Paul Evans, a democracy advocate in the UK, is intrigued by our Campaign for Stronger Democracy and explores the need for a similar coalition in his country. The British have Liberty, a major lobby for human rights and civil liberties, comparable to the American Civil Liberties Union, but that is not the same as a democracy lobby. Individual civil rights and positive opportunities to participate are mostly complementary, sometimes in tension, but certainly not synonymous. Democracy lacks an effective lobby on both sides of the ocean.
Paul asked his network for feedback and got some critical reactions:
The first one was that [the Campaign for Stronger Democracy] looked like a surrogate campaign for the US brand of left-liberalism. The focus has a clear appeal more to the US left than the right and one suspects that the demands for ‘democracy’ are for a version that wouldn’t have cross-partisan appeal in the US. The second problem my interlocutors suggested was that there aren’t the kind of agreed definitions of democracy in the UK that could make for an effective campaign without being hi-jacked…
Paul responds with a thoughtful list of 17 principles that, he thinks, define the democracy movement, are neutral ideologically, and deserve to be championed by some kind of campaign. Examples include: “Wider participation in policy formation is a good thing–it increases the public stake in collective decision-making.” “Interest groups are good at achieving their aims at the expense of everybody else. These powers must be counterbalanced.” The whole list is worth reading.
In the US, I see an important debate about the relationship between democratic or civic reform, on one hand, and partisanship and ideology, on the other. Some proponents of civic renewal regard it as ideologically neutral and scrupulously nonpartisan, an effort to improve our democratic processes that should be welcomed by well-meaning political activists across the spectrum. For instance, Martín Carcasson and his colleagues see “passionate impartiality” as one of the “Key Aspects of the Deliberative Democracy Movement” (which, while not identical to a civic renewal movement, bears a close resemblance to it).
Others view civic renewal as ideologically centrist, filling a gap between the hostile major political parties and appealing to moderate voters. For example, the Declaration of the No Labels campaign states, “We believe in the vital civil center.”
Yet another group holds that civic renewal is the heir to participatory democracy in the 1960s–the decentralizing and populist impulses of the New Left–and is thus the best strategy to revive the political left, including Greens, democratic socialists, and left-liberals.
A few thinkers have argued that civic renewal is authentically conservative in its embrace of small, voluntary groups and local traditions.
These disagreements are by no means an embarrassment but represent an opportunity. Many different kinds of Americans can find a place in discussions of civic renewal and contribute their own insights. It would be a victory if the major political parties began to incorporate insights from their respective allies who are working on various flavors of civic renewal. We need to have a debate about what “democracy” means and how to promote it, much like the debates we already have about what “prosperity” means and how to attain that. The result will not be consensus but helpful competition.
Within the democracy field itself, we should expect the internal ideological debates to be heated and divisive, because the underlying disagreements are genuine and important. For instance, the Coffee Party split in 2011 when a faction committed to liberal economic and social reforms created Coffee Party Progressives as a left counterforce to the Tea Party. On behalf of the original Coffee Party, Eric Byler responded that, although he welcomed “an energetic, populist left” to participate, his vision was a broader, more ideologically diverse movement that would reduce political polarization. This kind of disagreement is to be expected, possibly even welcomed, but it will not always be pleasant.
For myself, I believe we need to pursue the cause of stronger democracy where it takes us, even if that makes us seem partisan or ideological because one party happens to agree with more of our principles than the other one does. My Ten Point for Civic Renewal plan is not all about neutral processes. I favor controversial policies, from charter schools to campaign finance reform, as means to strengthen citizenship.
On the other hand, speaking for myself, I do not think this is a liberal agenda. It challenges some prevailing elements of modern American liberalism, such as faith in expert-driven, centralized, regulatory solutions. In the field of education, for example, I support lots of local public participation in schools. Smart liberals like Jonathan Chait hold exactly the opposite position. Chait says that local control would strangle reform. “‘Local control’ almost invariably means letting a policy question be dominated by the strongest local economic interest, with no countervailing power. In education, the only real economic interest with skin in the game is the teachers’ union.” I don’t want teachers’ unions to exercise all power, but I see huge untapped potential in community engagement for better schools. To get citizens engaged means empowering them. That is far from a mainstream liberal view; it may even get a better hearing from today’s conservatives.