reflections on the Frontiers of Democracy conference

The Frontiers conference took place at Tufts on July 21-23. We hadn’t invited many individuals or even advertised the conference widely, but 117 people attended, ranging from high school and college students to senior professors and CEOs of important civic organizations. They came from as far as Germany, California, and Forida.

As I said at the opening, it would be presumptuous to try to characterize all their views, but I think we formed a community that, in general,

  • Struggles for diverse, equal, and inclusive civic engagement.
  • Believes that “engagement” means more than just voting, but must also encompass better ways of talking and listening with fellow citizens.
  • Yet is not satisfied with deliberation alone but wants to connect it to action, work, co-creation, “civic artisanship,” or power.
  • Seeks innovative forms of democracy (“not your grandfather’s civic engagement”): hence the conference track on engaging the online public.
  • Creates spaces for people to make their own decisions and to set their own goals and values, and is therefore drawn to the ideal of “neutrality”–but is also committed to values such as equality and diversity. Hence our conference track on the dilemmas of neutrality.
  • Seeks to reflect on practice and to bring ideas and ideals into the real world: hence our track on theory and practice.

The Frontiers conference was modeled on No Better Time, a meeting held in 2009 at University of New Hampshire. The atmosphere then was optimistic, to say the least. Even the participants who had not voted for Barack Obama were encouraged by the outpouring of civic activism in 2008 and the expansion of relevant federal programs such as AmeriCorps. We talked then about how we would flourish as soon as the recession ended.

Now is not “no better time.” During our conference itself, the headlines screamed that a murderous racist had hunted and killed more than 90 children in one of the world’s safest and strongest democracies; the Speaker of the House walked out on the President of the United States during negotiations to save the full faith and credit of the Republic while the economy continues to sag; and the whole country baked in heat that seemed to portend the climate we will leave to our children. We conference organizers had hoped to engender optimism, hope, and confidence in our field. I am not sure we succeeded, or if that goal was possible.

But I did witness a great deal of learning, network-building, and productive mental and emotional struggle. To name one example, we had intentionally focused on the Nobel-Prize-winning theory of Elinor Ostrom because it is rich with possibilities for civic action and has been developed in close partnership with practitioners. Yet Ostrom’s work is not about deliberation nearly as much as it is concerned with changing the incentives for investment and consumption. If you are a deliberative democrat–like the majority of conference attendees–your ideal may be a room full of citizens talking and listening. If you are an “Ostromite,” you may think instead of municipalities, firms, and public boards negotiating contracts to govern the use of scarce water across the Los Angeles basin.

And yet deliberation can play an important role in such work; and getting people to deliberate is a collective-action problem for which Elinor Ostrom proposes solutions. So the potential is great for Ostrom’s economic theory to enrich deliberative democracy, and vice-versa, in both research and practice. Such are the exchanges and collaborations that I believe we began to build together at Frontiers.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.