anger over the loss of democracy, the loss of a real voice for the average citizen, the loss of real conversations, listening, and respect for each other that characterizes a democracy. The Tea Party movement and its attack on government is succeeding in capturing the anger and frustration that we feel, but their attack on government makes no distinction between the government of experts and the democratic government, so it undermines both. Explaining the “political bubble” and the loss of our democracy would give us a chance to pose our positive plan to rebuild democracy to the negative Tea Party plan of attacking government.

As a nation, we are faced with some very difficult challenges. We will be in the best position to meet these challenges if we can all see them as an opportunity to do something meaningful and exciting –to rebuild and, in the process, create something better. Meeting our challenges will not be easy and it would also help us all to start talking about the need for a decade of rebuilding. The best way for us to get across our message about the need to rebuild our democracy may be to place it the context of this larger and exciting challenge to rebuild our nation. Discussing the work of rebuilding democracy in the context of an overall decade of rebuilding will help us make the connections we need to the forces that are already engaged in this work. We can describe the rebuilding effort as a three legged stool: one leg for the work to rebuild our economy, reduce our debt, learn to live within our means, and rebuild the infrastructure and education we need to be productive; the second leg for the work to build a sustainable world, to rebuild our economy and communities that can live within the means of the planet; and the third leg of our decade for rebuilding will focus on rebuilding our democracy to create a politics that will bring back our ability to find common ground and make hard decisions, that will reclaim our politics from experts and elites and return responsibility and power to citizens. We can explain that this third leg of our rebuilding effort will ensure that the sustainable economy and communities that we rebuild will be communities based on our deepest values of respect for each person and faith in the ability of democracy to tap into the vast resources of our people. We can also explain that rebuilding our democratic communities and reengaging citizens will be essential to meeting our needs in these difficult times of budget deficits and limited resources for government. Our message: We are now at the beginning of a decade of rebuilding. The work to rebuild our democracy has to be a key part of the work so that we have strong communities to provide the support we need in this recession and so that we can reclaim the central role of citizens in our politics and create the kind of world we are looking for. Defining this as our challenge can turn this decade of rebuilding into an exciting opportunity to create a better world.

But the work to craft our message for the current situation, important as it is, probably is not where we need to focus most of our energies. The reality is that our message about democracy, no matter how well we state it, is currently reaching a very limited audience. I think that this is primarily because most people do not have any practical experience with democracy. Without this experience the average citizen still finds the talk about democracy both unrealistic and abstract. Citizens need experiences that demonstrate the possibility of a different kind of politics to be able to counter the despair and cynicism that have resulted from our current politics. So even more important than finding effective ways to talk about democracy, we have to find ways to help citizens recreate the experience of democracy.

The best place to do this, I would argue, is at the local level. In a democratic federal system with separate layers of government, people at the local level have just enough independence to have real power and to practice real democracy. That is our advantage and the weak spot of the national power structures that dominate our current politics. That is why there is a vast movement of organizations focused on “going local” and going “off the grid.” So it is possible, despite the dysfunction of national politics, to create at the local level the democratic experiences and practice that people need to understand the possibility of an alternative to our current politics. On the ground in local communities is the place where we can show the relevance of democracy in practice to the work to build strong and sustainable communities and to address the recession. So I would argue that our top priority now is to mobilize our limited resources to help rebuild our local democracies. There are many great examples of positive local democratic initiatives across the country. These initiatives include both the collaborative work that brings people together in a democratic approach to solving problems as well as the broader community building efforts working to strengthen neighborhoods and reform local governments so that they reorient their work to support citizen engagement. This is the kind of work that we need to expand to build the basis in experience for the broader national effort to transform our politics.

What would that mean for our loose federation of forces working on democracy? It would mean putting more of our resources into building democracy in real places –in cities, towns, and neighborhoods. In those places where there are existing efforts to strengthen local democracy, it would mean joining in and becoming full partners in these ongoing efforts to advance this work. Where an existing effort to strengthen local democracy has not begun, it would mean joining with local groups to get one started. Can we collectively find the resources and people, maybe just 10% of our organizational resources, to make a real contribution to the efforts to rebuild democracy in 50 towns and cities? That could be the critical mass we are looking for. That is the kind of work that would, among other things, make it possible in the future for someone like Obama to talk about rebuilding democracy.

How might we go about working at the local level to build democracy and what do we have to offer in this work? Lessons learned in the work on local democracy, make it clear that we need to go into local work respecting the very broad and varied efforts to create change that already exist in every town and city, learn from them, and talk about the relevance of rebuilding democracy to the goals of all the organizations and individuals working to address local concerns. It is in these conversations that we will learn how to make democracy relevant to the leaders working in our cities and towns –the go local, sustainable living, social justice, public health, environmental justice, neighborhood leaders, community builders, youth groups, block watches, government reformers, local business and development leaders, smart growth organizations, etc. Experience shows that if we are willing to learn from and respect the work of these groups and individuals, it is possible to work with them to form a broad coalition focused on rebuilding local democracy. Everyone can understand that engaged citizens with strong and organized neighborhoods working with a local government that sees its role as partnering with neighborhoods and promoting civic engagement is the foundation we need to create a strong, sustainable and healthy cities and towns. Working together to create this kind of democracy in a town or city creates the experience that we need to see that there is different and non-partisan politics that can get us beyond the divisions and the gridlock of our current politics. We can help build the broad coalitions that will do this work to strengthen local democracy and demonstrate that it is possible to create an alternative to our current politics. This is exciting work. None of our cities have really put all the elements of a strong democracy together, so we all have a lot to learn and a lot of exciting work to do. It is this work at the local level, not the national level that has the best potential to create the model we need to transform our national politics.

And, while we should not underestimate the patient work that will be needed to build on or create the ties and trust we need to do this work, neither should we underestimate the contribution that we can make to this work. Our ability to help name the problems we are facing in our politics as a lack of democracy will help link the work of local leaders to the deep and empowering democratic traditions of our nation. This is a real source of strength and inspiration that can be invaluable to the ongoing local work. We also can provide links to the practice and lessons learned in cities and towns across the nation that have been engaged in rebuilding democracy for the past twenty or more years. These links are both invaluable and inspiring. Just realizing that others have tried this work and succeeded and that others around the world are working at the same task can be extremely helpful. We can also work to facilitate communication among communities working to rebuild democracy so that they can learn from each other. And, finally, we can bring a toolbox of skills and techniques that have developed to help make democracy work including organizing skills, deliberative approaches and techniques, facilitation, conflict resolution, collaboration skills, and others. All this means that we have a real contribution to make to the efforts to strengthen local democracy.

Are we prepared to take up this task? Our work over the last couple of years, if I am correct, has not changed significantly to meet the crisis we face. We are still fragmented and stove piped –still each using narrow definitions of democracy. And, we are still too focused on influencing Washington. We are doing good work but in relatively narrow areas: in civic education, deliberative forums, collaborations, dialogues, partnerships, etc. But these are all pieces of what would make up a practicing democracy and we rarely put them together to demonstrate what democracy would look like in full. It is in the context of rebuilding local democracy that all our ideas and approaches can be put to use as a part of a rebuilding effort. It may actually be in the work to rebuild local democracies that we can best break down our stove pipes and learn how to coordinate our work. The work to rebuild local democracies could give us the focus to pool our resources so that together we can make real progress. Once we ask the question “how can we work in this place to help rebuild democracy” that we will begin to look for and work with all the different democratic resources that can help. But we will have to enter into this work as representatives of all the democratic resources and not just as representatives of the particular goals of our organizations. Can we do this? Can we get our organizations to free up individuals to work in places to help with rebuilding democracy? Is there another way for us to bring our democratic resources to help communities rebuild their democracies? Our schools, colleges, and universities, especially those with the most ties to the local community, may be in the best position to take up this work to join in the work to rebuild our local democracies. Can we help to direct the civic engagement programs of these schools away from service oriented volunteering to the work to build the capacity of neighborhoods and local democracy?

There may be a lot of unanswered questions about our capacity to do this work. But there is no question about the opportunity that we have. There is a vast energy at the local level, especially among our youth, to rebuild our communities and our politics. We have the opportunity to make a real contribution to this work by joining in and demonstrating in practice that the work to rebuild democracy is the key to creating the community and politics that we all are searching for. So our slogan for the next years: Get organized, go local.